Yoav Shamir about DEFAMATION


«As anti-Semitism is a very sensitive and charged issue, it meant to me that I was walking on thin ice. And when you’re walking on thin ice, you have to be very careful.» An interview with Yoav Shamir about his new documentary Defamation.

You claimed in your director’s statement that – having grown up in Israel – you haven’t been confronted to anti-Semitism until one day somebody called you an anti-Semite. In how far did your own notion of the term of anti-Semitism change compared to what it meant to you before working on the film and now after having finished Defamation.

YOAV SHAMIR: Anti-Semitism is a word we use very often. One doesn’t think too much before saying that somebody is an anti-Semite. If in Germany or anywhere else somebody doesn’t react well to you, you call him an anti-Semite. On a sort of folkloristic level ? if you don’t pay too much attention to it ? it is part of life as Finkelstein is saying in the film ? Holocaust and anti-Semitism are very much part of life. But then, it becomes something that is so very much part of your life, that it becomes very real and has consequences which are not necessarily amusing. That’s what I was interested in while making this film.

„not amusing“ regarding yourself?

YOAV SHAMIR:  “not amusing” concerning in how many ways anti-Semitism is being used. The feeling that everybody hates you is not a nice feeling when you go around in the world. If everybody hates you, you come already up with this idea of anti-Semitism. When I was younger and travelling around I preferred to say that I was from Spain, because I feared that I would get into trouble if I said that I was from Israel. That was strange.

What made it eventually a topic of new film for you?

YOAV SHAMIR: Every time that there is tension in Israel, the topics come and the headlines are full of it. I thought it was an interesting issue and you don’t have to have too many reasons to make a film. You have to be interested in the topic.

Anti-Semitism is a very sensitive and a very tricky subject for which you had to find an adequate approach. You chose a humoristic, in a certain way naïve tone which seems a very smart move not to get trapped by neither side?

YOAV SHAMIR: In the way I’m making films ? and it is already my fifth film – humour has always been an important tool if you want to speak about something. Even Checkpoint which was about a very heavy topic, had many humorous moments in it. As anti-Semitism is a very sensitive and charged issue, it meant to me that I was walking on thin ice. And when you’re walking on thin ice, you have to be very careful. The fact that I’m Jewish, the fact that I’m Israeli makes it possible to approach these questions more openly than somebody else could have done it. A non-Jewish person who had made the same film could have been blamed for anti-Semitism. I think, I live in Israel, I love this country, I think that I am entitled to ask anything I want.

Once you had decided on the subject of the film how did you select your interview partners. One gets the impression that from whichever side, people are very frank and really trusted you. How did you manage to get them all in front of your camera?

YOAV SHAMIR: When I filmed Checkpoint it was easy, whenever I got to the place there would have been something to film. Making a film about anti-Semitism was much more difficult – sometimes it’s based on a remark, a graffiti – it is impossible to be there in the moment the act of anti-Semitism is happening. As a filmmaker you are at least one step behind. Eventually I thought, maybe the best approach would be to find the people who fight it and understand through them what anti-Semitism is about. That’s how I got the idea. The first time I was with them was on the occasion of one of their missions. Abraham Foxman is a very affectionate and warm person, he really cares for Israel. We sent him one of my films, Five Days, which he loved, and they gave me access to this trip and a kind of relationship began to develop. My access to ADL activities wasn’t 100 % free and easy, of course I had to fight and struggle, there were many meetings I was left out, sometimes it was a frustrating experience. Once I had spent enough time with them, it worked.

On the one hand the shooting takes place on official occasions – conferences, diplomatic encounters, official trips of ADL, receptions, on the other hand you chose small and private places to interview your protagonists – sitting on their bed in the hotel room, in the stair case, in the office fixing the blinds... Why did you choose these places?

YOAV SHAMIR: I liked these places for their intimacy. Even if I make an interview with somebody and he has a desk, I’d go and sit with him behind the desk because I like to break expectations. It was not my intention to show only talking heads. Whenever I had the opportunity to do it while walking or in this kind of intimate circumstances, as the filmmaker you get the impression they’re sharing something with you they wouldn’t share otherwise.  That was why I decided to use the graphic elements. It allowed me to be freer, I wanted to make an essay film but I didn’t want that it seemed like an academic research that provides the most accurate statistics of what is here and what is there. The film is a very personal quest and my approach allowed me more freedom. It has something of a diary e.g. when I circle something on the screen like I would do it on a newspaper.

How big was your team while shooting?

YOAV SHAMIR: I did the camera by myself, I didn’t even have a sound-assistant for the whole time. I had an assistant coming with me but not more than for fifty percent of the film. Otherwise I did all of my own.

One of the core element in the film are the sequences where you filmed the high school students. How did you deal with them along this very particular journey.

YOAV SHAMIR: Actually, it was not that difficult to get a permission for shooting. There happened a lot of good coincidences. I didn’t do a lot of research to find this particular class. I wanted a class that represented the most typical middle class Haifa high school students, not too poor not too rich. There were kids of working class people, many of them being abroad fort he first time, some of the parents are very well educated, some of them are truck drivers ? it was a very good mixture in terms of their socio-economical background. And kids are always nice, they loved the camera, all of them wanted to be on television. We had a very good relationship. At the end after this experience of the concentration camp they were really upset but up to that time we had known each other for a very long time, I could ask whatever I wanted and they felt very comfortable with me.

Why was it so important for you to film this generation?

YOAV SHAMIR: Everything is connected to everything. When we read about anti-Semitism in Israel, normally it comes from data provided by the ADL. The kids and their teachers read the newspaper based on this information for which somebody had provided the data. They are the ones affected by it and they are the future security policy of Israel, they will do the army next year, so everything is connected.

How did the editing process evolve? How much material did you have by the end of shooting? For this sort of topic editing seems to be play a very essential role?

YOAV SHAMIR:  We had quite a lot of material. I did the off-line editing in Denmark where I worked with a Danish editor who I didn’t know before, but it worked very well. Morten is a great editor and when I’m editing, I’m nearly all the time in the editing room. I like to be very present, especially for this movie as we had a lot of narration which I wrote, then recorded, then adjusted, then rewrote etc. It was a very tight co-operation. And the fact that Morten knew nothing about the subject was in a way his asset. Nothing was taken for granted, he had never been to Israel, never been to a concentration camp, everything for him was completely new. This means, if he understands it, all of us will understand it. In the beginning he asked himself how he was going to do that, anti-Semitism is such a complicated issue. We had a lot of talks, I bought him a couple of books. I think, now he knows a lot about the subject.

Why did you change the title from The Secret War to Defamation?

YOAV SHAMIR: The title changed so many times. My favourite one was Anti-Semitism ? The Movie. There were several co-producers, everybody thinks differently. I’m not so enthusiastic about Defamation, before I started the film, I wasn’t even very familiar with this word, it is not very common. Normally I like titles with one word, who knows whether it will stay the final title.

What are your expectations now regarding the release of the film in Israel, what are you expecting from Israeli audiences, what might be the risk you have taken to have made this film.

YOAV SHAMIR: The best thing that could happen to me is that the film will have theatrical releases worldwide. I think it is a film that might work very well in places like New York, London or Paris. In Israel it will probably be shown at a film festival, there is not really a big audience for documentaries in Israel. Personally I wouldn’t go to cinema to see a film about anti-Semitism. There are millions of films about the holocaust in Israel.  I’m very surprised here in Berlin that all the screens are sold out. That means that people are interested. People here are more curious maybe.

Aren’t you afraid of harsh reactions by Israeli media?

YOAV SHAMIR: No, you know Israel ? in many ways it is not, but in many ways it is a very tolerant place. If you want to get good reviews look at the Israeli papers. Sometimes you might not get the New York Times, The Washington Post, what you could see as pressure by the Israeli lobby, they don’t want to see their dirty laundry washed outside but in Israel you would get great understanding of the situation, which will be more difficult to be read outside of Israel.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
Berlin, February, 2009