Young Argentinean filmmaker takes on empty nest syndrome

Shooting at the Dead Sea for “Empty Nest,” writer/director Daniel Burman did not try to capture the bleak Israeli desert as it really appears. Instead, using filtered lenses, he filmed it as a glittering blue jewel.

A fantasy version of the Dead Sea works well in “Empty Nest,” Burman’s 2008 meditation about aging, nursing the artistic muse and indulging in daydreams.

The film had its local premiere at the recently concluded San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and opens for a regular theatrical run Aug. 21.

A Jewish native of Buenos Aires, Burman is one of Argentina’s most successful young filmmakers. “Empty Nest” was a hit across South America, and has opened in Europe and North America.

The film stars Oscar Martinez as Leonardo, a 50-something writer facing life and marriage after the kids move out, and Cecilia Roth (“All About My Mother”) as his hyperactive wife, Martha.

While technically fictitious, Burman says there is something autobiographical about Leonardo.

“It’s based on my fears and not my experiences,” says Burman, 36, whose own children are preschool age. “It’s more personal. Fears are something you live with all the time.”

Leonardo (Oscar Martinez) and his wife, Martha (Cecilia Roth), navigate difficult marital issues in “Empty Nest.”

In the film, Leonardo has tired of the social conventions of life. In between writing projects, he indulges in an affair with his orthodontist, befriends a stuffy scientist researching memory, and heads off to Israel to visit his daughter and Israeli son-in-law.

And then there’s that twist at the end.

Though taking up fewer than 15 minutes of screen time, the Dead Sea sequence is memorable. Burman says his Israeli crew impressed him, and not only for their filmcraft.

“At the first dinner with the crew you hear one guy came from Lebanon, or was a pilot in the Special Forces,” he says. “Everyone came from a secret part of the army. Everyone is a hero in real life.”

Burman is a moviemaking hero in Argentina. He directed his first feature at age 22, following it up with “Waiting for the Messiah,” an exploration of Jewish identity. He stayed on that track with a 2002 documentary, “Seven Days in 11,” named for Buenos Aires’ Jewish neighborhood. He made two more award-winning features before “Empty Nest.”

Argentina is home to one of the largest and oldest Jewish communities in South America. Though Buenos Aires was the site of a 1994 terrorist bombing at a Jewish Community Center that killed 85 people, Burman insists his country is “the best place in the world to be a Jew.”

“The bomb was a terrible exception,” he says. “Before and after the bomb, the real life of the Jewish people here is very good. In Argentina, everyone is different. In my school I was a Jew, the other was from Peru, and the other from Korea. The rule is to be different.”

Burman is already busy with his next screen project. He’s not telling if it will feature Jewish themes like his previous films. Even with “Empty Nest,” he’s not 100 percent certain about his characters backstories. For example, are Leonardo and Martha Jewish?

“I never asked my characters if they are Jewish or not,” he says. “I believe she is Jewish, though I’m not sure about him. But I am sure he’s not a good Jew.”

“Empty Nest” opens Aug. 21 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema, 1881 Post St., S.F. and the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.