HASHMATSA / DEFAMATION (2009): Interview With Yoav Shamir

shamir, yoav_01.jpgSimone Bitton's Rachel took the bullet for Yoav Shamir's Hashmatsa / Defamation (2009), which I would have predicted to be the target of outrage at the 29th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF). By the time Defamation finally screened, voices were perhaps already hoarse from shouting? Fortunately, Shamir's latest has not had to go the torturous route suffered by Rachel and, hopefully, audiences during its theatrical run at San Francisco's Roxie Film Center (beginning November 20, 2009) will be allowed to independently decide where to situate themselves along the spectrum of conflicted opinion on the film's subject issue. Even at IMDb the film's synopsis has been written by someone unable to refrain from judgment--which I would have thought would be in clear violation of IMDb's policies--but, when I contacted IMDb about this, they recommended I debate it on the discussion board. The prospect of being accused of being anti-Semitic for defending IMDb's synopsis policy seems a thoroughly unattractive road to travel; but, perhaps it's a journey I will have to take?

As the film's website states, Defamation wryly explores what anti-Semitism means today, two generations after the Holocaust. In his continuing exploration of modern Israeli life, director Yoav Shamir (Checkpoint, 5 Days, Flipping Out) travels the world in search of the most modern manifestations of the "oldest hatred", and comes up with some startling answers. In this irreverent quest, he follows American Jewish leaders to the capitals of Europe, as they warn government officials of the growing threat of anti-Semitism, and he tacks on to a class of Israeli high school students on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. The film questions perceptions and terminology when an event proclaimed by some as anti-Semitic is described by others as legitimate criticism of Israel's government policies. The film walks along the boundary between anti-Zionism, rejecting the notion of a Jewish State, and anti-Semitism, rejecting Jews. Is the former being used to excuse the latter? And is there a difference between today's anti-Semitism and plain old racism that is affecting all minorities?

Yoav Shamir was born in Tel-Aviv in November 1970. He graduated high school at Vitzo France, an art school. He specialized in photography. He then went on to Tel-Aviv University where he earned a B.A. in History and Philosophy. He later received an MFA in cinema and graduated with honors. Defamation is Shamir's fourth feature length documentary. Arguably, his statement at the film's website states all that Shamir perhaps needs to say about his film; but, I nonetheless welcomed the chance to sit down and discuss it with him.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I don't know whether you're more brave for having tackled the issue of anti-Semitism in your documentary or for interacting with your audiences after they've seen the film.

Yoav Shamir: [Laughs.]

Guillén: Defamation has shown at several festivals, premiering at Berlin, going on to Tribeca, HotDocs, among others. Have you attended most of those festival screenings?

Shamir: Yes, quite a few.

Guillén: How do you prepare yourself for that confrontation with your festival audiences? You know the atmosphere will be contentious.

Shamir: I don't really think about that. I just put myself out there. Every question that is asked or every remark is legitimate because I allowed myself the same freedom in making the film. I don't get offended by any question, remark or statement. Sometimes people need to express their point of view and--because they've given me 90 minutes of their time to watch the film and have bothered to stay for the Q&A--if they feel a need to stand up to make a statement, even to say the film is rubbish, within the rules of the game I find it fair.

Guillén: This documentary tackles a difficult, sober and serious subject but counters the heaviness of the subject with light flourishes: irreverence, graphics, comic editing, subjectivity. At Screen Daily, Howard Feinstein described Defamation as "unapologetically subjective", whereas at The Auteurs Notebook Danny Kasman has noted that you've allowed the material to "overstate itself" such that it could be argued your subjectivity has, in fact, trumped (or become?) the film's content. I, however, much appreciated Defamation's sense of humor. I laughed a lot. I'm not Jewish so I'm not sure if that colors my appreciation of the humor. Can you speak to your decision to exercise this light touch and to enfold subjective humor into your voiceover and the film's editing?

Shamir: When I started to make this film, I realized it was going to be a very touchy subject. The more I filmed, the more I realized just how touchy a subject and how passionate people were about their points of view and the ways they see the world. I don't know how many films or documentaries there have been about anti-Semitism, but I suspect most of them have been basic archival black and white footage films that feature interviews with Holocaust survivors. If I tell you I'm going to make a film about anti-Semitism, this is automatically what will come to people's minds. Either it will be a film about the Holocaust with black and white archival footage and interviews with survivors--which most of the time serves as a type of catharsis for the viewers and, many times, for the people who have made the film--or audiences will come expecting a film that says how terrible the state of anti-Semitism is in the world today, complete with statistics and examples. In wanting to make my film, I came up against these expectations. Personally, I would not come to a theater to watch a film about anti-Semitism because, up front, I would already be thinking that this is not the kind of film I want to watch. I've already seen hundreds of them and I don't feel like watching another one like that. I wanted my film to get close to people, to reach the audience, to shake up their paradigms and their convictions. By using a lighter tone, it helped the audience to maintain interest. It helped them get away from their expectations and their beliefs. It got their attention. Humor, for me, is a great tool to reach people.

Guillén: One of the ways the humor came across was that--rather than being a film specifically about the defamation of anti-Semitism or, as you say, a film that confirmed presumptions of how terrible the state of anti-Semitism is in the world today--instead, the film became an exposé of in-fighting among Jews. Defamation appears to focus more on the slander Jews perpetuate on one another. In fact, my understanding is that the genesis of this film was in response to your being called an anti-Semite by a Jewish American journalist because you expressed a critical view on Israel's policies toward the Palestinians in your previous film Checkpoint. For me it's an interesting perspective to realize that--even among Jewish people--there is not a clear idea of exactly what anti-Semitism is, which forced me to go to the dictionary. To my surprise, the dictionary definition revealed that Semites are members of "any of various ancient and modern people originating in southwestern Asia, including the Akkadians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews and Arabs." At what point did the term anti-Semitism become appropriated by the Jewish community as a phenomenon exclusive to them?

Shamir: You know, in one of the interviews for the film conducted with a Jewish person, he told me that anti-Semitism means hating Jews more than you have to, which is a funny way of looking at the term. It's true that Semite refers to all the people who are living in the region of Israel--and, yes, Arabs are also Semites--but, eventually the term has been dominated by the Jews and has lost its 19th century definition, which related to the race of the Semites. The term has come to mean a phenomenon specifically targeted towards Jews.

Guillén: I'm interested in how you've structured the documentary to maximize the issue's polarizing potential; its main thrust being to situate the audience somewhere inbetween. As Ray Bennett wrote for The Hollywood Reporter: "The fiercest opponents turn out to be in the United States, where Prof. Norman Finkelstein, who has written about what he calls 'the Holocaust industry,' and Abraham Foxman, who is the very active National Director of the ADL [the Anti-Defamation League], are vocal enemies. Each was touched personally by the Holocaust but they hold opposing views on the nature of anti-Semitism and its impact on the world in general and Israel in particular. Their divide is profound and passionate, and Shamir takes time to allow both of them to make their case." As Ali Hazzah wrote for Eye For Film: "they come off as monomaniacal obssesionists, each obdurate in their point of view." Clearly it was your intent to stage polarity between these individuals? Can you speak to how you effected this but kept the balance?

Shamir: We chose Foxman for the film obviously for being a key player in the arena fighting anti-Semitism--perhaps the most important figure in that respect--and then we wanted someone who could be in opposition to him. It was difficult to find someone with enough credence to be accepted in that opposition. For example, here in the United States both the Republican and Democratic parties are accepted within the framework of their opposition. Whether you like McCain or you like Obama, most people consider them both legitimate players. Eventually, a voter decides which of the two they'll vote for. With anti-Semitism, however, the anti-Semitic discourse is ruled or owned by people like Abe Foxman. Anyone who says anything differently becomes marginalized and rendered illegitimate, as if there can be no opposition to the anti-Semitic discourse. It's not like you have two forces who are equal. One of them is the establishment--which dominates the discourse with 80%-90% of the Jewish people siding with him--and then what's left is an individual like Norman Finkelstein who has been forced into an extremist characterization; but, what Finkelstein is saying, even in his book The Holocaust Industry, is not that extreme. Even Abba Eban, one of the best-known Israeli foreign ministers, famously stated: "There's no business like the Shoah business." That point of view came from Israel. The views which Finkelstein represents were already acceptable in recent Israeli history; but, for some reason, the point of view of the Anti-Defamation League has come to dominate the discourse. With Defamation, I wanted audiences to think, "Yes, that makes sense and this makes sense. Oh, there is anti-Semitism; but, oh, it's not like that." I like that audiences move along this spectrum and re-think and adjust their positions and views.

Guillén: Critic Jason Bailey considered your final voiceover a "misfire" for not acknowledging that the film, and the issues it addresses, are too inscrutable. He felt that the efficacy of the final sequence didn't require a director to come in to tell the audience what to think and that the documentary had already effectively motivated people to situate themselves towards the issue according to their own convictions. Bailey charged that your final voiceover negated that some of your audience might have reached a different conclusion than you. How do you respond to that critique?

Shamir: I don't remember exactly who it was but someone once said that a poem is never finished until it is abandoned. It's the same thing with a film. Whether the final voiceover was the right statement or not, I'm not sure; but, I stand behind the statement. The fact remains that--while for many Jewish people the issues the film revolves around are the bottom-line issues of identity and self-definition and while the film is made from an Israeli point of view--this discourse on anti-Semitism, which has been held largely here in the United States, is an existential one for Israelis. An Israeli kid who is conscripted into the army does not have the perspective that an American Jew has. When this kid reads the reports issued by the ADL about a steep rise in anti-Semitism in the United States, he wonders, "Wow. Is there going to be another Holocaust?" The past is important to remember. We need to know about it. But maybe we need to move on and envision a future we would like for ourselves? To imagine a definition of ourselves that we would like to have? Will it be a negative one or a positive one? That might seem like a simplistic statement in the end--perhaps I could phrase it differently--but, when you make a film, you can't be so careful about everything or you can't make the film.

Guillén: The sequence of the young Israeli students on the Holocaust tour was, for me, the film's most disturbing sequence. With all due respect to the young woman in your audience who criticized your selection of this group of kids for sending out what she believed to be the wrong message, I considered her critique manipulative. Clearly, she wanted you to choose a group of kids who represented the opposite viewpoint, her viewpoint; but, I don't imagine that you choose kids to represent any viewpoint?

Shamir: No, of course not.

Guillén: I imagine they simply reveal themselves in the filming? But I had a question about the tour itself. Is there a basic or established itinerary to the tour?

Shamir: Yes, there's an itinerary for sure. The tour runs seven days. It starts and ends up in Warsaw. The itinerary is arranged both substantively and geographically. For example, they keep Auschwitz for one of the last days after the students have already experienced certain ... understandings.

Guillén: It seemed apparent that the structure of the itinerary was intended for maximum propagandic effect. The tour starts out with "lesser" camps, so to speak....

Shamir: They start with a ghetto and then move to a camp....

Guillén: Culminating in Auschwitz, perhaps the most infamous of the camps, and one to which everyone has an emotional reaction. Most people have a charged response at the mere mention of Auschwitz. Whereas Majdanek--one of the camps earlier in the itinerary--doesn't hold the same charge (not to say the atrocities committed there were any less important). It's in Auschwitz that the kids seem to finally break down and become indoctrinated through grief.

Prior to Defamation's premiere at the Berlinale, head of the Forum Christoph Terhechte defended inclusion of Defamation in the program, stating it was balanced against Petr Lom's Letters to the President, a film which likewise explores the "rehearsal of victimhood, [and] the definition and identification of an entire people and religious community with being the victim", albeit from the perspective of Iranian Muslims. Both Defamation and Letters to the President address "the delicate matter of confronting the aura of the perpetual victim." Have you seen Lom's film?

Shamir: I haven't seen his film.

Guillén: During the Q&A after Defamation's SFJFF screening, you mentioned that both Abe Foxman and Norman Finkelstein hated the film once they finally saw it. Can you elaborate on what their complaints were and what they felt was wrong about the film?

Shamir: I'm not sure that Finkelstein has seen the film. We've received negative comments from him but I'm not sure he's actually seen the film. Maybe he's responding from the trailer or from what he's heard from other people? Foxman issued a press release at the ADL website addressing his reaction to the film so, perhaps, I shouldn't speak for him?

Guillén: My reaction to Norman Finkelstein was conflicted. I take it you have read both his book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploration of Jewish Suffering and the volume The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer?

Shamir: Yes.

Guillén: Can you recommend them?

Shamir: For sure, yeah.

Guillén: While watching the film there was a lot of tongue-clucking and exasperated sighs from the audience towards the end when you and Finkelstein argued about the Nazis. His anger intrigued me in the sense that it's apparent he's an individual who cannot be divorced from his anger. He had been denied tenure and placed on administrative leave at DePaul University, and then denied access into Israel, which struck me as profound. Has there been much discussion about his denial of access within Israel?

Shamir: In Israel? Not so much. Israel is a place where something major has to happen in order to make the news. Even a suicide bombing attack--if it's less than three casualties--won't make the news. So much has happened in Israel that the sensitivity level is low. Israelis need to be shaken strongly to elicit a reaction. I'm not sure how big a deal Israelis made of Finkelstein's denial of access.

Guillén: Equally disturbing to me was the comment made by the couple working for the ADL that Israel is the "insurance policy" for American Jews. You stated on stage at your Q&A that you did not want Israel to be an insurance policy for American Jews.

Shamir: Many American Jews have a multilayered perception of the world. While making the film, this emerged as one of the most fascinating themes. Seemingly, American Jews are happy as American citizens and their lives here; but, somewhere underneath.... It was interesting to note among the ADL circles that they play a little game where they ask: name five non-Jewish friends who will hide you if something terrible happens in the U.S. They can't come up with five names, so they're asked to name three. They can't come up with three, so they're asked to name one. One of the producers of Defamation is a Jewish American woman who told me that one of her best non-Jewish friends admitted she's had nightmares about whether she would hide her "should the Nazis come." Jewish Americans live seemingly happy lives in the American community but underneath there are many layers of insecurity that dominate their thinking. They think that Israel should be there as their insurance policy, which God forbid--and they always go back to history to confirm their fears; who would have thought that anything like the Holocaust could have happened in Germany in the '30s?--so many times they have a similar conception of America. "We're okay now, but it was also okay in Berlin. So in case something terrible should happen, we want to have a strong Israel we can go to." Many of them have houses in Israel. But as an Israeli living in Israel, we pay a heavy price for being this insurance policy.

If I was an insurance agent, and you asked me how to keep your house safe for insurance matters, I would advise you to surround your house with a wall, barbed wire, three alarms and guard dogs and that would pretty much insure that no one would come in and steal your belongings, right? That would be clever advice from an insurance agent. But if you live in the house, you don't want to be surrounded by walls, barbed wire, dogs and all of that stuff because you want to live a normal life. I live in Israel. I want to live a normal life. I don't want my life to be ruled by demons belonging to somebody else who is not living in Israel. If I have a problem with my neighbor, sometimes my neighbor might be right. If I'm occupying his land, anti-Semitism doesn't have anything to do with it. I recognize the fact that occupying his land is wrong. As far as I'm concerned, we should reach a point where we're more concerned about living in a liberal, democratic, tolerant and progressive Israel, which makes its decisions on moral and realistic perspectives. But what's happening in Israel now is mainly being influenced by demons chasing people who live outside of Israel. As an Israeli, this is not a great thing.

Guillén: I admire your concession that Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is wrong and works against achieving--as you say--a progressive and tolerant Israel. But this is a contentious perspective. Where does the strength come from for you to adhere to this perspective?

Shamir: As a filmmaker and as a person, I try to see things without being affiliated to any particular paradigm, especially in the face of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Most American Jews have never been to the occupied territories, not as civilians and certainly not as soldiers. I've worn both those hats. I've been there as a soldier and with my own eyes have seen the injustice. Later, while filming Checkpoint, I returned as a civilian with a little bit of perspective. In both instances, it seemed wrong to me that we should do such harm against the Palestinians. For me this is a natural response. I wouldn't like people to act that way towards me. Whereas we as Jews are very sensitive to any anti-Semitism levied at us now or in the past, we are not sensitive to the injustice and harm we are causing others. As a person, I find that unfair.

Guillén: Do you have a sense of how much your opinions on this matter are shared by other Israeli Jews?

Shamir: It's hard to quote numbers. Unfortunately, the last election reflects there is less and less tolerance. This is the most right-wing government we have ever had in the history of Israel. Obviously, according to the last election, the majority has proven that Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is not a huge concern for them. But there are still enough people in Israel who would like to see the occupation end. I think most Israelis even now know that we will eventually have to give back the territories; but, for right now, it's a strange relationship with the territories. Unfortunately, many crazy evangelist Americans donate to Israel, and Israel embraces their support without weighing that these people might be religious maniacs with disturbed views on the world. Israel is happy to receive the support from these individuals even if their final goal is that all Jews will become Christians and believe in Christ. Many strange things are happening in that arena.

Guillén: My final question: you've done such a fine job with documentaries, would you ever consider filming a narrative feature?

Shamir: It's my goal to make a feature fiction film. I'm hoping it will happen someday.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

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