Translation: Tal Haran
Every film I made has faced me with complex, different ethical questions, most of which I solved myself as I worked. But the frustration, the pain, and the insights that accompanied the making of Ramleh (2001) re-defined my limits as a documentarist.
The research and shooting of Ramleh went on for several years, during which I spent more time in Ramleh than in Tel Aviv. There I met a woman whose mother had been murdered right in front of her when she was nine-years-old, a woman who would collect her wild, drunken father from the gutter every single day, a woman who had lost half an ear when her partner abused her. The daily life of some of the women I met crossed those of drug dealers and robbers. I met murderers whom everyone knew as murderers and were still walking free because no one would bear witness to their being murderers. I met women who could be murdered at any moment – and women who were murdered while I was working in Ramleh. A woman who was especially close to me led a secret love life with her lover while her brothers and father were threatening her life. The father of one of the born-again Jewesses with whom I was working was an Arab who maintained a warm relationship with his daughter and her community, in spite of the racist slurs she and her women-friends would repeat. All the women with whom I consorted did their best to raise children, take care of parents and husbands, and worked.
The women spoke about their lives very openly in the many talks we held. “Their secrets” were well-known in the neighborhood and community. I felt that I was holding the keys to a fascinating, dramatic story that had not been told. I believed that through this story I could share the refugee experience of Jewish and Arab women, second generation of displaced persons who were brought to Ramleh. I thought that through them I understood the history that had singled them away from the heart of Israeli society, the power of religious promise in the lives of some of them, and the struggle of each of them to lead a life of dignity.
But always, when we were about to shoot, each of the participants in this film restricted the details of life that she agreed to expose. Others feared for their lives, some feared their families’ reaction, and others feared for my own life.
It did not occur to me to tell their stories against their will. In previous films, as well, I would show the participants a rough cut and ask for their final permission. I shot parts of the film which the women agreed to at their homes, but materials I had shot moved between their superficial presentation and hiding that created real lies.
For over a year, I let the film go and did not touch it. I felt that what I had filmed was not close to what I wanted to tell, that I was lying to spectators while remaining loyal to women who trusted me. Instead of making a moving film that describes my women-protagonists dramatically, I was collaborating with social shame, institutional ignoring, and the fear and silencing of the women in my film.
After many desperate months, I made a film that showed a flawed reality. I betrayed the spectators, I betrayed what I had to say. I did not betray the women in the film but I showed them as more ordinary, less smart and less endearing than the way I had seen them.
To my surprise the film received warm acclaim from critics and festivals. It took time for me to begin to believe that perhaps the partial reality I had shown created a significant experience for the spectators.
I think that the ethical dilemmas that characterized my work on Ramleh are inherent to documentary filmmaking, wherein the protagonists have no typical political interest or exhibitionistic passion for exposure. When the protagonists of the film are women and their lives are led mainly within their home and family, silencing and hiding are at times the only weapon that enables them to continue living in their communities.
In spite of the years that have gone by, the Ramleh wound is still inside me. I have since then turned to making fiction and films that are mostly composed in the editing room, and have no desire to repeat those contradictions, that helplessness and pain.
In my humble opinion, ethics are problematically inherent in documentary filmmaking that deals with people and attempts to present a piece of their life’s reality. I believe there is no way more immediate to cut through social-political reality – which is the essential subject of documentary filmmaking – but through the way in which it shapes the private person and affects the deepest strings of his/her soul. Perhaps this is the highest price that society demands of those who have become its subjects, a part of its flesh, whether they be sovereign or victim. The victims themselves cooperate at times with the society that discriminates against and oppresses them, and they direct onto others the same codes and norms that have turned them into victims. Documenting this means exposing, embarrassing and placing your characters in a vulnerable position, people towards whom you have grown deeply affectionate and caring during your work, and they are not always aware of such a position or mean to share it in public.
Problems begin with the very first questions – who am I to criticize and judge? To penetrate the private world of the person I face? Who allowed me to flood them with memories that make them cry? Push them to reconstruct difficult moments in their lives? Make them thrash out their hardships, views, sometimes their racism? Push them into a position where they suddenly have to face a mirror they do not wish to face, confront their loved ones or unwillingly expose sides of their personality or realities of life which they would rather not reveal, as a dynamic of the process they had entered? No one can absolutely control what will be said, or revealed, even if they are self-aware and have taken clear decisions in advance. And the difficulty does not let up: who has allowed me make use, as it were, of an inevitable loss of control? To try and destroy the self-image, the imaginary world and self-deceptions that pad our lives, in the endless discourse we hold with society around us?
As a journalist for Haaretz I once cancelled a story about a woman from Ramleh who exposed herself to me and told me secrets from her past, which she had kept from her family for years. A few days after the interview she changed her mind. She was afraid of the effect it would have on her children, and I was not willing to accept the responsibility for having them find things out by reading the paper, although I did believe they should know them. The story of the woman, her secrets, provided a rare view of poverty and social inferiority in Israel in the 1950s, more than any statistic or other familiar stories, and so I could not reveal the secrets. I had to give up the entire story.
In another case, I documented a new immigrant from Ethiopia getting lost in Jerusalem’s streets while trying to find the address of a flat she wished to rent. Her hardship was obvious, and she was angry that we were not helping her, although being surrounded by a film crew she could not have felt as lonely and helpless as if she would have done it alone. Still, in spite of the will to stop filming and find the address for her, I continued shooting until she found the place. Eventually this segment was not even included in the film.
In other words, the activity itself is a constant state of ethical unease. My greatest difficulty is sitting opposite an interviewee with whom I created personal trust, and knowing that they are totally unaware of the significance of what they’re saying and the way it will be understood in the film, even though what they’re saying presents a significant social phenomenon – which is precisely why I am making the film. In this sense, documentary filmmaking always treads a thin ethical line, but as soon as we give up our commitment to express reality loyally and as profoundly as possible, to the best of our understanding and honesty, we must give up many categories in documentary filmmaking that document the individual and society.
Noa Ben Hagay
Many documentary filmmakers owe their successful career to the misfortune and misery of their protagonists. Let’s face it. I am one of them. In my case it was my Palestinian relatives with whom I came in contact after nearly fifty years of being disconnected. After filming them for a few years, I found myself flying to festivals around the world. While my Palestinian family continued its depressing, miserable life in a refugee camp, I was already in a different place. A driver with white gloves drove me in a fancy car through a strange city, I was handed trophies, applauded for my talent, courage and sincerity. I was told I had done something important.
I would like to believe everything that was said about me. Tell myself that I had told their story, that it is important, worthwhile. And that in a way I also helped my protagonists, that they are happy to have met me. But I cannot really believe this. There was nothing brave about what I did. I did not have to cope with the fear, the risk, and the uncertainty of taking part in the film. I was not required to risk a thing. Finally, I received a lot more than I had given. In spite of being fair, and in spite of the fact that they never complained to me about how they were presented in the film – my filmmaking was based on seduction and voyeurism, and all sorts of exploitation. I used their weakness, their desire for listening, for attention, and the expectation and faith that contact with me could save them. Perhaps they exploited me too, but much less.
What does one do now, with all of this awareness, as well as with the desire to go on making films? In order to continue this hobby, I need to find a way to make my first moral documentary film. Is there some ethical code for filmmakers?
In the Hippocratic Oath, physicians vow to save life and not cause harm. I think we must admit to ourselves and our protagonists that we shall not save their lives, and still be sure that we shall not harm them. But this is only a starting point. The minimum is not enough. When I began to look for the protagonist of my new film, I was looking for someone who would not be unfortunate and miserable. Who would face me at eye level, preferably from the top down. Who would not be poorer than me, preferably richer. And that their privilege would not be inferior to mine. The power relations between us should be dynamic. They should be stronger than me even vis-à-vis the power I have holding a camera. We should set the rules together, and they should be obvious and clear from the very beginning. In the deal we make, I should convince them to trust me, but not offer them eternal friendship. I should explain that I have no intention of staying in touch with them after the film. I should make it very clear that I am here in order to shoot my film, and that they should have their own considerations. There would not be any vague promise of anything beyond the fact that there will be a film about them. It would not be a deal in which one side thirsts for contact and will enable me to film them in return. During the filming I would not try to blur and numb the presence of the camera, but rather mention at any moment that it is actively filming.
It was not easy to find what I was looking for. But I believe I managed it. In my next film the protagonist is a woman who will tell her story loud and clear. In this film I shall not talk with her “about everything”, nor peep into her life with enforced intimacy. Now it remains to be seen whether this will work, namely whether anyone else beside me will find it interesting…
First off, I must say that I detest documentary film. It’s a genre in which exploitation is inherent. Indeed, often enough – certainly more than any other art form – a documentary film exposes injustice and silenced narratives. But the truth is always a manipulation of my point of view and the filmed subjects always serve the idea, the work and its creator, even if they are partners to some extent. Not to mention the fact that the actual and symbolic prize (if the film is a success) goes to the filmmaker alone. This is the primal sin of the genre and its point of departure, and only from here can I begin to give my “testimony”, as I was asked to do.
I shall speak about two decisions in two different films. The first took place in my film Metamorphosis (2006), that dealt with rape and incest. It showed four women who spoke about the sexual abuse they had undergone. One of them, with whom I began, was a leading character whom I filmed first, and her story determined the cinematic style of the entire film. The original film opens with a closeup shot of her face, saying: “I hate the color white. The color of my history is white. White is my father’s sperm inside my mouth.” This is how the film began and following these horrifying words I decided that the entire film would be white: the background for the interviews, the images. Everything. Because of the painful subject I tried to work in a way that would not take over control from the participants themselves: they received the raw material in VHS cassettes, and each had the absolute right to veto what would or would not be included in the film. They watched the working copies throughout the process and I made concessions whenever I was asked to do so, some of which really saddened me. When the film was finished after three exhausting years, it was accepted by two important film festivals here and abroad, to my delight. And then I received a letter from the film’s main protagonist. She had changed her mind. The film was already online. It was already noted to take part in this and that festival competition. She had watched the working copies and the materials, and had of course signed the release form. What does all of that matter? She changed her mind. After all this is film, and here is her life. I tried to appeal to her. Nothing doing. She was simply no longer willing. And that was it.
Certain elements in the broadcasting authority needed legal advice. What does that matter. I took her out of the film. I cancelled its participation in festivals. I was left with a lacking film, blank and arbitrary, and stayed in bed for two months. I remembered very well a horror story that ended in suicide, about a character who changed her mind and a film director who used the legal force of the release. But honestly, there was no real deliberation. Despite my anger and frustration, I simply could not do it. I could not have lived with myself. Even so it’s not a simple matter.
My second moral decision came at the beginning of a film, not the end. This was Hatalyan (2010), telling the story of the elderly Shalom Nagar, presently a butcher and in his past, an employee of the GSS who was ordered to hang Adolph Eichmann. When I first met Shalom and heard his story, I knew right away that I wish to shape him as a prophet of the periphery, one that bears a humanistic message while his hands are stained with blood. I also knew that I shall necessarily miss the human narrative that is always more complex, but I did not dismiss any means (at times to my editor’s amazement).
I know I would never have manipulated things to make someone appear in a negative light. I also know that I believed (and still do) that I was totally given to the character’s mind and perhaps (how patronizing of me…) to its “super ego”.
Eventually Shalom fell in love with his character in the film. But all this does not really matter, because it was a typical choice (and morally questionable) to control and shape a character and a story in any way according to the ideology of whoever is behind the camera.
At the end of every project, I hope to never again confront the ethical problem inherent in documentary filmmaking, but for the time being I still find myself caught in this genre.
When I was working on King Lati the First (2008), I had a hard time answering basic moral questions. The film deals with a family living in Israel: the father – Dyuf, who came to Israel from Senegal 17 years ago as a migrant worker; the mother – Irena, a Jewish woman who came to Israel in her youth from Belarus; and their young son, Lati, who was 8-years old at the beginning of the shooting, and grew up here as a total Israeli.
The story of the film holds great promise: Dyuf’s great-grandfather was king of the Serer tribe in Senegal. Now, 80 years later, Dyuf wishes to turn 8-year-old Lati into the king of the same tribe. The idea of accompanying Lati’s initiation process to become king, visiting the kingdom, and seeing if he could really be king – ignited my documentary passion.
When Dyuf told me the story of this kingship, I couldn’t know whether the story was real or a romantic fantasy. I didn’t understand the meaning of being king in Senegal, and most importantly, I didn’t realize what such a journey and such pretension would do to young Lati. Would it hurt him? Does the actual fact that I wish to shoot the process actually contribute to harming the child? Am I helping to develop expectations that would not be realized and will only break his heart? Would Dyuf have gone on such a journey, so determined, had I not been as enthusiastic and convinced him to be filmed? My fears grew as Irena, Lati’s mother, opposed this journey to Senegal precisely for these reasons.
Before filming began, I took Dyuf to visit the late Africologist Tamar Golan. The next day she called me and said: “Lati could never be king in Senegal, at least not king in the sense you imagine. The history is true – Dyuf’s grandfather was indeed king, but now it is no longer possible. Dyuf fantasizes and believes this can happen, but at the end of the day he is just confusing the boy.”
I nearly gave up making the film, but then Irena changed her mind. She decided that even if she does not believe the kingship story, it’s important for Lati to get to know his roots. It is important that he be proud of who he is, and when his classmates call him ‘Kushi Bamba’ [Black Snack], he could look them in the eye and say, “My skin is darker, and I am proud of it!” This was the push that sent me on my way.
The first days in Senegal were hard for Lati. He hated the food, had a hard time with the smells, and suffered when village children wished to touch him. The harder it became for Lati, the more certain I became of the film, and I hated myself for it. Did I consider stopping the work? Did I hope that Lati’s parents would say: “Listen, he is having too hard a time, let’s get out of here”? No! As a filmmaker invested both emotionally and financially, I was busy making the best film I can. To my delight, about a week later something changed in Lati. He began to connect to Senegal, and when the time came to travel back to Israel, he already wanted to stay.
Now, Lati is already grown up. We are still in touch. He is a head taller than me, plays basketball on the Maccabi team, and it doesn’t look like he will be a king in Africa. Years later, when I wonder whether choosing to make the film was morally right, in order to answer frankly I look mainly at Lati. What did he gain from this, what did he lose? I think that the experience of making the film, traveling to Senegal, and somewhere even the kind of relationship Lati had with me and with my cameraman and co-filmmaker Kobi Zaig helped Lati gain confidence and become the charming person he is today.
I tell myself I should never give up all of this.
I switched identities. I grew a beard, side-curls and wore a skull cap. My body was clothed as a ‘born-again’ Jew. The goal was to penetrate one of the most closed-off Haredi [ultraorthodox Jewish] communities – Satmer. I burned with the need to tell the story of Yemenite Jews who were seduced by functionaries of the Satmer community to leave Yemen and go to the US. The emissaries said that the ‘hosts’ wished to preserve the Yemenites’ ancient Judaism, extend their religious education and give them a better life. However, when they arrived in the US their passports were taken from them, and they instantly became hostages of one of the strongest communities in the country.
When I first met a Yemenite couple whose story I wished to tell, the door was shut in my face. Fear of exposure and a first encounter with a ‘born-again’ Jew holding a camera startled them. I feared they knew I was pretending. Should I tell them who I really am? Is my act even ethical? It was obvious to me that in order to tell their story, I must continue to play the game, in spite of the moral complexity involved. My thoughts focused on the fact that I myself come from a traditional Yemenite family, of the same culture, that I don’t mean to harm anyone, and that my pretending only results from my fervent desire to tell the real story behind the scenes – to bring to light the painful truth about this community. How far could I go? Should I transgress in order to get a good story?
I was fascinated by the story of Lausa and Yihya Jaradi, a couple from Yemen who came out against an entire community as soon as they realized they were about to be imprisoned. Following an accident at home, one of their daughters, a 2-year-old baby girl, fell and became disabled. The couple was accused of abuse and neglect, their children were taken by the welfare authorities and placed with Satmer families.
Their story would not let me go. For the next few months, I slowly grew closer to the Jaradis, but felt that a wide gap separated us and that they do not reveal themselves to me. I knew that I should respect their will and put the camera aside. I went on documenting other families, feeling I had no film.
One day, half-a-year later, I received an upsetting phone call.
The baby died. On the one hand, I was flooded with grief, and on the other were my thoughts about the film. There is a film! But their daughter died. What is more important, life or the film? Obviously, this horrible death would now have their door wide open. Was it ethical to take advantage of their situation? Their fate? My deliberation was serious, but it was clear to me that their story had to come out, and that I must detach myself emotionally. I knew I had to document their story in memory of the dead child, document their cruel fate. Had they not agreed to the Satmer functionaries’ offer to reach the ‘land of opportunity’, their lives would have run differently.
Throughout my documentation, I knew that in spite of wishing to film the couple inside, during the harsh moments of their mourning, every story has its limitations. When the film was projected, people said the mother is a murderer, not mourning her daughter’s death enough. But her religion, traditions and culture did not enable her to expose the breaking moments, and I was not ready to trespass such limits of documentation.
The camera’s ‘invasion’ of their private lives is not natural, and creates a new reality.
A new world. For me, the limits of ethics are measured differently in the world of documentary film. Proper ethical behavior is characterized by standards that might not be acceptable in society and culture, standards that correspond with the story that the filmmaker wishes to document.
Exactly five years ago I happened, unwillingly, to find myself at the heart of a storm around a documentary film called Chapasim. The film was supposed to premiere at the Docaviv Festival, but its screening was cancelled a few hours before it was scheduled to premiere. This was apparently the first time that not only the characters in the film prevented the screening, but the director, too, who is also the film’s protagonist. To a certain extent, documentary filmmaking here is divided into whatever was prior to Chapsim and afterwards. I shall explain: everything began two years earlier, when the director of the film, documenting himself and his kibbutz mates undergoing a process of turning religious, asked me to produce the project. The materials were very powerful, for the characters were extremely frank and willfully took part in the film. It was material that represented for me everything that documentary filmmaking should aspire to achieve: It was real, thought-provoking, and especially free of beautifying itself. Things began to fall apart at the rough-cut stage, when the characters began to fear for their image as shown in the film, and pressured their director mate until he completely changed his attitude and prevented the screening of the film. Years of work, much public money had been invested in this enterprise, months of sterile attempts at the editing room to solve the character issue, and naturally the question – what is the meaning of documentary work – all were at stake versus the feeling of the participants that the film (which they had not seen) would hurt them as they were now at a different point in their lives. This is undoubtedly a classical dilemma familiar to every documentarist: the inherent tension between the documentary film’s role of exposure, and the possibility of harming the subjects of this exposure. Here, in addition, the director is also the main protagonist, turning this into a much more complex issue. I cannot detail here the entire move that led to the festival finally giving in and cancelling the screening. Still, clearly this decision had far-reaching consequences. No one wished to ever again risk the cancellation of a project so heavily invested. As in a ‘domino effect’, annexes to contracts began to appear, signing characters on as part of the contract drawn between the producers and the broadcasting bodies, at times backed up by draconian sanctions, which made the producers and directors much more cautious. The relations between a documentary filmmaker and a character have always been based on unwritten trust, as the creator ventures out to seek and catch his truth on the one hand, and the character – on the other – is ready for such exposure, with mutual understanding of the limits involved. The moment in which a character may contest such relations at the end of the process, as happened with Chapasim, is a constitutive one. It is the moment in which, from documentarists looking for truth and shaping characters, we become people who round corners here and there so that things would ‘turn out okay’. Do we become hostages of our documented subjects (and in this strange case, of the director and main protagonist), who may stop the process, be angry, rebel, and even prevent the continuation of the work if the result does not satisfy them considering the image they expected? Consequently, are we more cautious now in our choices, of what and how we document? And most importantly, is the unique statement which we wish to deliver at the end of the day affected by all of this? Are we risking the loss of documentary film as a powerful and important tool of expression?
A Film Unfinished was filled mostly with ethical crises from the moment it was born and almost until the end of its production. I live in ‘cold’ peace with at least most of the decisions I have taken. I don’t kid myself that those decisions – taken with great awareness of the ethical aspect of this work and after harsh deliberation with myself – these decisions did not solve the moral issues underlying the making of the film. On the contrary – they emphasized these issues even more, made them disturbingly present. Perhaps that is exactly what consoles me somewhat.
The first ethical crisis took place as I first watched the Nazi propaganda film, unfinished and without sound, made at the Warsaw ghetto. The same 62-minute sequence contained fragments I knew from watching documentary films made after the war and from visits to Holocaust museums, but their use was mainly eclectic and illustrative in a way that covered the images and blurred them more than exposing them. The entire Das Ghetto film made present first and foremost – and more violently than I had ever experienced until then – the power relations between filmmaker and the persons filmed, those outside the frame and those caged and enslaved inside it, between murderer and victim. The first viewing of these materials was really unbearable, and my first decision was not to make the film. I could not possibly imagine how I would bring my eye to the Nazi cameraman’s lens and coldly make the cinematic manipulations with those bleeding, toxic materials.
The second decision I took was to make the film. I shall explain it by describing the emotional process I went through while working on one of the sequences most difficult to watch in the Nazi film: this scene shows nude Jewish women entering a mikveh (purifying water basin) and dipping in it. Watching them, it seemed to me that human faces could not express greater distress, more desperate helplessness than were present in the tormented faces of the women dipping. Their physical condition, it must be said, was still reasonable, but watching them humiliated, witnessing the way they were scorned and robbed of the slightest bit of human dignity – was unbearable.
I had first seen the scene at the Warsaw Holocaust Museum, long before I watched Das Ghetto. The scene was loop-screened on one of the display monitors – without mentioning that it was taken out of a film produced by the Nazi propaganda ministry. Under the screen, a caption explained: “Jewish ritual life in the ghetto”. Thus, simply, the Holocaust Museum perpetuated a spectacle of violence as anthropological documentation. No. This scene does not describe Jewish ritual life, but rather the way in which women were dragged off the street, stripped under gun threats by a gang of swastika-wearing men, and forced to dip in the mikveh under filming lights in view of the film cameras. In the way I show the scene in my film I try to re-constitute the relation between the image and the horror it bears, and prove the process of erasure to which we subject the horror, lying in the way we use the remains of its past documentation. Furthermore, I was hoping that the way I would force the spectator’s gaze to unite with the gaze of the Nazi cameraman in the same point of view – would force spectators to confront their complicity with crimes taking place around them now, somewhere across the wall, framed and contained at their convenience inside the television screen, and offered as no more than an audio-visual spectacle. Can a direct cinematic image of suffering have an ethical effect? I don’t know. I believe that my ability to act ethically comes down to examining the function of the image as witness to the horror, complex as it may be. I shall pay the price of this examination as long as my film is screened. The thought that it could have been my own grandmother there, in the mikveh, nude and horrified, madly lonely – this thought does not relent. Would I then have chosen to use the mikveh scene in the way it now functions in my film? The mere formulation of this question makes me very anxious, and I find myself unable to answer it. One thing is clear: This scene had never aroused emotional reactions, even rage and offense, the way they resulted from my A Film Unfinished. The museumgoers in Warsaw passed by the tormented faces of the women in the mikveh as if it were merely another picture in an exhibition. In order to see these women for the first time – their suffering – and thus free them of their symbolic role (Jewish women in the ghetto demonstrating religious ritual) – I had to get entangled with the perpetrators.
Ever since I was a child, my father would scold me: “Why do you ask, if you end up doing whatever you like?” Indeed, from a relatively young age I did whatever I liked, and not necessarily what he thought was right for me. I didn’t yet know the advantages of this trait. In every documentary journey I have taken, I have looked for answers to questions that were on my mind at the time. On the way I heard dozens of opinions telling me what was right regarding significant ethical dilemmas I faced: Should I recommend the early release of Fahed, who fired at me on a London street although he did not agree to be filmed in My Terrorist (2002)? Should I keep making My Terrorist in spite of the public protest raised by the brother of the late air-hostess Irit Gidron, killed in the terrorist attack in which I was only wounded? Should I expose my parents’ harsh testimony about massacring innocent civilians during the occupation of Beer Sheva in 1948, given in my film My Land Zion (2004)? Should I desist from making My Brother (2007) because my ultraorthodox-religious brother living in Bnei Braq is terribly angry at me for making a film “about” him? And more.
All these dilemmas typified sleepless nights and days filled with deliberations about “what is right for me”, “what is wrong for me”, or “what is perhaps right”. I was there alone facing “my story” and how I want – or don’t want – to tell it. When I decided to go ahead and recommend the release of the terrorist who shot me, I knew that this was how I was “writing” “my” story, and this is how I wish to write it. A story of reconciliation between victim and perpetrator. When I decided to include my father’s shocking testimony about the massacre of innocent children and women in a Beer Sheva ravine, I chose to tell what had been denied until then. The truth became a guide. And when I decided to proceed with the film about my brother, I chose again to tell “my” own story about a family and shifting to ultraorthodox religiousness. I wished to “crack open” a family mystery and solve a family rift. Some asked: “But why with a camera? Why in a film?” I answered: “Because that is my way. I can only do it this way.” In every case,
I was there alone facing moral and ethical issues which, I knew, only I could answer.
I never thought it was either me or the film, either me or the rest of the world. The deeper motivation, if one can state this in hindsight, was always to stop considering others and listen to myself. Be loyal to the path I believe in. And the path was always a kind of truth.
So today, when I come to bear witness about the shared ethical element that guided me in the choices I have made to solve deliberations in my documentary journeys, it seems right to formulate it (the ethical element) as taking personal accountability for the choices I make in my films. These choices are the same as the accountability I claim for my choices in everyday life, affecting my own life. After all, being a secular woman who does not believe in a supreme being or in rabbis who would tell me right from wrong, it is only me facing myself who need to account for what I do. My faith is in truth and the path lies in its search.
As a Hassidic saying goes: “Prayer without intention is like a body without a soul”. I think one could also say: documentary filmmaking without intimacy is like a film without a soul. In the past two decades I have been confronting ethical issues regarding documentary filmmaking – its methods, power, limits, and especially the measure of intimate exposure of its protagonists. In 2005 my film Covenant was screened for the first time. The film followed religious women during the week between the birth of a baby and the Brith – ritual circumcision – a week filled with emotion and conflict, that naturally provide dramatic documentary moments. The film shows moments of spiritual elation alongside dilemmas, challenges and crises that the women experience, each in view of her Maker, herself, her family and her community. However, I felt that a film about motherhood would not be complete without a character who tells the story of those who did not get to embrace a child – barren women. Out of nearly one-hundred women I met, I chose to shoot Na’ama and expose some complex moments in her life. I accompanied her to IVF sessions; to the times when the fertilized eggs were returned to her womb; the nerve-wracking wait for the phone call from the laboratory which informed her, yet again, that conception did not happen; and at the mikveh, hoping to bring forth offspring. I was asked more than once about this dilemma of the characters’ intimate exposure. Is there no voyeurism here? My answer is that as a religious filmmaker for whom the mikveh is not a mere ‘location’, I see it as an opportunity to bring to the screen – with all the screen’s limitations – moments of an authentic religious and spiritual experience.
What is intimacy? What is legitimate exposure? Some saw the mikveh scene, in spite of being shot without nudity (except for the head and hands) as too revealing and immodest. Some felt uneasy in view of the phone scene that delivered the bad news. Of all the scenes, the medical one in which the eggs were returned to the womb (where mainly the faces of Na’ama and the doctor were shown) did not arouse unease and a sense of voyeurism. The audience’s reactions depended on sectorial affiliations and changed over time. In my mind, the problem of the tension between the story and the character’s welfare stands at the heart of documentary filmmaking.
In another project of mine, A Tale of a Woman and a Robe (2013), I brought to public attention and confronted religious law makers with the issue of women converting to Judaism and having to dip in a mikveh in front of three male judges. I chose to shoot the scene of dipping in the mikveh in video-art as illustration, not only out of technical reasons but mainly because of my deeper feeling that the documentary filming of women wearing a robe would further the oppression and humiliation these women undergo in face of the court, and would be contrary to my criticism of this event. One of the female spectators claimed the film was not credible, since she who converted about a decade earlier, was forced to dip in the nude along with other women in front of the male judge. This outstanding and harsh testimony made me discover that in fact, the woman and her friends fell victim to fictitious, perverted conversion rites. Now I faced a human dilemma: exposing this deceit would annul the woman’s conversion, but silencing the case might enable the continued abuse of other women like her. I took an unusual step and decided to open the film and add 3 minutes, inserting the testimony of one of the converted women whose dipping was faulty. This testimony added a personal experience to the film’s theoretical and artistic aspects, opening a discussion of issues hinted at by the film – the possibility of sexual harassment.
Over time I developed an added personal standard for documentary films: ‘a scale of human kindness’. I believe that if watching a film arouses feelings of human kindness, empathy and compassion, identification and a wish to do good – while the film, still, does not give up its critical gaze and cinematic qualities of both form and content – then it’s a good and worthy film. Let both God and man find grace and good sense in us, and not the God of rating…
Hotline, my latest film (2015), is full of doors being closed in front of the camera. The barred gates of “Saharonim” and “Giv’on” prisons, and doors of court halls – are unscalable walls. These institutions, the jailhouse, the courthouse, draw clear and precise limits where one may or may not shoot, what can be filmed and what not, who may be filmed, who may not. This is how they “get rid” of whoever looks at them through a camera, speaking of the ethical dilemma inherent in the act of filming. If anything, as far as ethics go, what was left in me after the filming is not a dilemma but shame of our automatic surrender to dictated limits, especially when behind the walls, injustice is being commonly practiced; like the “cage”, for example, which is precisely what this name denotes – in it crowd asylum seekers and migrant workers who entered Israel illegally and wait for many hours to meet the judges controlling their custody at “Saharonim” jail.
Still, the question “What is the most significant ethical dilemma I experienced in my years of filmmaking?” threw me back to my first film, Collège (1998), about middle school in a Paris neighborhood whose pupils were immigrants and immigrants’ children from 27 different countries – this school had a vocational section for pupils who dropped out of the regular classes and majored in dry cleaning, washing out large areas, mechanics and construction.
For about two months I wandered around the school and filmed various sessions in normal classes and in vocational ones. One day at a mechanics workshop I was filming a group of 12-14-year-olds in blue work-gowns, whose assignment entailed writing a few lines of simple arithmetic calculation, and cutting and welding a metal part. I focused on one of the pupils, a small boy in a blue work-gown, standing by a wooden barrel that served as his table. He stood there with his little notebook. At some point I got closer to him, meaning to film whatever he was writing in the notebook. Wherever I stood, I couldn’t manage to shoot it. Every time some part of his body blocked my view. Finally, I stood on a chair, and from above the entire notebook was visible, and I shot. I filmed what he wrote, or to be more exact – what he did not write. After some broken letters on the page, his hand held the pencil and did not move. He didn’t know how to write.
Much later, at some advanced point in the editing process, I watched one of the versions of the film, along with my co-producer. At the end of the screening, silence fell in the editing room, obviously the film was beginning to have its effect. One of its emotional peaks was the scene with the child in the blue gown, leaning over a wooden barrel, his back bent and his head drooping, but the shot from above clearly shows his bare notebook, the few broken letters, and the little hand holding a pencil and not moving. The scene embodies the failure of France’s public school system, and to a certain extent the failure of western culture: a 13-year-old child who cannot write.
And then the distributor-partner said to me: “You can’t do this.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Can’t you see he is hiding the notebook? That he doesn’t want you to see that he can’t write?”
Suddenly I saw it, and couldn’t understand how I had not seen it until then, how I didn’t realize that my difficulty in finding a camera-angle resulted from this child’s intended action against the camera. That his little arms, surrounding the notebook from every side, his bent back and drooping head were his own walls to hide from the camera the fact that he didn’t know how to write. He was ashamed.
I took the scene out of the film.
Dalia Mevorach Dani Dotan
We regard our films as art in every sense of the word. Every film is unique and we must not set limit to our work. But our protagonists are human beings. Mostly alive. People whom the camera sometimes ignites. Who fall into some arrogance. We make films about grownups with a life who go on a journey with us of their own free will. We think that any complex person like our protagonists: Menashe Kadishman in The Blue Lamb (2005), Pnina Feiler – a Communist Nurse (2012), The Click band in the film The Last Click (2013), Matti Caspi in Matti Caspi – Confession (2015) have all accumulated love as well as hatred over the years.
Our motto is merciless love. We just finished our film Matti Caspi – Confession, and it contains all the corners that pose a risk for its maker: families who experienced deep inter-generational trauma and a protagonist who wishes to confess. We connect with the drama of creative people. We try to deconstruct the link between the artist and his work, his family and Israel. You cannot really make films like ours without taking the risk of harming someone or something. One could say that the morality issue is present in the editing room the whole time.
Here's an example peeking into our editing room and our minds: In the film Matti Caspi – Confession Matti, who has composed some of the greatest love songs in Israeli music, tells the camera that love for children born of love differs from love for children not born out of love. He thus differentiates almost cruelly between the girls born to him of his beloved wife Rachel, and the children born to him of the woman whom he claims never to have loved, Doreen. We had deep deliberations: Are we allowed to use these words of his even if they hurt the children? Matti also tells the camera that his children are already grown up (over 30) and know his truth about them. This phrase of Matti’s led us to decide and leave this harsh statement in the film. They are adults, and familiar with their father’s way of thinking. Things that Matti says about love for children received meaning in the context of a complex film about artistic creation, love and hatred, when Caspi tells how he grew up with cold parents in a loveless home.
Balance in this case meant including these lines. That is what Matti said, this is what he believes, it gives meaning and depth to the film, and significance for a protagonist with a traumatic childhood. It is a part of Matti’s confession.
At the end of the day, our filmmaking aspires to create checks and balances, and no one lashes out without getting lashed themselves. At times, as in the case of Matti Caspi in his confession, the protagonist might be his own greatest enemy. And then comes the music which he makes and sheds a different light on him. Alternately, his childhood experienced as a nightmare suddenly illuminates an unexpected place in his personality and everything becomes more and more complex, as the spectator moves between feelings of intimate, loving closeness to the protagonist, and anger and wonder.
Our journey in films travels to the inner truth of our protagonists. It’s a journey in which many turnabouts take place in our regard of the protagonist. In our shared work, when one takes up the “mean” position, the other immediately raises a banner with the word “loving” on it. When one of us tries to prevent the beam of light from illuminating a dark corner in the mind of our protagonist, the other puts up the sign saying “merciless”. The idea of merciless love is a moral code that enables us to touch real places without forgetting that our characters are human rather than figments of our imagination.
In my work I have chosen to make documentaries from a place of love for my subjects. That is my motivation and cinematic basis. If I feel repulsed by someone, or even hate whoever could theoretically be the object of a documentation, I would choose not to make the film. I have no desire to make documentary films that criticize, patronize and humiliate. When I think of the ethical significance of my work, I think of the human texture around us which is much more complex than the Hollywood-like binarism of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, and to my personal taste, the point of art – even the documentary film’s moral role – is to search for the beauty of reality and in any case present it in a complex, multi-layered manner, and aim for the depths of the human mind. This is the challenge and the difficulty I find in documentary filmmaking. In The Invisible Men (2012) I documented persecuted Palestinian gays. Do I check the truth of the story they tell? No! For me, this journalistic principle does not apply. The scar on the protagonist’s face, the look in his eyes, his voice choking with tears when he speaks about the knife his father grabbed when he discovered his son was gay – this testimony is enough for me. As far as I am concerned, he is telling the truth.
I faced a real dilemma when I went to Ramallah to meet one of my principal protagonists – Fares, hiding there from his family that has threatened his life ever since his gay profile was exposed on Facebook. At the end of our interview, he asked me to smuggle him across the checkpoint and into Israel. I was facing the dilemma – on one hand of saving his life, and on the other hand, of violating Israeli law and helping an illegal alien cross the border. Fares did not speak or understand Hebrew at all. A very delicate fellow, then about 23-years-old, he – like many of his peers who grew up after the erection of the Separation Wall – had never been outside the Palestinian Authority. Could he manage to hide in Israel better than in Ramallah? And if caught by the Israeli police or General Security Services, would he manage to cope with Israeli prison life? If he were to be expelled back into the PA, he would be accused of collaborating with Israel and be transferred to the hands of the Palestinian security forces, who would torture him. The dilemma I faced was about to determine his fate, and not negligibly my own as well.
I thought that if I were to do as he wished and presumably save his life, in the long run
I was not certain to help him at all. After much deliberation I decided that if Fares chooses to cross the border and reach Israel, he must do it on his own, bear the responsibility and consequences of his actions. Not necessarily because of the danger to my own myself, but more because I felt it was his responsibility to bear. From another angle, I thought that documentary film, unlike reality shows on television, is not meant to intervene in a way that harms or violates the truth of that which takes place in the world, even if a camera were not present on the spot. One thing did remain in me from my studies: as a student of Reuven Hecker at the university film school, I remember his words which have become an iron rule for me: in spite of the filmmaker’s subjective point of view, one must remain loyal to the truth.
My Brother Ronel
At the end of three months in custody, I sign bail and Ronel exits Nitzan prison. The photographers and reporters ambush us and demand our response. Ronel does not react. He gets into the back seat of the car that waits for the two of us, I sit beside the woman driver and we go to the home of his mother-in-law, which has been set for his house-arrest. I take out my camera and begin to shoot. Ronel throws fragments of a shocking experience into the space of the car, an experience that none of us ever expected to happen. What is commonly called as “the Fisher Affair” is – for me – the story of my brother. His relations with the world. My relationship with him.
The next day, speaking to Ronel, I raised the question of legitimacy of the cinematic project that is to follow him. I told him I fear that my film might exploit him in his abject situation. Typically for him, he said to me and to the camera: “When Spielberg received the Academy Award, he spoke of the six million Jews thanks to whom he had made Schindler’s List, so when you get on that stage you’ll thank me. Besides, stop living with guilt feelings, it’s not a good life engine.” So, yes. I received his blessing, but what about the spectators’ trust? Who would believe a truth told by his brother? So, yes, this film does not intend to leave an unturned stone in what has been called “the Fisher Affair”, but from my very personal angle. I am appointed by the court as one of his supervisors. At any given moment Ronel must be in the presence of a supervisor. I feel as though I have been appointed by the Israeli public to ask him why and who and to what extent. I begin to spend many hours with him, during which all the issues between us come up, except for asking what he did and why he did it. It’s interesting, it’s important, but I must keep this question for the phase following the legal proceedings.
When evidence against Ronel began to accumulate, and when state witnesses began to sell their secrets, and the media urgently wished to portray Ronel as the enemy of the people, I began to check myself and asked what I should do: Hug him? Encourage him? Scold him? Perhaps desert him? And to what extent was this my own story as well? Who is Ronel, what do I know about him and what is our relationship like? So, I decided to venture on a truth-seeking journey. And the truth is tricky. The truth is that ever since
I heard of his arrest I am tormented.
Do I seek to know the truth about his actions? Yes – but not only that, for I am not sure
I wish to know everything, not sure that one can know everything, and surely there is also more than one truth.
Do I wish to formulate a statement in his defense? Yes – but not only that, for I really do want to hug him, but I am also disappointed. And even if only some of the things of which he is accused are proven true, he should receive the punishment he deserves – but not more, and please – not a lynch in the town square, which he has already had.
Am I to beat myself over the head for having had to know better and having turned a blind eye, should I have warned him and prevented him from doing things – and didn’t do so? Yes – but not only that, for I don’t know the details of his deeds and his urges to win at any price. Apparently, I could not have stopped or changed all of that. We are very different from one another, and therefore I couldn’t have seen what he thought and did,
criminally as it were. Shall I try to understand what a criminal mind means and decipher it, and relate to ethics, morality and social norms? Yes – but not only that, for I really do wish to know what Ronel is. Who he is for me at the present time. And how it all began, what was he thinking, did he believe he was immune because of the sophistication of his nature? But I do not wish to see myself righteously attempting to moralize and teach a lesson. Not even to Ronel.
This is a film in three acts about the rise, fall, and expected correction of a very special man. This film is a new and unexpected chapter in the research I pursue in my films, to expose and understand the essence and nature of filial relations and family. Exposure out of deep love.
The great challenge of documentary filmmaking is the ethical issue embodied in the lengthy work process. How should the subject of the film be presented? What should be filmed, what should not? How should the film be edited in order to retain its credibility both for its subject and the spectators? An overview shows me that now, more than at any other time in the history of documentary film, we live in a foggier world. Things are not always as they seem; there are forces inside and out that affect our professional ethics more and more. In spite of this, perhaps even to a greater extent, my own ethical test as a filmmaker remains clear – every time anew. For example, in my film One Shot (2004), dealing with snipers during their army service, I was invited to show a rough-cut of the film. Ten minutes into the screening, I was suddenly asked to stop it. The TV Channel CEO demanded that the opening shot of the film be that of a soldier-sniper intentionally killing a Palestinian. “Without this opening shot that I am demanding point blank, there will be no film”, said the furious CEO. I refused right there. “Why should a sniper killing a Palestinian be equal to the whole film?” “Do you know the Palestinians? Do you care about his family?” “If it were a Palestinian sniper killing an Israeli soldier, would that be alright?” I insisted. “You don’t understand what rating means for a documentary film”, said the CEO and left the room in a rage. I didn’t surrender. The film did not open with the demanded closeup, and won international acclaim. Then as now, this is my red line, morally and ethically. I shall never show cold-blooded execution, as one of the soldiers said in the film. In my film Lebanon Dream (2001), while I was shooting in South Lebanon, suddenly APCs arrived full of wounded and killed soldiers. Helicopters were landing to pick up the casualties. It was an emotionally difficult scene, witnessing casualties crying for help. While editing the film I did not use the sound of these yells, nor showed the faces of the casualties. It was obvious to me that I could not hurt their families. Even if this scene more than anything else showed the pointlessness of our military presence in Lebanon. I stay safe as I cannot create emotional manipulation at the expense of the killed and wounded.
The most moral dilemma I confronted was in my film Wasted (2006), about combatants at the Beaufort post three months prior to Israel’s withdrawal. In the film soldiers were interviewed, some of whom – three years after the withdrawal – were experiencing serious PTSD. During the interviews some cried bitterly, some shared with me experiences they had not shared with anyone else earlier. During the editing I deliberated how to put together the difficult monologues. Editing went on for many weeks until I reached the distilled state I needed. Not to trap anyone, not to cause harm. I held a screening for the soldiers alone. One of them asked me to take out a sentence with which he would have a hard time living. For me this sentence was most important and integral to the structure of the film. His life and conscience superseded everything else for me, and the sentence was taken out. I did not regret any scene that was taken out in the editing room. My moral truth has clear and stiff limitations. We are speaking of someone’s mind, someone fragile. Who am I, what right have I to use my power as a director and take advantage of a momentary weakness, in the life of someone who trusted me? It is a minefield out there. Ethical issues in documentary filmmaking are constant, endless, subjective and complex. Often there is no simple answer. Documentary filmmakers need to hold a moral compass in order to come out safe at the expense of their own personal, emotional voyage, every time they make a film.
In 1996 I was chosen to direct one of the items for Ilana Dayan’s special broadcast about the kidnapping of Yemenite children. Following Rabbi Uzi Meshulam and his followers staying in their stronghold in Yahud, the affair flashed into center stage, and perhaps for the first time some of the media chose to look into the resisters’ claims with appropriate seriousness.
The most dramatic kidnapping was described in the story of Naomi Gavra. Her son Zion was taken by force from her at the En Shemer immigrant camp’s nursery and put in an ambulance, which hurried away in spite of the mother’s attempts at resistance. When I met Naomi (about 70-years-old at the time), I had no doubt she was speaking the truth, obviously the trauma she had undergone accompanied her in every fraction of a second throughout her life, and the unknown fate of her son gave her no peace.
I looked for ways to bring her story to the screen in the strongest way possible. I decided to present the exact reconstruction of the moment Naomi’s son was kidnapped and the place where it all happened: the En Shemer immigrant camp. I brought an ambulance of that period [early 1950s] to illustrate the plot. Along with cameraman Itzik Portal
I planned a shot in which the back doors of the ambulance bang shut, the vehicle starts and Naomi Gavra remains standing, planted, shot through the round back window, watching the ambulance that disappears slowly in the distance.
During the shooting Naomi appeared to be the ultimate interviewee. She told her story nobly and movingly. The period ambulance was beautifully immersed among the structures of the deserted camp. There remained only the last shot, the one described above. I explained to Naomi that she needs to take one step towards the ambulance, we shall close the back doors from inside and drive away. That moment she was supposed to stand still and watch us grow distant. We entered the vehicle, Itzik Portal (the cameraman) had the camera “running”, Naomi took a step, we closed the doors and began driving. But then Naomi, instead of standing and watching us grow distant as planned, began to chase us. To this day I don’t know how that surreal but very cinematic moment came to be. Did Naomi independently wish to continue and reconstruct that horrible moment she experienced in the early 1950s? Perhaps she didn’t understand me and thought that this is what I expected her to do? Anyway, we didn’t stop filming.
The screening of the special item on the kidnapping of Yemenite children was a great success, and the next day critiques competed with each other over superlatives.
The truth is that while watching the broadcast I began to doubt. I suddenly had a feeling of its being “over aesthetic”, a kind of exaggerated mixture of fiction and reality. Perhaps I even had a certain feeling of using the main protagonist, Naomi. I felt increasingly that
I somehow made her experience anew – to an exaggerated extent – the trauma of her son being kidnapped. The next day I received angry phone calls from colleagues who asked, “How could you do such a thing?” I was accused of ‘yellowness’, superficiality and all the sick traits of commercial television. For years I felt that in that item about the kidnapped Yemenite children I had crossed a certain limit, an unwritten aesthetic or moral line that one should be aware of when directing a documentary film.
Six years ago, Ilana Dayan received an excellence award from the Movement for Quality Government in Israel – in appreciation of her media activity. At the end of the ceremony, a young woman approached her and introduced herself as the granddaughter of that same Naomi Gavra. She said that her grandmother, whose health had been failing at the time, had spoken about Ilana: “the item did for my grandmother what a thousand psychologists couldn’t do”. Naomi Gavra passed away in 2014. In her eulogy, her granddaughter said that Naomi never stopped mentioning Zion and looking for him, may her memory be blessed. The difficulty and doubt that had bothered me all those years have since received a strange twist, which I continue to process and digest in my work, still without a certain answer.
Do I empathize with them? Like them? Usually yes, actually almost always, otherwise it’s impossible. But is it relevant? Does the spider like the fly, identify with it? Perhaps, who knows. Does it matter? Every film needs a conflict. A conflict with the protagonist, clearly, but what do you do with the conflict inside yourself?
It is that moment in which the scene becomes meaningful, the moment in which the protagonist fills the role you intended for him in the small battle you wage with him. You swallow a smile, control your adrenalin. Is this how a sniper feels when he squeezes the trigger, when he sees the red spot on his victim’s forehead?
You’re not always a sniper, at times you are a gatherer, at others a shrink. The exploitation is mutual, you say to yourself. You are charming, nod understandingly, filled with sympathy. Really?
No. You are a sniper! Usually, you are a sniper. You can tell yourself stories until doomsday, you are the sniper, the predator. You do it first of all for your own sake. Let’s be candid.
You sit at home watching reality TV, and wonder whether the dilemmas there are not simpler. Institutional whoring is sometimes more moral than sophisticated flirting.
It could be nice to invite your protagonist to the premiere without heart-beats, without hesitation. You think of the moment he sees the film and understands that his life has been sequestered. He is a puppet in someone else’s film. He is no more than an image you have designed, your own interpretation. Otherwise, you do not serve well, you break your unwritten alliance with the truth. But he is an adult, he chose to take part in the film. You are both adults.
Would you surrender yourself to someone else? Not sure.
“Why did you make this film?” The most hated question at any screening. “People need to know, I wish to arouse discussion of this topic”. The favorite answers among mountain climbers is “because it is there, that mountain is there and I can climb it.”
Why did I make this film? Because, just like its protagonist, I too am looking for meaning.
Meaning and livelihood, let’s face it. I have been doing this for quite a while, I don’t know how to do anything else any more. Once I did, I even had other hobbies.
The more solid, the more extreme the other side’s ideology is, the simpler the dilemma becomes, it is nearly non-existent. The gap between the way he sees things and the way you do is enough. You represent your audience, he represents his, people who deliberate will make their choice. In this game the two of you win.
But what happens when things are in a gray zone? Between us, they are always there, forget ideologists, for them too everything is gray. For me too.
The protagonist’s dilemma is inherent; inherent and understood. The dilemma with yourself is harder. You spend hours, days, weeks, months, sometimes years with it. You eat with it, it knows you, you know it. But you’re not friends. One must remember this, perhaps one day you will be. Probably not.
You’re the hunter and he’s the hunted. Sometimes the hunter becomes hunted.
Nablus, Havana, New York, Rishikesh, Moscow, Okinawa. You put on identities and shed them. Sometimes you are the Mad Hatter, at others – Schrodinger’s Cat. You are a slave of the story. You hate people who speak in long sentences, you put commas and dots as you shoot. You hate bright light. Today is cloudy, what fun. You experience reality in shots, scenes, sequences, systems. You try go to sleep and run scenes. Is the camera running? Sure it’s running, right? You are swallowed in a tricky reality. You no longer experience anything, and even if you want to, you can’t. You’ve taken a heavy commitment upon yourself. You are ultraorthodox, fanatic, who are you without the camera? Do you even remember? You are a slave to the truth, the worst boss there is, without promotion, extra hours or a pension fund. Am I still human? You wonder sometimes.
No. You’re a documentarist.