Francine Wolfisz speaks to the husband and wife behind Next To Her, a film about a woman who puts her own life on hold to look after her disabled sister
Based on her own personal journey of living with a disabled sister, Liron Ben-Shlush knows her film, Next To Her, makes for a moving, striking and at times uncomfortable viewing experience. But for the Israeli actress, who also marks her debut as scriptwriter, the story is a stark reminder of “the woman I could have been”.
Out on limited release from tomorrow (Friday) and showing at JW3 in Finchley Road on 13 and 14 March, the film revolves around Chelli (played by Ben-Shlush) who has dedicated her life to looking after her mentally disabled sister, Gabby (Dana Ivgy).
But for as much as Gabby relies on Chelli, so too does the lonely school security officer harbour an intense and unhealthy dependence on her sister – to the extent that it affects her relationship with love interest Zohar (Yaakov Daniel Zada).
Directed by Ben-Shlush’s husband, Asaf Korman, Next To Her showed at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 and proved popular with cinemagoers in the couple’s home country.
The 33-year-old actress tells me her first scriptwriting experience “turned out better than I imagined” and that the compelling story was “the one that encouraged me to write”.
She adds: “It’s a very personal film, but it’s not my life – I didn’t want to write about the woman I am, but the woman I could have turned into.
“Instead of moving to the city, studying acting and having my own family, I would have stayed at home with my sister and sacrificed my life for her.”
Initially when she embarked on the project, Ben-Shlush focused on her contradictory feelings of love and anger while living with a disabled relative, but says those emotions softened after becoming a mother to the couple’s young son (now aged five).
She explains: “After I became a mother, I realised this film is actually about motherhood and the borders between love and sacrifice.”
Throughout the film, the lines continually blur between Gabby and Chelli, with the pair seemingly just sisters and yet their relationship is so much more intense, suggesting a mother and child or a cohabiting couple.
Inside their unkempt apartment, the two are seen using the same toothbrush, sharing a bath and sleeping entwined on their couch.
Ben-Shlush tells me she thought carefully not only about how a mentally disabled person should appear in her film, but also who should play such a role. She and Korman decided on Ivgy, daughter of Israeli actor Moshe Ivgy and a close friend of theirs.
The star of hit 2013 Israeli comedy, Cupcakes (directed by Eytan Fox), researched the part by working long hours at a hostel in Haifa where Ben-Shlush’s real sister lives and speaking to doctors who specialise in mental disability. Ivgy is so immersed and delivers such a compelling performance, that many critics unfamiliar with her previous work have questioned whether she is, in fact, acting.
“One of the first questions people always ask is if she is real or an actress,” says Ben-Shlush. “She spent a lot of time with my sister and they really connected with each other. I think she did an amazing job.
“It was very important to us and Dana to create something that really comes from my experience. Dana is a brilliant actress and because we are also close friends in real life, the intimacy between us was there from the beginning.”
In a sense, the hazy borders between what is real and what is fiction was something that very much appealed to Korman, whose graduation film, Death of Shula, was selected for Cannes in 2007 and deals with a family struggling to cope with their father’s old age through the story of their dying dog.
The 34-year-old tells me he “kept searching” for a similar project and was inspired by his wife’s personal experiences as well as her courage in tackling what he describes as “one of the last taboos in our society – the sexuality of mentally disabled people.”
Having never worked together before, Ben-Shlush and Korman were initially fine with the thought of collaborating until the producers – also a husband-and-wife team – confessed to feeling nervous for the pair.
“They kept saying we already know how to work together, but this is your first time. They were really worried and it made us anxious as well!”
But on set, those worries soon melted away and, according to Korman, “it was very harmonious, it was great”.
That said, he does admit to experiencing some friction with his wife in the editing room.
“Bringing the lead actress and scriptwriter to the editing room is never a good idea. It never happens! But in this case, Liron was crucial to the editing process.”
• Next to Her (15) is on limited release from Friday, including at JW3 on Sunday, 13 and Monday, 14 March. Details: www.jw3.org.uk