Translated from Hebrew by Aryeh Naftaly
Anat Yota-Zuria, one of Israel's most impressive film directors, came to filmmaking from the plastic arts. When at the age of 35 she decided to study film at the Ma'aleh film school in Jerusalem she was already a mother of three, she says, and the fact that she lives with a religious partner has influenced her cinematic work. Her films deal with the oppression of women for religious reasons, with female sexuality and with gender issues.
"The questions that concerned me were questions of the depiction of situations and conflicts that were not only hidden from the eyes of society but were denied and hidden from the eyes of many of the women themselves. I had a unique perspective since I knew the religious world from the inside through a variety of personal experiences, and all that time I maintained a skeptical attitude and feminine awareness. Through that prism I began to document situations in which women were involved which hadn't been depicted before, to create new characters and to search for a cinematic language of my own."
Purity, her first film, is also the first film of a trilogy that deal with women and femininity in Orthodox Jewish and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) society. The second is Sentenced to Marriage and the third is Black Bus. Her latest film, The Lesson, won the Best Documentary award at the last Haifa Film Festival. We decided that this was an excellent time to meet and talk.
Your last two films have a different approach than your first two. Why did you change your work methods so drastically?
I'd like to begin at the beginning. My first three films came from my own experiences and my desire to explore them. My life with a religious partner has influenced the kind of films I make. I wanted to create a different type of political cinema, cinema that deals with hidden aspects of Israeli life. I chose to deal with the oppression of women for religious reasons, which hadn't yet been depicted or documented in Israeli film at the time. Gender issues in general were almost off-limits, and the subject I chose – female sexuality through the eyes of religion – was almost taboo. With my first film, Purity, I tried to deal with the experience of the female body, menstruation and sexuality. It directly reflected my own personal experiences. I came from the secular world and suddenly stepped into a lifestyle that included these experiences. I came into a relationship in which you have to distance yourself and you're not allowed to touch and there's the tension of touching or not touching, then there's the separate bed, then there's going to the mikveh [ritual bath], interactions with the mikveh woman and with strangers, those relationships, a whole set of intense experiences into which I landed like a UFO. I mean, I realized they were part of the sexual relationship, but I was foreign to them. This enabled me to experience them and observe them. To be on the inside while remaining on the outside and asking questions about them.
Therefore Purity is a product of my own personal experiences which led me to talk about what happens to femininity – and to myself as well – in a world, a culture that creates all these concepts and experiences, what it says about me, what it says about the culture which I thought, in a way, reflects not only me personally or the society I came from, but something much deeper that has to do with the human side in general: how women relate to themselves and how men relate to these things.
So you decided to tell your story through three characters.
Purity was a pseudo-personal film whose frame narrative included a documentation of my charged journey to the mikveh, the very symbol of religious Jewish sexuality. The film divided women's religious sexual experience into three stories, each of which examined a different aspect of this sexuality. My point of view was explicitly subjective and critical, and as early as this film I had my own personal cinematic style. The naturalistic style wasn't right for the kind of film I wanted to make or the nature of the story I wanted to tell.
It all began with my wanting to talk about something that hadn't been dealt with, and for which I had no reference in Israel, that is, there was nothing about which I could say: Here, I'm influenced by this, or I'm referring to this or speaking to that. When I finished my research I decided I wanted to tell a story about three women who are really an extension of myself. Already with Purity I felt I wanted to deal with the characters sort of like actors, but with Purity I don't think I took it all the way. In any case, I built the film not only on my presence as a fly-on-the-wall but I also portrayed the characters or created them with certain awarenesses and used them to create certain scenes. I wasn't touching directly on reality and documenting it; I also staged scenes with them that were nothing but interpretations of the story – there was no direct portrayal of feminine conflicts but rather an implied, indirect look at intimate situations. They were aware of this and they were actresses to a certain degree in these scenes.
You're saying that as early as your first film you worked on the borderline between documentation and fiction. Give us an example of a scene in "Purity" that works this way.
I wouldn't really describe my first film as being explicitly on the borderline between documentation and fiction. Expressive, personal documentary cinema is a well-known phenomenon and my inclination was to work within the boundaries of that type of filmmaking and I continued to develop from there.
In Purity there were three protagonists, two were in stories that took place in the present and were filmed as they took place, whereas the third protagonist's story took place in the past and in many scenes she was acting out her memories.
I filmed intense, loaded scenes in which she reenacts her visits to the mikveh and actually immerses or reenacts the moment when she separates the beds during the period of women's separation in the empty, abandoned house where she used to live.
I basically took a character whose marriage had broken up despite the fact that she kept all the laws that guarantee a good married life, and put her into a scene in which she acted. She enters the house in which she kept all those rules. The home was already broken; she was already divorced. The house was empty – not only that, we caught it just before it was about to be sold and I brought her back to the same location where she lived and kept all the rules of religious sexuality and we staged everything, the moving of the beds and her walking around the empty space.
You mean you reenacted her former life?
Exactly. To a great extent one of the scenes that ends the film, the scene in which she reenacts the moment when she parted with her head-covering, was staged in the same way. In front of the camera the protagonist tries on wigs and says goodbye to the head-covering which, in religious society, became the symbol of her sexuality, and as I mentioned she acted out this scene, which I think is one of the most powerful scenes in the film, thanks to Nurith Aviv's beautiful cinematography among other things.
How does this develop in the next films?
With Sentenced to Marriage I worked the same way. This was a film about divorce which featured more classic documentary elements. More observation, a more linear following of the developments of the stories of the three protagonists' divorces.
And in that sense, the film was built through a language that we're more familiar with in which you observe more and intervene cinematically less. I wouldn't say I was a fly-on-the-wall, not at all, but still it's the closest of my films to what we call "documentation," that is, following a series of events with less involvement.
Later on, with "Black Bus," you take it a little further.
With Black Bus I created a film in a different way than my previous films, and this film did in fact play on the borderline between reality and fiction. All of the scenes in it are staged, some are based on reality and some are made up. For the characters I chose two former Haredi girls who not only ran away from Haredi society but also rebelled against the Haredi female model, and, most importantly, dreamt of documenting themselves and documenting the oppression they experienced in their society.
The film depicts their attempt to document themselves. Throughout the journey they acted out their lives, they were like actresses, each protagonist had a story that she documented when we met. But the documentation worked on a preliminary level; one filmed and the other was a blogger, she wrote.
I imagine that if we hadn't decided to work together they wouldn't have managed to manifest their need for documentation that already haunted them and wouldn't let up. Don't forget, the formerly religious live like immigrants; they lose their past and can barely survive financially.
Our collective work on the documentary also included working on acting and the scenes themselves. To a certain extent we were partners and we built scenes together.
Can you describe your process of working together?
Many scenes with the camera were staged. When we started shooting, Shulamit, the cinematographer, still lived as a Haredi in her parents' house. When we filmed her shooting, we were filming her doing a forbidden act. Filming these scenes was an incredibly forbidden, subversive act. Once her father found out that she was filming behind his back he ostracized her. During this jarring period she began a long period of wandering around Jerusalem and I suggested that she continue to film and create a cinematic project of her own in which she would continue to film her environment. She liked the concept and it came together gradually and ended up as the basis of the final screenplay for the film. The process itself was fictional to a certain extent, and to another extent it was a truthful reflection of the reality in which she lived and struggled against.
I was working with a girl who wanted to document the society that oppressed her and she was almost prevented from doing so. I told her: Let's just go out and document the world you want to depict. So at the heart of the film is a kernel of reality, alongside staging based on her life and fantasies.
Did you write a screenplay before you started shooting?
I decided to do something along the line of Wim Wenders' concepts when he started out, where you build a framework of a quest, in this case, a quest to document something. Those two girls wouldn't have accomplished that quest without me.
So the quest was both staged and improvised and it was based on their lives and my work with them. Black Bus was the first time I sat down and showed the protagonists scenes from the raw footage. I showed them scenes and we worked on emotional elements, we tried to understand what was really happening to them, both while viewing the raw footage and while working on ideas together to film later.
We understand that with "The Lesson" you took this one step further. What emotional element did you develop to make the character portray himself or herself better, in your opinion?
I wanted to create a human drama about family schism and alienation over a backdrop of the tormented city in which Laila, the main character, lives. The frame story followed a series of driving lessons which Laila, an Arab woman of Egyptian descent, takes with Nimer, a Palestinian driving expert. The concept for the cinematography was influenced by Ten by Abbas Kiarostami which needs no further explanation. I thought I'd combine Kiarostami's visual approach with the depiction of a human drama that takes place over the backdrop of the city. The choice of minimalism of form throughout the shots of the driving lessons seemed to suit the story which was complex and cryptic. We filmed the two protagonists during the driving lessons which were staged, and filmed each of them close-up with separate cameras.
The film shifts between the driving lessons, which become a sort of confession booth for the main character, Laila, and the dramatic part which deals with the drama of the breakup of the family unit and the renewed self-discovery of the mother, the main protagonist.
The film features many elements of film direction. For instance, Laila tried to learn to drive for two years and failed time after time, yet she still fought to realize her dream of driving. When we decided to make the film I casted her along with the driving instructor. Together we did research on driving experts in East Jerusalem. Nimer was one of a few potential instructors. I met with a few instructors and thought Nimer was perfect for the role due to his charisma and because he actually served as a sort of supporter and mentor for his students who had difficulties. But the final decision to give him the role of the instructor in the film was made together with Laila after we checked out the chemistry between them.
It's important to understand that with our method of shooting Laila couldn't really learn to drive, so during the driving lessons she practiced driving while actually acting in a film about her life as she went through a process of observation and introspection.
Preparing for the scenes of the driving lessons took a long time and the two characters were given different instructions regarding their interaction and relationship. The way this worked, I instructed them before the lesson and then I'd sit and watch the rushes and show them, too, and together we'd develop ideas. As we worked on the film, Nimer turned out to be a fascinating partner. He created many parts of the "confession booth" plot development. Our work as a team included the three main protagonists – Laila, the main character, her daughter Hagar, and Nimer, the driving instructor. Each of them helped develop the script in different ways. The film was shot almost like a feature film and was edited naturalistically.
If so, "Black Bus" represents a process of building a story, maybe even making up a story, working with actors – an almost feature-film-like direction of non-actors who portray themselves in a story about their lives which you almost invent. But the final product, the film itself, feels and looks like a classic documentary or a film in which you're almost a fly-on-the-wall.
Interestingly, at the premiere at the Haifa Film Festival we had a mixed audience of friends, colleagues and random viewers, and there was a certain group among the audience that thought it was a particularly honest feature film. I mean, I was complimented for the believability of the characters' acting. Someone in the audience mentioned that acting in Israeli cinema has improved over the past decade. That was funny.
To what degree is the film influenced by the way television works, the way it dictates conditions to the protagonists in order to expedite drama and conflict?
The difference is unfathomable. Let's start with the fact that during the driving lessons the viewer is restricted to close-ups on the protagonist and on her instructor. So when the film begins, the viewer's field of vision is limited and much is based on the obfuscation of information, so the viewer has to fill in the gaps as the film goes on.
The difference in language is significant; it's almost the polar opposite of how television works. Important parts of the story are hidden from our eyes and ears and we have to imagine them based on many hints that are scattered calculatedly throughout the film. I suppose dramatic filmmaking based on the life of a real character will always bring up ethical questions, and rightly so. And the solution I created for myself was to involve the character and build a subtle, implied cinematic language.
You build the lessons and the space and put in the two protagonists so that something will happen, and you instruct one of the actors, the characters, to get the other to talk and bring out his more extreme points so that something dramatic will happen.
That's not accurate at all. The process is more complex, it's built gradually. The way in which the information is laid out is a long process in which people go through changes and choose to decide about crucial things in their lives.
At what point did you feel that classic documentary cinema no longer satisfied you, and are you looking for further directions?
I don't know. All I know is that I think like a feature filmmaker. For instance, here's an example from The Lesson: I decided that the protagonist's loneliness would be illustrated through certain locations and that she would be filmed statically from a distance. When she contacts her brother, too, cinematically I try to establish their relationship with a free hand. I use elements of cinematic language such as lighting, staging a scene and controlling the situation in order to illustrate her loneliness. I feel free to take whatever I need from both documentary and feature filmmaking in order to convey the story as I understand it.
My approach is, it's legitimate to combine different cinematic sources in forming a film. In feature films, form is connected to the story as a separate element, while in documentary films there's a lot of magic in being able to improvise and in the chance surprises that are part of all documentary work.
What about your relationship with the characters?
My current approach is to be completely transparent in working with the characters. When working with Laila I made it clear to her from the start that she was going to change from a subject into an object, from a real live woman into a character in a movie, and I described to her the process at the end of which she'd be a moving portrait, a cinematic character, and we started to develop the film from there. When we finished working on the film we held a screening for ourselves throughout which she cried and laughed, which was very touching, but at the end she said: That woman in the movie isn't me, she's my character.
The boundaries of genre in filmmaking are becoming ever more blurred. We see feature films that look like documentaries and vice-versa. But in documentary cinema the viewer is usually given keys through which he can understand the world in which the film takes place. Sometimes it's the mechanism of the film that's revealed to the viewer, sometimes it's the director who reveals his manipulations so that the viewer becomes aware that he's watching a world that the director has created from his point of view. You choose to hide from the viewer the fact that you're telling the story from your point of view and the viewer thinks he's watching Laila's story.
I think I reveal the mechanism of the film in a different way, through the language itself. I show the other space, but it's only included in the film through form. This manifests in the choice of language. In any case, the cinematic statement is found within the means and as far as I'm concerned you can't separate form from content; the screenplay is only one of the cinematic elements. The whole work is based on the language of feature films, there is no falsehood or truth here, it's a question of depiction. It's depicted, period. As I said, at the screenings many people experienced it as a feature film and to others it was clear that it was documentary because they knew beforehand that it was a documentary so they experienced it as a documentary. It doesn't matter to me; it's my cinematic statement.
Can you see yourself making a feature film with a made-up story and actors and leaving documentary behind completely?
I'm considering it. I'm still uncertain about my future.
Do you know what your next project will be? Will it continue in this direction or develop in another? Or don't you know yet?
I have a new project that deals with a personal family story – my brother's suicide. And in it I want to take the point of view of my mother who experienced her son's suicide and dealt with her bereavement in an exceptional way. My brother was 29 when he died and he left behind many writings, including his training for his death; short stories and actual scenes in which he describes his alienation from the capitalist world. I grew up in Ramat HaSharon, a place that was before its time in terms of the Israeli capitalist experience. It was a deadly combination of career army men and capitalistic businessmen and he grew up in that world and parted from it in his cruel way.
A complicated film, emotionally…
Before I talk about the emotionally complicated aspect, since he left behind writings including actual scenes, I'm asking myself whether I should stage them, whether I should involve professional actors this time.
Will your mother be one of the characters?
Yes. The film begins as an investigative film. I start from my point of view which then connects with her story. I think a documentary story about suicide is still kind of taboo. And I want to take this tragedy and find a way to adapt it into a subtle, questioning documentary film.
Your first film was based on a powerful personal experience, and now, a few films later, you're going back to personal storytelling.
To a great extent this is the first time I'll be working on an entire personal cinematic story. But what I see most of them as having in common, including the upcoming film, is my strong interest in repressed, suppressed subjects. In human situations that are subject to a taboo and are systematically suppressed by a society. For me, these are the subjects that pose a major cinematic challenge worth taking on.