Writer and producer Eli Hershko drew on his personal experience — he was abducted as a 6-year-old in Israel — in making his latest film, which focuses on sexual abuse. He tried an unorthodox approach to shooting the movie: let the cameras roll without a script.
Hershko is one of three Oceanside filmmakers who will have their work screened at the Long Island International Film Expo, which runs from July 12 to 18 at Bellmore Movies. Hershko’s “Fairytale” will be shown at the expo, along with shorts from Mike Suchmann (“It Lives in the Closet”) and Jacqueline Xerri (“Teen Night”).
“Fairytale” follows Verity (Verity East) as she kills her abuser in Brooklyn and moves to Long Island. She meets another victim of sexual abuse, with whom she finds short-lived solace. Hershko said he wanted the film to seem as real as possible, so he had the characters use their actual names and ad-lib.
“When you know every sentence and every word, it loses the authenticity of it,” Hershko said. “That’s what I’m looking for — authenticity on the set.”
The catalyst for his film, he explained, was his own abduction — an experience that he suppressed for many years. He said he blocked the memory out until he was in his 40s, and then returned to Israel to learn the details of the case. He discovered that no records remained, because his kidnapper was underage and information wasn’t stored on computers when it happened.
Hershko said he was uncomfortable talking about the details of his abduction, but noted that he managed to escape and tell the police. “I grew up in Israel, and that’s when it happened,” he recalled. “I was abducted by a teenager . . . It kind of molded my personality.”
The experience helped Hershko craft “Fairytale,” which he described as “dark and disturbing.” It was shot over eight consecutive days in Brooklyn and on Long Island, and many of the scenes were captured in one take. The actors played off a 15-page short story, but improvised their dialogue during filming.
Hershko didn’t hold auditions, but rather chose people he knew through other projects. The casting proved difficult, he said, because some actors found the script too dark and declined to participate. Those who were eventually cast had free rein to craft their characters’ back-stories.
“I was very intrigued by the prospect of shooting a film unrehearsed, unscripted and totally improvised,” Hershko said. “. . . I wanted the movie to unfold in front of the camera. I knew that because I have no script, it would be nothing like traditional filmmaking.”
Hershko moved to the United States in 1995. He started his career as a photographer, and shot album covers for artists such as Biggie Smalls, the Backstreet Boys and Jewel. He began working in film in 2008, and “Fairytale” is his third feature.
The 87-minute film will screen at the expo on July 13 at 9:30 p.m. Because there are dark themes and a graphic scene in the movie, Hershko said he planned to warn the audience before it starts. He said that at past screenings, the film has empowered abuse victims to speak out. “If the movie will prompt people who were private about something to feel liberated and share their experience, then I’d be very happy,” he said.
While Hershko’s film has dark tones, Suchmann’s “It Lives in the Closet” deals with an imaginary monster. The 10-minute short follows a boy named Benji, who is fearful that a monster is living in his bedroom closet.
Suchmann, 24, explained that the short derived from the senior thesis he wrote while studying film at Syracuse University, where he graduated in 2017. “After a tense confrontation, they start talking and the kid becomes at ease when the monster comes out,” Suchmann said. “The kid asks if the monster is going to eat him, and he says, ‘If I ate you, I’d have no one left to talk to.’”
Like Hershko, Suchmann’s motivation for the film came from childhood experiences. He described his younger self as being fearful and having an overactive imagination — which he believes was something relatable.
Suchmann said the movie begins as a horror film, then evolves to a coming-of-age story. He noted that it hinges entirely on child actor Tyler Wladis, 8, who was 5 when the movie was filmed. He later landed a major role in the ABC show “Single Parents.”
“He was crucial to the film’s success,” Suchmann said. “He was just so talented and easy to have on set.”
“It Lives” was shot over three days and was set in the main character’s bedroom, which was built by Suchmann and the crew. The short is under the banner of Trash Head Productions, which was founded by Suchmann and his friends, and produces music videos and short films.
Suchmann attributed his passion for creativity to the art program at Ocean-side High School, where he graduated in 2014. He said that film teacher Audrey Miller was inspirational to him during and after high school and helped validate his work. He added that he was excited to take part in the expo.
“It’s nice that it’s somewhere locally that my family can go to see my work,” he said, “and to just be included with other great filmmakers who are from Long Island is special.”
“It Lives in the Closet” will screen on July 12 at 9:30 p.m.
Xerri, 22, will screen two films: “Teen Night,” on July 13 at 9:30 p.m., and "Ruckzuck" on July 14 at 10:30 a.m.
"Teen Night" is an eight-minute short follows Kara, 13, “who attempts to hold on to the fleeting attention of a reckless older boy, which comes at a price for her and her innocence,” according to the expo’s website.
"Teen Night was shot over two days and takes place entirely at night," Xerri explained. "It was a true challenge but necessary in order to achieve an authentic portrayal of the darkness that I have personally observed from growing up in Long Island."
She added that actors Annabella Didion and Dan Carney, who star in the film, "fully commit to this darkness in an incredibly haunting and honest way. I'm still in awe of their performances."
"Ruckzuck" is a documentary about a psychedelic space rock family.
Debra Markowitz, the Nassau County film commissioner, said the expo received more than 400 submissions this year and accepted over 160. She added that films are selected based on many criteria, including how entertaining and informative they are and the issues they address.
“We welcome films from all over the world,” Markowitz said, “but of course, it’s exciting to see local filmmakers whom we’ve been able to see grow in their careers.”