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A provocative documentary on Israelis, Arabs, and sex
France24.com interviewed the filmmakers behind a provocative new documentary, “Would You Have Sex With an Arab?”, in which Israeli Jews and Arabs are brought face-to-face with their own prejudices, grudges, and unexpected desires.
Several filmmakers have tackled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But few have approached the thorny subject quite like French Jewish filmmaker Yolande Zauberman and her Lebanese writing partner Sélim Nassib: through the prism of sex.
In their new documentary “Would You Have Sex With an Arab?”, Zauberman and Nassib take to the streets of Tel Aviv at night, prowling bars and clubs, cafés and underground soirées, in search of Israeli Jews and Arabs willing to answer a startling question: Would you have sex with a member of the other community?
The responses, ranging from militant refusal to candid confessions of illicit one-night stands and longterm love affairs ending in heartbreak, are funny, surprising, confusing, and sometimes quite moving.
“Would You Have Sex With an Arab?” never aims to dissect the historical or political twists and turns of a bitter conflict. Rather, it is a wistful portrait of a damaged society in which human dynamics are often far more complex than we are led to believe – and in which deeply buried reserves of desire and regret are coaxed toward the surface, thanks to one single provocative query.
Here are some highlights from France24.com’s interview with the filmmakers.
FRANCE 24: How did the idea for the film come about?
Yolande Zauberman: Sélim and I were in the process of writing my next film, “L’Amant palestinien” (“The Palestinian Lover”), about the alleged affair between [former Israeli prime minister] Golda Meir and a rich Lebanese-Palestinian man, when she was in her 20s. We were quickly faced with this theme of complicated desire.
Sélim Nassib: It’s fairly common, within a community, to forbid all sexual relations with a member of another community. In the precise case of the film we were working on, there was an extra taboo. The fact that Golda Meir was involved with a young Arab aristocrat when she was there to help create a Jewish state was problematic.
Y.Z.: So there was this idea of impossibility that we wanted to examine from both sides. For several years, I’d been interested in these 1.5 million Israeli Arabs, who are overlooked. With the question posed in the film, I found a real point of entry to talk about the lives of these people.
F24: Did the people you interviewed take well to the question of you asked?
Y.Z.: We had some people who were outraged, but never aggressive. The most indignant response came from an old lady, aged 97, whose grandson desperately wanted us to interview her. But we were careful to make sure that there was nothing insulting or humiliating for the people we talked to.
S.N.: A lot of people seemed surprised, because they didn’t expect us to ask the question. And after, they’re so focused on trying to answer that they forget to be offended.
Y.Z.: We never talk honestly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’ve always thought that you’d need a first-rate psychoanalyst to resolve this problem. When people answer a question that’s specifically about sex, it’s impossible to be disingenuous. A lot of the people we talked to were surprised by how the question made them feel. There’s something liberating about the question, because desire puts everyone on an equal footing. Whether you answer yes or no, whether you’re Arab or Jewish, everyone feels sexual desire. Even in this territory of dehumanisation and negation of the other. The best thing about this film is that it lessens the rage, it lessens the allergy to the other.
F24: Are you worried about the reaction of Jews and Arabs who see the film?
S.N.: The first eight minutes of the film were shown in Ramallah, and they were all doubled over in laughter. Usually we only talk about them within the context of war, poverty, or racism. And here, suddenly, we’re talking about them as objects of sexual fantasy, of desire.
Y.Z.: I know the move was shown in a kibbutz, and afterwards, the viewers were asking each other the question. It’s a contagious question.
S. N.: At the Venice Film Festival, where the film was shown, a Turkish journalist told us it could apply to Greeks and Turks, while a Pakistani told us it could apply to Pakistanis and Indians. Everyone can apply the film to his or her own situation.
F24: Do you think sex can really bring together Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs?
S.N.: At the beginning of the film, a Jewish Israeli woman talks about her sexual experience with an Arab, saying she felt like she was “making peace with an entire people”. But she also adds that she felt it was the least erotic sexual experience of her entire life. So the movie is inconclusive. We never say: “Make love, not war, and the problem will be resolved.” The film doesn’t have that kind of naïve message. It’s just a series of individual responses of people talking about their experiences, their fantasies, their desires. And all of a sudden, we realise that these people all have several things in common.
Y.Z.: At a certain point, one needs to get to know the other side, to have empathy for the other side. These people live together. Of course there’s an enormous amount of fear on each side, but there are plenty of things they agree on! There are already areas in which they work together: the film industry, the police, even the mafia. So you can’t tell me it’s going to be war forever.
"Would You Have Sex With an Arab?" comes out in France on September 12.