Parisian director Yolande Zauberman on her new documentary
“I never thought I would pick this subject. I guess it came to me by instinct, really spontaneously,” Yolande Zauberman contemplates for a moment, “the question just suddenly popped up in my head and I immediately felt the need to ask it.” Zauberman laughs and pours sugar in her coffee. She is referring to the question and title of her new documentary that came out in French cinemas last week. In this movie, Zauberman and her team walk the streets of Tel Aviv asking young Israelis only one question: “Would you have sex with an Arab?”
Franziska Knupper met her during the Film Festival in Hamburg.
Knupper: Mrs. Zauberman, why did you choose Tel Aviv as your main setting in Israel?
Zauberman: First of all, I love big cities and I am particularly fascinated by Tel Aviv. It doesn’t feel guilty of nothing. It has a certain beauty and blindness to it.
Knupper: What do you mean by blindness?
Zauberman: In Tel Aviv I sometimes feel the incapacity to understand, to realize what happens in the rest of the country. And that is also why there is a very special way of looking at Arabic people in Tel Aviv.
Knupper: Can you try to explain that way of looking at Arabic people?
Zauberman: I guess most of the Israelis do not look at all. And they certainly do not think of Arabs in a sexual way – that’s why my question was so interesting. The Arabs are practically invisible. Of course there are mixed couples and affairs. Things happen. But the general, the everyday desire is non-existent. That is considered like a national crime. An Arab is not supposed to be desired.
Knupper: Is that also the reason why, as you state in your movie, rape of Arabic women does not happen very often during Israeli military operations?
Zauberman: I am not able to give the exact reason for that. Maybe it is because they’ve already been so dehumanized that an Israeli would not touch them. But I don’t think that’s it. I think it is mainly due to the fact that for an Israeli it would be like having sex with a ghost. There is no contact between them. They do not see them, they are just not supposed to be there.
Knupper: But how can people even see the difference between Arab and Jewish people when they cross them on the streets in everyday life?
Zauberman: It is hard to explain but even I can see the difference. There is a certain pain in the Arabic people’s eyes, a different aura. It is a distinct feeling, nothing you could put your finger on.
Knupper: Why did you refrain from approaching very religious people, for example the Jewish Orthodox communities?
Zauberman: Because I knew the answer and I wasn’t interested in something I already knew. That’s what a documentary should be about – only to ask the questions you don’t know the answer of. That’s why I preferred to talk to the young generation, the young people in the nightclubs and bars, just hanging out with their friends.
Knupper: So did you ever had to face any anger, any shock when you asked the question?
Zauberman: I was always, until the very end, very shy to ask. But people never, not one single time, refused to answer me which was quite surprising. And sometimes I was amazed by the way some of them would express such deep and beautiful things in very simple words. Some of their remarks could have been those of big thinkers.
Knupper: Do you think it was also helpful that you worked as a very small team and with an unobtrusive hand camera?
Zauberman: Yes, that’s for sure. There were only three of us, with a camera, one light, and one microphone. We were like a little microcosm moving through the nightlife scene of Tel Aviv. And we were very lucky that one of us spoke Hebrew and another one Arabic. So people had the feeling they could trust us more and that we were not just a couple of foreign journalists bugging them with a strange question.
Knupper: But was it sometimes hard for you not to be able to air your own opinion to such a complex subject matter when you were confronted with all those different answers?
Zauberman: No, not really. And even if they said they could never imagine having sex with an Arab or with a Jew, I did not judge. I have nothing against people who want to remain in their own cultural circle. I was not there to encourage them to mix whenever they can; I did not want to spread a message like “Make love, not war!” (laughs).
But some of their answers did make me think, like for example the vision of the transsexual man towards the end who spoke of a liquid identity, of being both Arab and Israeli, both man and woman.
Knupper: Is that what you hope to achieve with that movie, spreading optimistic visions?
Zauberman: Well, it is not a movie that will change the conflict (laughs). We are not so naïve as to believe that. But it does give the possibility to address a problem without immediately spitting on it, without immediately taking the one side or the other. It gives a space for awareness; a bit sexy, a bit funny.
Knupper: But you said that you haven’t decided so far if the movie will come out in Israel. Are you afraid of the reactions?
Zauberman: No, not afraid. I just do not want the people in the movie to face any problems or difficulties afterwards. I really have no idea what the reactions might be. Some may take it with aggression, some with awareness and others with pleasure.
Knupper: And some with hope?
Zauberman: Maybe so. It is indeed an optimistic film in the way as we dare consider that in the end love really might be stronger than hate.