Israeli director Shira Geffen is in Milan to present her Self Made at the “Sguardi Altrove” (Peeks Elsewhere) film festival. We took the occasion to talk about her cinema, always devoid of bombs yet certainly not indifferent to conflicts, and openly object of love by Nanni Moretti, who in 2007 distributed Geffen’s debut film Jellyfish.
AN INTERVIEW WITH SHIRA GEFFEN
by Chiara Zanini
(translation by Irene Negri)
versione italiana qui
Chiara Zanini: We often give it for granted that an Israeli film landing a European festival should necessarily deal with the so-called Palestinian question, perhaps through a didactic or partial lens. I know that you are not interested in that approach, and as we have seen you like using humour. It is not by chance that Terry Gilliam, the Coen brothers and Chaplin are among your favourite directors. Do you think that, if humour were more present in films set in Israel, it would be easier for people abroad to understand what is happening there?
Shira Geffen: Absolutely. To be honest, when I wrote Self Made I didn’t immediately realise it would be such an ironic film, but at the festival of Cannes the audience laughed a lot and it was defined a black comedy, much to my surprise. I am happy with that, because very complex matters, such as conflict, can be communicated through humour.
CZ: When presenting Jellyfish with Nanni Moretti in 2007, your husband and co-director Etgar Keret (author of best-sellers published in Italy, too) declared: “It is true that the Middle Eastern problem is important to us and it is natural that many authors would shoot films on this topic. What is not natural, on the other hand, is that there only be films on this topic: over there we do not live inside the CNN, inside news reports, but in real life- in which there are not only killings, explosions, tension, but something else as well. Even in situations of war what really counts is always the same: family issues, our partner leaving us…”. It took a few years, but I believe this is now clearer to the European audiences, also thanks to Self Made.
SG: Yes, and meanwhile I have made up my mind a little, too. I was part of Women’s Watch, a group of women who take turns to monitor the checkpoints between Israel and Palestine so that guards don’t commit violence. Ever since, I told myself that if I choose to stay in Israel I can’t not tell what we are living there.
CZ: In Self Made the girl who is monitoring the checkpoint asks herself: “Why do I have to stay here instead of being with my boyfriend?”. They are supposed to go to a concert together. Very ordinary desires.
SG: Exactly. Being there doesn’t erase her fears at all, on the contrary it makes her understand even better the absurdity of her situation.
CZ: Is it true the checkpoint we see in Self Made was created by an art designer?
SG: Yes, because it is not allowed to film the existing ones.
CZ: During the Jerusalem Film Festival some children were killed on the beach in Gaza and you and other film-makers mentioned them. “Let’s send these artists to Gaza!”, was the reaction of many, to whom you replied that a Palestinian death is certainly not less significant than an Israeli one. Like Noa and others, you are now on a black list. At least two statesmen come from your same family- Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, and your opinions are known. Have you always been pessimistic on the resolution of the conflict?
SG: Yes, all the more after elections last March 17th. [After saying that a new Nakba came up because “emperor Netanyahu” was re-elected, that the right centre government is still repressive, that the PM is racist, and that all this worries him] my father Yonatan Geffen, very well-known actor and writer, was attacked in his own house by a youth convinced that those who had voted were traitors to the country who thus send their children to die. After so long, it is still traumatic for us to suffer these attacks.
CZ: A question on pinkwashing. As you will have read, in Milan today the Israeli flag displayed for Expo was stained again, and a very present anti-Expo movement criticizes the event for several reasons including the politics of pinkwashing ascribed both to Israel and Expo.
SG: I didn’t know this term before, but now it is clear to me. Tel Aviv is nearly a different place within Israel. Israelis themselves define it a “bubble” compared to the rest of the country.
CZ: Some say that pinkwashing damages the world of cinema, too: is it true that the government prefers film-makers who describe a sugar-coated, hence fake, image of the country, and who (like you) choose ordinary tales, but that it does it to give an ever positive and reassuring impression of Israel?
SG: It seems to me that the opposite is true. In Cannes we saw Viviane by Shlomi and Ronit Elkabet, the true story of a long denied divorce; and A lovely girl by Keren Yedaya, about a father who abuses his daughter.
CZ: And is it the same with theatre? I’m thinking about acting companies like that of the Freedom Theatre in Palestine, which can rarely go on tournée because it is believed to carry a dangerous message – while we know that its founder was killed, and its artistic heir kidnapped.
SG: I don’t know much about theatre right now. No doubt cinema is more authentic, nowadays.
CZ: Nanni Moretti has done a lot to make your cinema known here, distributing it to film theatres as well. And after Jellyfish you have worked in European co-productions with Germany, France and England…
SG: Yes, my films are released in Israel and co-produced by European countries, where so far they have been received well.
CZ: Several years ago you said you quit acting to go behind the camera because the roles you were offered didn’t thrill you. Would you say the same today?
SG: No, and imagine: in the course of the past year twelve Israeli women directors have made great films with really interesting female roles…but unfortunately nobody is calling me anymore! (laughs)
CZ: Perhaps your success as a director makes them think you have permanently moved behind the camera?
SH: Who knows!
CZ: And if there were more women directors, would this change the history of film?
SG: I believe so, because women are more complex, even more dangerous in a way. I’m not saying men are less capable of investigating reality, but I really like the way women do research, in filmmaking too.
CZ: Is there a sort of sisterhood/solidarity among Israeli women directors?
SG: Yes, absolutely.
CZ: Can we expect from you all a collective film in episodes?
SG: Right now I don’t think we’d make it- each of us films so differently. But we support each other massively.
CZ: You are used to Cannes and to international audiences. What is it like to take part in a smaller, thematic festival like Sguardi Altrove, where it is easier to meet the public?
SG: I am lucky because when I am invited the theatres are always full. I like these situations, I like to interact with the public. Once a person asked me two questions: the first was about a narrative choice of mine, the second about the shoes I was wearing that day. People often want to show themselves and cinematography allows that.
CZ: Maybe you’d like to know that Andy Warhol also asked David Bowie about his extravagant shoes –nothing else.
SG: I adore Bowie. Tell me about it!
CZ: When Bowie finally managed to meet his legend Warhol, the latter seemed not to even notice him. In the end he only asked him a question about his shoes. Bowie was extremely upset, and it seems that those shoes weren’t even his, but Mick Jagger’s. There’s a video on Youtube.
SG: [laughs] It’s a beautiful story!
CZ: Is it true that crowdfunding for Self Made took five years to complete?
SG: It took me a year to write the film and four years to find the money to produce it. That’s because Self Made is imaginative, political, multi-faceted and I, myself, found it difficult to explain to sponsors what I wanted it to be like once the takes were completed. I want to feel free in the creative process and every phase of gestation of the film can be impacted by glitches that produce changes. Jellyfish had been easier to propose because it was a simpler story to explain to producers.