The Israeli-made film "Lipstikka" had its world premiere in Berlin this week. Last year the movie caused a storm of debate in its homeland due to the fact that it allegedly compared the occupation of Palestinian territories to the Holocaust. In an interview, director Jonathan Sagall and cast members discuss the controversy and red lines in the arts in the Middle East.
The Israeli film "Lipstikka" had its world premiere in Berlin on Thursday. But away from the glamour of the red carpet in the German capital, the movie has had a tumultuous past. At one stage last year, emotions surrounding director Jonathan Sagall's film became so charged in his homeland that, the Tel Aviv-based director says, "we had the parliament on its feet."
The film itself -- which is in the main competition at the Berlin International Film Festival -- does not appear to be particularly threatening, at least on first viewing. The psychological drama tells the story of two Palestinian women, once best friends, whose memories of a traumatic event during their adolescence in Ramallah involving the Israeli military, still colors their present day -- many years later and thousands of kilometers away in London. In it, the two have flashbacks to 1994 and the experience the two shared after breaking the curfew during the intifada and going to the Jewish part of Jerusalem, where their memories of a sexual encounter with an Israeli soldier diverge so many years later.
It is not the film's story itself that has made it so controversial back in Israel, but rather the process in which public funding had been sought to create the film. In January 2010, prominent Israeli journalist Yair Lapid, of the Tel Aviv-based daily Yedioth Ahronoth, strongly criticised the fact that an "anti-Israel" film had been funded by the government.
Lapid wrote that, in 2006, Sagall "had requested support for a film regarding his mother's experiences at a concentration camp. ... Three years later, Sagall came back to the fund with a new propsal: He would take his mother's story and shift it to Ramallah. Instead of two girls at a concentration camp, the film would recount the stories of two young Palestinian females under Israeli occupation."
According to Lapiud, a brochure sent by Segal to potential distributors and investors ahead of the film's release noted that "great persuasion work was needed in order to convince the Israel Film Fund to approve a story arguing that the occupation is worse than what Israel ever admitted to, and can be compared to the Holocaust." Lapid, who also contacted the director of the Israel Film Fund to complain about the film's funding, wrote that the incident was "a small yet very typical story regarding the way Israel shoots itself in the foot."
While the situation was being reviewed by the Israel Film Fund, the film's funding was intially frozen. The matter made headlines in Israel and sparked a national debate on censorship and artistic freedom.
Director Sagall, who was born in Canada, and the film's two leads, Palestinian actress Clara Khoury and Israeli actress Nataly Attiya, spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE on the evening of the film's premiere about "Lipstikka" and its contentious production process.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the end, the Israel Film Fund did reinstate your funding and you will be walking down the red carpet in a couple of hours. So what are your thoughts on the controversy you found yourself involved in early last year?
Sagall: It's boring. It was a glitch in information and it led to this silly situation. Everybody then said, oh, you know what, you're right. So there is no point in spending time and energy on this. It's over and we are here now.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Apparently the offending line in the brochure was written by someone working at a British production company who was later fired. Why do you think anyone might consider this sort of comparison a selling point?
Sagall: I can't speak for other people and I can't speak for her (the writer of the brochure). But I can only tell you it's stupid. There is no sense in comparing the two.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have been working in Israeli film and television for many years. Do you think freedom of artistic expression is possible in Israel or in the greater Middle East? Or do some subjects remain taboo?
Sagall: I think every society has a red line that is drawn. Every society has its sensitivities. Even in America there are certain topics that are sensitive. If a filmmaker, or any other artist, breaks those rules, then he has to take the chance that he'd be condemned. Often when artists do that, they find themselves excluded. In fact, Clara was extremely courageous in doing this film, she did something a lot of Palestinian actresses wouldn't do.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Please explain.
Khoury: A couple of people told me "how dare you?" Not because of the film itself, but because I was working on an Israeli film. To me it doesn't matter whether a film is Dutch or Iranian or Israeli. What is more important are the issues the film is dealing with. People also said to me we don't have such girls in our society, getting naked, drinking alcohol. But, to tell you the truth, that which is hidden is always the greatest. The problem is what the media is showing: People think all Arab women are closed off, or oppressed by men. But we have all sorts of women. And this is my revolution as an actress.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think that in general the people of the Middle East -- both Israeli and Palestinian -- are being fairly represented in contemporary cinema?
Sagall: It's not really any of our business. That is not the issue. I am not a documentarian or a news reporter. I am here to tell a story.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But can you make a film about Palestinians and Israelis without there being some political overtones?
Sagall: Everything's political. Because the situation in the Middle East is so charged, there's a lot of anguish and anger and frustration on both sides. It is often hard to see the other side's anguish and suffering.
Khoury: As an artist, you have to be involved -- with your art, and with politics. The acknowledgement of the other is very important and I think Israeli society is very closed in and has quite a narrow-minded way of looking at the other, or knowing the other. Each side has its stories -- my grandmother has her own stories from 1948, my dad also was a refugee. When he came back, he had lost his land. But Israeli society doesn't want to know that, they don't want to listen. It seems to me that it is getting worse and worse, and more racist. They refuse even to acknowledge the Palestinians who also live inside Israel. Jonathan took a very courageous step by making this movie.
Attiya: That's the thing about the movie, there's not one truth. Both sides suffer a lot, and it's very painful. But both sides must sacrifice to achieve peace.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you feel this film helps that situation?
Sagall: I would like to think so. I think that's why it was a daring thing for a Jewish Israeli to make this movie. I may have been wrong to do it, I don't know. I guess we'll find out. But you have to remember it's a very charged situation and we have to help lower the emotion. Because everybody's right and, as Nataly said, there is not just one truth.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is a line in the film where one of the characters confronts an Israeli soldier, telling him "You Jews, you're so afraid all the time." Do you actually believe this?
Sagall: I think it's true for everybody involved in this conflict. Everything is driven by fear. Fear of losing land, fear of getting lost and getting taken over by another power, fear of losing your national identity or your religion. And that is on both sides. It's stupid, but we live in a stupid situation that is taking far too many years to solve.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you feel that, in the end, you achieved your ambitions for artistic freedom with this film?
Sagall: Absolutely. The script has gone through so many changes over the years. The last time we submitted a version to the Israeli Film Fund, I was seriously surprised to see how open and how willing they were to go with me.
Interview conducted by Cathrin Schaer
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