Director of the film Me Ivan, You Abraham, a fictional account in which Yiddish in Ukraine comes alive again, Yolande Zauberman tells us about her special relationship with the language and how she finds the characters in here documentaries, including Classified People, Would You Have Sex with an Arab? and M. While collecting forbidden words of desire or crime, she also takes us into unknown worlds: that of a forgotten shtetl, or the margins of Israel, at the crossroads of an orthodox neighborhood and a queer club in Tel Aviv. She also discusses her next film about Golda Meir and the prime minister’s purported Lebanese-Palestinian lover.
On February 19, 2020, at the invitation of a friend, I went to the Trois Luxembourg movie theater in Paris to see the latest documentary by director Yolande Zauberman, M. This cinema very often organizes meetings with filmmakers, and that very evening the audience had the chance to chat a bit with her. If only we could have found the words to comment on this film. M is not a manhunt and a trial as in Fritz Lang’s film, but the story of Menahem, a young hazzan, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community in Bnei Brak, and was the victim of pedophilic abuse. The documentary opens with a song that is a cry in the night, along a beach in Tel Aviv, with the sound of the waves in the background. The galgal is the metaphorical movement of the surf that will carry the film, and which all the protagonists talk about: having been subjected to it and having it done to them, not being able to break the vicious circle, suffering from shame and guilt, and wandering around the community while knowing that one is not isolated with this burden. It can be the kind of film that one would refuse to see, because it would be difficult to bear. Yet Yolande Zauberman’s set design circulates between phobias, looks at trauma, and acts toward pain as a long-awaited revelator and extractor. The filmmaker insists that phobias create a disposition of the body in space, a withdrawal or vigilance, a place from which one can look differently but also give voice to the fears that stagnate in the air and above people’s heads.
In Yolande Zauberman’s films, people speak, as they have perhaps never spoken before, and the viewer receives these words as confidences. The personal is political, she also says. It resists and opposes the preconceived images that society has of conflicts and violence, images that perpetuate the dynamics of conflict. A large part of the interview that the director granted us is devoted to her documentary Would You Have Sex with an Arab? (2012), a prelude to a fictional film about a love story between Golda Meir and a Lebanese-Palestinian paramour. The question transgresses, but unravels at the same time. Neither scopic impulse, nor media image, the real visual utopias that Yolande Zauberman creates act as a breath, or a suspension of violence, even if what is told is hard to hear. Because in front of real life experiences, we bow more readily than in front of speeches motivated overtly by ideologies. The documentary narrative fragments the blocks of thought, and goes through individual by individual, story by story, through feelings of despair and exultation in turn. So that obviously, our perception of things is modified. But what remains unexplained is perhaps – since we are writing a portrait here – how the flamboyance of the filmmaker, arriving at the meeting on a shiny green scooter, shod in fuchsia-pink shoes, with an equally fluorescent helmet covering a fiery head of hair, contrasts with her nocturnal films, which question the unconscious and the hidden, the backgrounds and the invisible to the naked eye (i.e., without a camera). There is something of the order of an apparition, and the reverse side of this embodied colorimetry configures a cinema of interiorities. One of her fictional films, Me Ivan, You Abraham, (1993) which is quite difficult to get one’s hands on – to prolong the search for things inaccessible – is the fruit of a dream, therefore also of symbolic visions. It was about telling Jews to flee from a place of future persecution. As if the dream was not the receptacle of the previous days, but of a period of history annihilated by the catastrophe. Not the return of the repressed, but the return of the colors of the past life. Just as in Robert Bober’s Vienna Before Dark, it is a question of following the traces of lives without the horizon of burial. But the film is in black and white, so we would say without colors. Or one must look for them elsewhere, notably in the accents. “From now on we will have an accent” say two characters who flee, run away and carry in their new language the echoes of the destroyed shtetl. The film was partly shot in Yiddish, even though the actors did not know the language. During the shooting, somewhere in Ukraine, a whole company of actors of different origins spok Yiddish, with other accents – which is a form of miracle. But in the end, Yolande Zauberman’s leitmotif is in the bringing together of these distant, inner, silent voices, which we miss – Avishag Zafrani
Those who understand French can listen to the full interview with the podcast below.
Avishag Zafrani: In normal circumstances, I would have started this interview with a more natural chronology, and I would have begun by talking to you about your first films, especially Me Ivan, You Abraham. But we are meeting a few days after the end of a new conflict in the Middle East, so your film Would You Have Sex with an Arab? which asks Jews and Muslims in Israel whether they would sleep together, speaks to me more directly today. It upends all the preconceptions that we have from the outside on the conflict from the question of desire and transgression. Has the political situation surfaced some of the emotions and ideas that motivated the documentary made in 2012?
Yolande Zauberman: I started this film with my question -Would you have sex with an Arab?- because I found that there was a dissymmetry of desire between Jews and Arabs. I suddenly realized that people in Israel who had a love affair with Arabs, it was as if I had swallowed a piece of the atomic bomb. It was often quite terrible because you had the impression that they had to hold a political position. I believe in the politics of intimacy. And politics goes right into the bed. This is true in Israel, but everywhere in fact. By the way, the first screening of the film took place at the Venice Film Festival. The foreign press was present and, reacting to the film, I realized that everyone was talking about their enemy, the Greeks were talking about the Turks. The Argentinians were talking about the English. People were not concerned with who was right and who was wrong. They were all asking about their enemy and asking, “Would I sleep with my enemy? “
I for one have always considered enemies to be couples. And in the film, there is someone called Juliano Mer, the son of a mixed couple: his mother was Polish-Jewish and his father was Arab. I would say to him “you are the fruit”, and he would say no “I am not a fruit”. For him, the Palestinian problem was certainly not going to be solved in bed… His vision was quite terrible because he was saying in a way that one will kill the other. I put his point of view in the film that I made, telling myself that this was not how I saw things.
And the terrible thing is that he was killed.
He was killed, Juliano, in front of his theater in Jenin, because his mother had created a theater in Jenin. Jenin hosts a Palestinian refugee camp and in fact Juliano, like his mother at the time, lived in Haifa. And he knew. On YouTube, you can see a clip where he is there and he says “I’m going to be killed”, and he mimes how he is going to be killed and he shows his wife who is Swedish and he says “but these are people who can’t stand that I’m here with this blond woman” and in fact, no one really looked for who were Juliano Mer’s assassins. He was killed in front of his theater, in front of the babysitter who was with his babies, in fact. And since Juliano’s wife gave birth to twins. And in fact, so people say it’s because he put on Orwell plays and he gave the role of a pig to someone who was Muslim.
Others say it’s because he had affairs. Still others say it’s because he gave cameras to veiled women. And at the same time, on the day of his funeral, which almost never happened, the Israelis and Palestinians let the whole procession go by, and this is someone who had made his body a real bridge between the communities. And it’s very complicated, very, very, very complicated, as he says in the film.
Because to be a loose cannon, it’s not easy and it can explode at any moment.
In your films, all positions are expressed, but there are also unprecedented scenes, which deliver rare images of Israel. I am thinking in particular of this image of a place where there are Jews and Muslims who go to bathe almost naked… But where does the possibility of such an image come from? It is true that it is completely unreal, utopian. You are looking for places that are on the fringe and that change our representations a little.
I don’t even know if I’m looking for them. They exist, they are on my way. You know me, I believe that we are what we see and I do not believe that we are what we think. I believe that we really are what we see and we all see different things and we all stop at different places, in different places, and we each show something else. And it’s true that I’m interested. I always noticed my father had a hard time talking to people, but he talked much more easily with people he didn’t agree with. There’s something going on. Enemies know each other in a very special way. It’s like neighbors. Neighbors know each other in a different way than friends would know each other or enemies would know each other. And enemies? There is something that passes from one to the other. For worse and for better.
In the worst faults and in the qualities. I really like the interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is said that Leah and her daughter turned into salt when they had no risk and they turned into salt because they spent their time looking at Sodom. And you become what you see.
You know that’s a philosophical idea. It was Plotinus who said that we become what we contemplate. I’m going to circle back to this question about the fact that you like to look at the margins. We end up in a queer club in Tel Aviv where DJ Sami dedicates a song to Beirut and the Arab revolts. There are social, regional, intimate, political layers that mix. And there is still a taste for the margin. Would you like this margin to become a norm?
I believe very much that the margin is important, that the margin tells us something and that the relationships that places have with their margins, also say something. DJ Samy, unfortunately, also died of a heart attack after the film and all that, it also tells of the great difficulty Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in Israel have in living. It is very complicated for them because when they are happy, they immediately resent being happy.
As soon as they leave Israel, they are insulted by other Arabs. They have a pretty terrible life and at the same time, there is something that makes them Israelis, they are Palestinian sabras.
I think that for Israeli Arabs, it is very complicated. And so, to come back to this queer club which is an absolutely extraordinary thing because it is an underground party that takes place in Tel Aviv every month, with transsexuals, homosexuals, coming sometimes from very far away.
There are some who came from Syria on foot, from Gaza. And so this party takes place every month. And Sami, whom we know, invites us, but he tells me “we are not allowed to film”. I say no problem and suddenly we are inside and he tells me “take your camera and film”. And so I started to film and I was absolutely fascinated by all these faces, this way of being.
It was at the time of the Arab Spring. And it’s true that the Israeli Arabs, the Palestinians in Israel, are also doing their part in the Arab revolution, that is, a sexual part. The revolution is sexual, that is to say, it is a freedom that is advocated in almost no other Arab country. And I left there saying that Israel was my favorite Arab country.
And it was this freedom, all of a sudden, this possibility. It’s limited to certain places, certain circles, but still, it exists. And the fact that it exists, that it can be possible, is a breath of fresh air. And for me, that means something. It doesn’t mean nothing.
And then you extend what exists in reality into a fiction, since you have the project of writing a film about Golda Meir or you are finishing writing it now and this story is interesting. So, myth or reality?
This is someone who is related to the first president of the Lebanese Republic. This is a story that was told to us by the grandson of the lover. In the film, before the credits, the voice of the grandson explains that yes, of course, maybe his mother told him something wrong and that maybe his mother is lying. But still, for his mother to lie and make everyone promise to keep secret something that seems completely shameful to them, that the grandfather slept with a Zionist woman, seems quite strange. And Golda Meir is known to have had many lovers, there is even a whole book on all of Golda Meir’s lovers. First of all because it was a time of liberation. In fact, the Jews who came to Palestine, for many of them, were freeing themselves from concrete ghettos, but also from internal ghettos, in the kibbutzes it was difficult to know whose child was whose, and that was the principle in fact of all this. And at the same time, when you ask her children, those of Golda Meir, they say that it’s just impossible.
And that’s interesting too. And then, because I had this project for a long time. That’s how Would You Have Sex with an Arab? was born. It’s because I said to myself, it’s strange that for Arabs, it’s a shameful secret that we hide. It’s an absolutely certain thing. And for the Jews, it’s just impossible. So when you think that she slept with King Abdullah, but well, a king is almost a Jew, that’s another thing.
So yes, it’s true that this is what could have happened or what happened.
These stories fascinate me, these stories of inversions, these stories. For example, I met someone who, after seeing Me Ivan, You Abraham, told me that his father had had a seizure and who, all of a sudden, told me the story of his family and the story of his family was that they were Berlin Jews who had been converted to Christianity and when Hitler asked the converted Jews to declare themselves, many did. Many went to declare themselves as Jews, but as converted ones, and this family did not. And so they didn’t want to tell the children that they were Jewish for fear that they might say things in school. And the little girl, their little girl, went through the normal course of all the little German kids. She went to school. Afterwards, she went to the Hitler Youth and she was chosen because she was beautiful, like the image of the perfect little Aryan girl.
And the sculpture of the perfect little Aryan girl, which is still in the Bremen museum, was made after her likeness, which is a paradox that I just find extraordinary. It’s almost mythical. And when the war ended and she knew the truth you can imagine how she almost exploded. And in its wake, the family and even the family she had afterwards.
I have often asked myself the question of hatred to try to find in me each film, for me, it is an experience, it is an investigation, that is to say that I am not the same at the beginning of the film and at the end, these are things that teach me to live. And Me Ivan, You Abraham, I did it because I think like many, many Ashkenazi people, even if we are not many, many precisely, I did not know much about life beforethe Holocaust. And I had a dream, a very, very beautiful dream where I saw Jews sitting at a table and eating fruit that I did not know. And I was with a little boy that I loved, and we were on the bus and we were happy to be together, even if these buses were going to deport us. And we were trying to wave to the Jews who were sitting there and tell them to leave, but they didn’t see.
And when I woke up, I woke up very happy and I said to myself, “I come from life, I don’t come from death, I come from life.” And this life story, I wanted to look for it. And so that was it, Me Ivan, You Abraham: to seek this life that I do not know. It was overwhelming because I was researching and I was researching with the same person that I had researched the previous films with and I said to him, “Pretend I’m not Jewish” and here, I’m going to give you profiles of people that I want to interview and find them for me.
And then I’ll interview them. And they all said to me – because we had a moral contract that we would never talk about the war – “You know, this is the first time I’m telling all this” and he was telling me incredible things. There was one who said to me, “You know, when I was a kid, the only one who hit me before I went to school was my dad. And usually it was really because I did something wrong. So as for school, all of a sudden, they started hitting me and saying ‘Did you kill Christ?’ I was torturing my head thinking, ‘But when did I do that?’” And because he believed it. And it was he who said to me “I would like to tell you that I have known a situation where the state of man is impossible and even in this situation, I have met men, men, it exists” and I will always remember what he told me. It’s research, it’s personal investigations, it’s the chance that I was allowed to create these investigations. And it was, in a way, impossible not to make this film.
But you know that we too, when we watch your films, it is an experience for the spectator because we are indeed changed. But what is extremely interesting in your documentary is that you manage to obtain confidences. There is a free of the word which is at work in your films, you make people overcome taboos.
It is true that I often feel on both sides of the border, fortunately not everywhere. I find that the work of a filmmaker is to go where it is scary, and it is true that in general, in life, I do not judge much. It allows me to get close to people. It was the people in the film Classified People who told me “the place of resistance is the intimate”. So I have always been told things, since I was little. And in South Africa, for example, there was a woman who came and told me “I killed my son”.
I was like, “Oh, did you?” And I was going to tell her no, it’s not possible, and then I thought who are you to say it’s not possible? She wants to talk to you. And I didn’t have a camera. And then, I wouldn’t have filmed. I don’t film much, you could say. But the camera adds something, that is to say that one behaves in front of a camera, not in the same way as one behaves without a camera. But I like that, that is to say I always say to people:
“Pretend the camera is there. You can look into the camera, I love that, you’re looking the viewer in the eye.” I don’t have a problem with that. And I really liked what you said about Godard at the beginning, because it’s so true. With the camera, you see so much better than without the camera, you actually see the blind spots. You see all these little things, but they have so much importance, that’s it.
You said somewhere in a radio program that your mother tongue was silence. I found this sentence very beautiful. Is it from this silence to be filled that your creative process starts?
I think it was silence because my parents are both Polish and my father forbade my mother to speak Polish. I never told them I was going to leave, except the day before I left for the movies. And when I went to Poland to film, I told them the day before and suddenly I saw them both speaking Polish together.
I was overwhelmed because it was the first time I felt like I had young parents. They were comfortable in a language, I had never seen them comfortable in a language. And by the way, it created a scene in Me Ivan, where the young girl, who knows she’s going to Paris, says “from now on, I’ll never be comfortable in my language” and she even says: “from now on, we will always have an accent” and in Germany, it’s strange because they are the only ones to have taken the measure of this sentence and they made a double page with the two faces of the children saying “From now on, we will always have an accent” and so yes, but suddenly, it’s the silence, it’s the silence, because otherwise, it’s something broken.
I could also have said that it is something broken. I prefer to say that it is the silence because even if this something broken has entered in me too and that I feel it and that. But it’s true that I work all the time on what is missing.