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The Uncivil Servant: “Thy Father’s Chair”

Mitchell Abidor
October 11, 2017

AN INTERVIEW WITH THE FILM'S CO-DIRECTOR, ANTONIO TIBALDI

THY FATHER'S CHAIR is the day-by-day account of the cleaning of the Borough Park apartment of Shraga and Avraham, twin Orthodox brothers who are, as I wrote here a year ago, “kosher Collyer brothers,” hoarders who haven’t cleaned their flat since their parents’ death seven years earlier. The directors, Antonio Tibaldi and Alex Lora, never treat the brothers as freaks, are never condescending. I praised the film, saying that “the pitifulness of the brothers, the sympathy with which they are portrayed, the sadness of their situation, left me shaken. Thy Father’s Chair is a film that needs to be commercially released.” The film will finally get that commercial release, opening in New York on October 13 at the Village East Theater and on October 20 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall. It should not be missed.

Thy Father's Chair - Trailer from Antonio Tibaldi on Vimeo.

Q: The first and most obvious question is how did you discover this story? When the film begins, the cleaning is already in motion, so who was it that made them clean the apartment?

Since the death of Avraham and Shraga’s parents seven years previously, they had gradually become unable to remove anything from the apartment. The upstairs neighbor — who pays them rent — at first tried to help them clean their apartment, but things got out of hand, and the upstairs neighbor became aggravated by the smell and the roaches that were infesting his own upstairs quarters. He told them that he would no longer pay rent unless the twins’ apartment would get professionally cleaned. Reluctantly, Avraham and Shraga looked for and called a Jewish cleaning service.

Q: So what appealed to you about it? I mean, these brothers are part of a world that is far removed not only from yours, but from that of most people. Did you know anything about the Orthodox of Borough Park?

The fact that they were Orthodox Jews was not relevant to my interest. I was not aware of that until the day I met them — which was only days before I started filming. In a social situation, I had met the owner of two Brooklyn-based specialized cleaning companies, Bed Bug 911 and Home Clean Home, and I just loved the names of her companies. She told me that through her work, she encountered all kinds of amazing and extreme situations. I told her I was a filmmaker, and we talked for a while. She said she would let me know if she ever came across a situation that could be of interest to me.

Some six months later, she sent me a text with some photos of the disheveled apartment of Avraham and Shraga. I didn’t in any way want to get involved in filming, but I was curious, and decided to go meet them. When I entered their house I was nervous, and Shraga — he is the one I met at first — was nervous, too, as he had been told that he would be meeting a "filmmaker." I almost immediately felt that he was a candid, very educated and intelligent human being. He was deeply honest — honest in a way only children are — and he was coming to grips with a situation that had gotten out of control. I felt that his humanity was buried somewhere inside of the havoc that his house had become. I thought that maybe, as the house would get cleaned, his compelling personality would emerge. And that’s just what did happen, I think.

Q: Was it hard to convince them to go along with the film?

They didn’t want any of what was about to begin to happen. They were the ones who called the cleaning company, but they did so because they were forced into it. I asked him if I could come along with the cleaners the first day. I told him that if, at any time, he wanted me not to film, he would just need to walk away from me, and if he wanted me to leave altogether, he would just need to tell me at the end of the first day. He reluctantly agreed.

Q: They are a terribly sad, lost pair, yet they show remarkable insight on occasion and are willing to accept that they are the cause of their own mess — both literal and figurative. Had you spoken to them to any extent before and gotten a feeling for how they'd present themselves and how you'd present them?

There was no discussion whatsoever between me and the twins prior to the start of filming. I told them I would observe the process with the camera and that I wouldn’t interview them or anybody else, for that matter. I didn’t know if I would film more than the first day, and I didn’t know what the film was going to be "about." I felt that there was a set-up that was dramatically compelling, but I was not sure if that was going to be enough to translate into an interesting and watchable film. I felt that Shraga was a compelling human being and that he had a remarkable sense of humor, but I wanted to discover what the film could be in real time, as events would unfold in front of me. We only found the film in the editing room, where I worked for months with the co-director Alex Lora, who brought deeply needed fresh eyes to the process of making this film.

Q: Though you’re mentioning Shraga now, it’s Avraham who’s most present in the film, who has to make on-the-spot decisions and struggles mightily in doing so. Shraga seems much more reluctant to be involved …

Yes, Avraham was the one who was there every day, and actually made sure that Shraga would show up, and tried to get him to get involved. For some reason, the cleaning was harder, more painful, for Shraga, or at least that’s what I felt observing them in the midst of the process. There is a very unique balance that exists between twins, especially twins who have lived together their entire life, in the same house, in the same room. At times they almost looked like they were Siamese twins, one would start a sentence and the other would finish it — as if they were two in one body, in one entity. That was fascinating to witness, and to watch over and over again when we were going over the footage. There is something tragically comical about that.

Q: I was floored by the cleaning company. Every one of the workers and supervisors showed astounding patience and was like a therapist. You must have been impressed by them.

The cleaning company had to get the job done, and had to get it done relatively quickly. Of course, they encountered considerable resistance. The fate of almost every single item that was in the house had to be negotiated with the twins. As I was filming, I saw the same patterns and conflicts occur hundreds of times every day, about the most disparate and trivial — to us — items. The cleaning crew is used to this, and under the guidance of Hanan, I was impressed by how effective yet respectful they were able to be. I can’t deny that I was hoping for greater conflict and more "drama." But I realized that I should just surrender to what was "naturally" going to happen, that it was a privilege that I was allowed to film any of it, and that I should honor that access by representing what was happening in a truthful and respectful way.

Q: Did the brothers see the film? Did you keep in touch with them at all?

We went to visit them a couple of times with an iPad. We wanted to show them the film, but when they let us into their house, we started talking instead, and Alex being a chess player, they wanted to play chess with him. I suspected they probably did not really want to see the film. One of the agreements we had is that their full names not be revealed, nor their address, nor anything else that might identify them. There is a certain amount of shame that comes with this, and I wanted to respect that. Approximately six months ago, Shraga passed away, and we thought that maybe it would be nice for Avraham to finally see the film, so I wanted to go over again and see how he was doing. It isn’t easy to find Avraham: he’s often out of his house, doesn’t have a phone…

Q: Any idea of the state of the apartment now?

The last time I went there — it was over six months ago — the place was OK, but not quite as pristine as it was in the epilogue of the film. At the time, the upstairs neighbor was paying a cleaner to come in every week and do a couple of hours of work in the house to take care of things. So the house was OK, not clean by normal standards, but OK, I guess....

But I am not sure how things are now, after Shraga's passing. When I have a bit of time, I am planning to pay Avraham a visit and check on him.

Q: You dedicated the film to Chantal Akerman. When I wrote about the film, I thought that the fact that it was largely shot in one room owed something to her, but was the dedication owed to something else?

I got to meet and work with Chantal Akerman at City College, where we co-taught a number of classes. When we reached a fine cut of our film, we had agreed that she would look at it and give us feedback. That never happened, as she died just before she was supposed to return to New York. The dedication was an emotional one, more to the person Chantal was to us than to the filmmaker people know. She was generous and demanding at the same time. Her perception and intelligence was razor-sharp. It was a privilege to know her and she enriched our lives.

For contributing writer Esther Cohen's take on Thy Father's Chair, click here.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.