Occupying the Audience
Two filmmakers document politics in Israel and Palestine
By Beth Macdonell
Apathy is not an option for the audience members of two Toronto filmmakers who aren’t afraid to offend.
In Zero Degrees of Separation, by Elle Flanders and The Palestine Trilogy: Documentations in History, Land, and Hope by b.h. Yael, two Jewish directors tell the stories of Palestinians for audiences around the world. Both filmmakers challenge the audience to witness the harsh realities of life for the Palestinian people, and highlight the ongoing need for resolution and peace.
As might be expected, audiences in Toronto and across North America are not all in agreement about the message they are delivering, say Flanders and Yael.
Citing Voltaire, Flanders explains, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
As the director of Inside Out the Toronto Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival for over 10 years in the 1980s and early 1990s, Flanders says she would never decline to show a film because she was worried she may offend her audience. She believes it is important to provoke critical thought.
“I always had a motto when I ran Inside Out,” she explains. “It was ‘Give them what they think they want, so that you’re able to show them more of what they don’t yet know they want.’ In other words, throw in a couple of fluffy whatevers because that’s what they think they want and they really love, and then pack the rest of your program with really interesting challenging work.”
When Yael screened her film at York University, she was greeted with criticism from the audience that her film was biased. Showing her previous piece, In the Middle of the Street, she encountered a few problems with Jewish audiences.
“They reacted quite a lot – there was a lot of anger, and there were criticisms that I didn’t represent what was officially going on,” recalls Yael. “The expectation is that I’m going to bring some kind of journalistic approach to the issue and attempt to give fair representation, which I don’t think is ever the case.”
Flanders’ view is even more fervent. “I don’t believe in 50/50. I don’t believe in fairness,” she asserts.
“There is no such thing as neutrality, and I have no pretense of that.”
Carole Zemel, a professor of art history and a specialist in Jewish self-representation in modern art, says she doesn’t think it’s that audiences are reluctant to see Flander’s and Yael’s films but that the films were made for a very specific audience. Zemel says films dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict usually incite a very positive or negative reaction and may partly explain audience reactions to films of this subject matter.
“It’s an odd assumption that audiences would expect documentary-natured films to not advocate one side over another,” says Zemel. However, as with any documentary film, it would be best to chronicle as many sides as possible about the issue, while advocating the desired position of the director.
Flanders says Zero Degrees received favourable responses in Europe in 2005 and will concentrate more on North American audiences this year. Since being originally shown at the Berlin International Film Festival a year ago, it has been screened at over 30 festivals worldwide and won numerous awards, including the Michael J. Berg Best Documentary Award from Frameline 29 in San Francisco and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the International Women’s Festival in Barcelona.
Palestine Triology premiered at the Royal Cinema in Toronto. Over the winter, YYZ gallery screened the film as part of an Art and Activism exhibit. Yael says she would submit it to festivals, and has a distributor, but she is hoping the film will be used more as an educational tool for community and activist groups. With this film, Yael says her “intent is to educate and to have some kind of intervention on these issues.”
Flanders grew up in Canada and Israel. Her Zionist grandparents settled in Israel after the war. As she matured, she realized the impact Jewish settlers were having on the Palestinians and grew critical of the belief that Jews were automatically entitled to the land. At 18, she started photographing Israelis and Palestinians during the first intifada, a period of violent Palestinian-Israeli conflict that began in 1987. Flanders went on to study art and filmmaking in Israel, New York and Toronto.
Zero Degrees interweaves archival footage of her grandparents arriving in Israel and touring the country and contrasts these images with the stories of two present day gay and lesbian couples living in Israeli-occupied land. In each case, one of the partners is Palestinian and one Israeli.
Flanders makes a conscious effort not to sensationalize the lives of the people in her film or the occupation. She doesn’t show suicide attacks or soldiers being abusive to Palestinians.
“The more rocky our world gets, the more people are trying to find the shock value. It’s not what I do,” explains Flanders. “There’s not a lot of bloodshed and there’s not a lot of confrontation.”
At times, Yael’s films have strained some of her relationships, especially with her mother. Her mother has a “real sense of protectiveness [about Israel] and I understand where it comes from, but at the same time it kind of belies a desire to be blind to the repercussions of what Israel is doing as well,” says Yael, “and so that’s been a lot of our struggle.”
In her most recent film, Yael felt strongly about examining Palestinians’ history and revealing the struggles they face in their everyday lives. But at the same time, she also felt a duty to explore the outcomes of the conflict in Israel and Palestine.
“Going to Israel, I really had to confront Palestinian memory and the sense of loss that Palestinians felt in relationship to their land,” says Yael. In one part of her film, she looks at the challenges of living surrounded by a wall measuring eight meters high, more than double the height of the Berlin Wall. Still unwilling to give up their land, Yael shows the determination and injustice the people endure.
In the Palestinian Triology, Yael examines three different aspects of the resistance movement in Israel. Deir Yassi – named after a village near Jerusalem – focuses on the 1948 massacres that occurred there against the Palestinians to be acknowledged and commemorated. Even in the Desert looks at solidarity work where the Palestinians’ movement is being increasingly limited. A Hot Sand Filled Wind is a poetic video that suggests Palestinians and Israelis share suffering, and that mutual recognition is the only basis for hope.
“I think that we
need to be challenged daily in whatever it is, whoever we are, whatever we’re
thinking. To think more, to think harder, to think beyond, to put ourselves
in other people’s places,” says Flanders. “To find the humanity.”