The Israeli filmmaker with nothing to hide
Yael Sherer endured severe sexual abuse at the hands of her father. In her documentary film 'Dirty Laundry,' she openly calls him to account with an unflinching gaze straight into the camera.
Yael Sherer was born in 1982 and grew up in a seemingly comfortable and pleasant environment: teacher mother, father with a doctorate in chemistry, two-story house in suburban Kochav Yair, two big brothers and a sweet little sister with a winning smile and two pigtails. "It’s hard to imagine it now, but when I was little, I was Daddy’s girl. From the time I was very young, we had a special connection. I had a good life,” she says in her documentary film “Dirty Laundry,” as the screen fills with images from an old home movie showing her father wearing a tall chef’s hat and giving out jelly doughnuts to her classmates as his daughter sits there grinning.
But under the facade of this perfect family image, the father committed obscene acts and sexual offenses against his daughter for years, and the young girl had no idea that what was happening between her and her father was unusual, dangerous, exploitative and illegal. Sherer decided to devote her first documentary film to her life story and to relate with extraordinary honesty the tortuous tale that began in her childhood and continues to this day, a tale that includes legal battles, psychotherapy, psychiatric hospitalizations, extremely painful family conflicts, and Kafkaesque struggles against various institutions in the hope of changing, if only a little, the way the state handles cases like hers.
Sherer’s first painful awakening came at 13 when she was searching for something in one of her mother’s drawers. “I found a book about divorce and in the chapter on sexual offenses there were things that I did with my father. I had no idea that what we were doing was forbidden, that it was against the law,” she says in the film. “As soon as I discovered that I’d broken the law, the first thing I did was run to my father and tell him, "Hey, we’ve been breaking the law! Can you believe that?!" but his answer was as nonchalant as could be: "I don’t care about the law." Right away I understood that he knew. He knew that we were doing something wrong. I even had the feeling that he had gotten me into trouble. I saw myself as an accomplice in this thing. I still see myself as an accomplice in this thing. I’m still afraid the police are going to come and arrest me too.”
In an interview this week in Tel Aviv, Sherer says that up to that moment it never entered her mind that there was any problem with the things she did with her father. “As a child, you don’t have standards, you don’t know what to compare to, you don’t know what’s happening in other families. If I had been told that same day that a kiss on the cheek was illegal, I would have been equally astounded,” she says.
When her father wanted to ignore her discovery and continue with their routine as if nothing had changed, Sherer rebelled. “It led to a confrontation between us that lasted several months. He wanted to continue and I refused. He tried by force, he tried hitting me, and eventually I broke down and told a girlfriend, one of my classmates,” she says. “We were 13 years old and she consulted with her cousin who was two years older than us and the big authority on grown-up things, at least in our eyes. And she said, ‘No way, you don’t tell things like that.’ A few months later, I also told my teacher and she contacted the Kochav Yair social worker about it. But the social worker listened to me and then swept this thing under the rug. She kept it quiet and didn’t report it any further, as required by law.”
In the film “Dirty Laundry,” which will be shown on Tuesday, November 6, at the International Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot and will air on Channel 2 on November 12, Sherer describes some of the travails she had to go through over the years: dealing with close family members who didn’t believe her claims and continued to support her father, the dismissive and insensitive treatment she encountered from the establishment, and the destructive psychological effects of the sexual abuse that continues to plague her today.
The media’s practice of concealing the faces of sexual assault victims, always presenting them as darkened shadows, was one of the things that motivated her to make the film. “You get up one morning and suddenly discover that you’re the shadowy girl from the news,” says Sherer. “But who is this girl? Does she vote in the elections? Does she have a boyfriend? What sort of job does she have? Is she out there in the world? No, she’s just the shadowy girl from the news! Everyone’s certain that she has no personality, no desires, no idea what she wants to do, and so they, the paternalists, have to decide what’s right for her: ‘Better that you don’t attend the court hearing, better for you not to be there, better for you not to speak.’
“But these women should decide for themselves what’s best for them. Each one is different, each is a whole world unto herself. The woman who was a victim of sexual harassment, of domestic abuse, of incest or rape, they’re not the same person and within these categories, too, each one is different. Each one is entitled to a minimum level of respect, and so this stance of ‘you don’t know what’s right, we’ll decide for you’ is an injustice. It’s unthinkable that the courts treat us as a generic victim. Even in legal rulings we appear simply as ‘the victim.’ It’s not respectful.”
Hospitalized in Shalvata
Shortly after the social worker in Kochav Yair declined to help Sherer, her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Kfar Sava. She rebuffed her father’s repeated attempts to see her. “He was harassing me by phone and constantly pressuring me to see him. He harassed me nonstop – he sent me tons of letters, he phoned, he waited for me outside the house, he followed me in his car. And when I filed a complaint with the police, they sent me a letter saying the matter was of no public interest,” she says.
Sherer’s emotional state steadily declined until, at age 17, she was hospitalized in the Shalvata psychiatric hospital. After her requests for help had been rejected again and again, assistance eventually arrived from an unexpected source. When her mother applied to the Kfar Sava municipality for a discount on her municipal taxes and the family’s social file was taken from Kochav Yair, someone in the Kfar Sava municipality noticed the girl’s complaint about sexual abuse by her father and reported it to the police, as the law requires. This report finally led to the opening of a police investigation, and subsequently to the filing of a criminal charge against her father. The father was convicted, but the court imposed a very lenient sentence of just three years. After getting a third off for good behavior, and having served just two years behind bars, the convicted pedophile was back on the streets.
The film “Dirty Laundry” was born a few years later. Following a car accident in which Sherer was involved, she met with attorney Tali Reinhold, who specializes in suing for damages. But as the lawyer explained to her about the compensation she could sue for because of the harm done to her, Sherer’s thoughts wandered to other areas. “It suddenly hit me that my father caused me harm, he wrecked my childhood, he wrecked my youth that I spent in courtrooms, and he wrecked the normative life I could have had,” she explains. “I was 25 and I’d never had a boyfriend. I’d never kissed anyone or slept with anyone, and I’d never had any sexual contact with anyone who wasn’t my father. And when I wanted to be honest with myself, it was clear to me that I wouldn’t have that in the future either. That it was over. So I decided that somebody had to be called to account for these things. A few years before that, when the criminal case against him was going on, the prosecutors told me very specifically: ‘This is not your battle. It’s the state that’s prosecuting your father.’ But when I was sitting there with my lawyer I suddenly realized that, for me, the circle had to be closed.
“I asked the lawyer if it was possible [to sue him]. She said that in theory it was possible, but that something like that had never been done and that I had to decide very quickly if I wanted to go ahead with it because in just two weeks, when I turned 25, the statute of limitations would apply. That stunned me. Because what do you know at that age? What kind of emotional maturity do you have? Why was there any statute of limitations on this at all? Why should they be allowed to get away with it? Why? In my opinion, it should always be possible to sue them, forever. A person wants to feel that justice was done for her, and I didn’t feel that in the case of my father, who spent just two years in a white-collar prison where they swim in the pool and play tennis, justice was done."
‘It’s none of your business’
Throughout the years, Sherer was continually horrified by the treatment she received from various officials who were supposed to deal with cases of sexual abuse. “The feeling they give you is that the system knows better than you what’s good for you. They have this image of the girl with the darkened face on television who has no personality, who’s a generic product of our cliches. All these women think the same and act the same and look the same because their faces are blacked out, and so it’s reasonable [for the officials] to assume that 'what we think is best for them' is right, that it’s right for all of 'them'. This is part of what I’m trying to explain in this film,” she says.
For example, during her father’s trial, the prosecution was very surprised that Sherer agreed to come to court and take the witness stand and to recount for all present what her father did to her over the years. “They didn’t expect me to come testify. When I told them, ‘No problem, I’ll come and tell what he did to me,’ they were quite amazed. They asked, ‘Wouldn’t you rather just give a deposition? We’ll spare you the need [to appear in public].’ It was a very patronizing attitude,” she says.
“And that wasn’t the only thing. Afterward, they told me: ‘Okay, you come and testify, you’ll take him off the street, you’re doing a public service so more girls won’t be hurt.’ So I took the stand, I testified for three hours and with this testimony I destroyed my family, and I declared war on people who beat me – it was no easy thing. And afterward, they didn’t even say thank you, they didn’t shake my hand, they just opened the door, ushered me out to the hallway, and the hearing continued.
“So I went out and went straight back to the army. I was in the midst of a course for education non-commissioned officers and that day they took us on a twilight tour of Jerusalem. In the middle of the tour, I suddenly started screaming and I couldn’t stop. I was conscious of the fact that I was screaming and that we were in a public place and that I should be quiet but I couldn’t stop yelling. I still remember my commander coming over and saying, ‘Please, please’ and putting a hand on my mouth. You’re screaming and you realize you can’t stop. There’s a dissonance between body and mind. I understood that I’d opened up a front here and I didn’t know how I’d manage to deal with it. The next day I called the prosecutor’s office and they said to me, ‘Yael, what do you want? We’re not social workers.’
“After that they didn’t want to hear from me anymore. If I called to ask what was happening, they couldn’t figure out what I wanted. I wanted to sit in on the hearings, but they said, ‘Sorry, the victims do not attend hearings.’ They said, ‘With all due respect, it’s the state that’s prosecuting him, it’s not your business, you’re not a party to the matter.’ They’re telling me I’m not a party to the matter? I was just 19 then, but I still understood that it was incredible chutzpah to say something like that to me. Not long ago, after the film came out, I was talking to the prosecutor’s office and they told me, ‘Yael, we don’t behave that way anymore, because of the outcry you raised then.’”
A surprise guest
When she decided to take on the dual challenge of making the movie while also filing the civil suit, Sherer was a film student at the Minshar School of Art in Tel Aviv. She was in her second year of studies and knew that the burden she was taking on wouldn’t be easy, but she decided to go ahead nonetheless. “There are Kafkaesque things here. I saw the injustice around me, I saw that people didn’t believe that this is how things work here, so I decided to make a film. I said that justice must be shown, and I decided to show people what it looks like,” she says.
Sherer understood that she would have to wage two tricky battles simultaneously, but felt she had no other choice. “For me, it was do or die. It was clear to me that saying ‘I give up’ would mean I’d have to continue wallowing in this shit for the rest of my life, it would be a death sentence for me. I knew that if I didn’t go through with it, I was better off dead than alive. In that kind of situation, if you’re given a glimmer of hope and told you’re going to suffer terribly but maybe, just maybe, you'll succeed in changing something, even a little – then you leap into the abyss and say, ‘Okay I’ve got nothing to lose. I can’t suffer any more than I’m already suffering, or feel more humiliated than I already feel.’”
She also understood the great importance the film could have. “In this film I wanted to talk to my 13-year-old self,” says Sherer. “I wanted to make it for that girl who’s sitting alone at home and thinks that she’s all alone, that there’s something wrong with her, that her family is right and that her life stinks and that she’d be better off committing suicide. I know that’s how I felt, and that I tried too. I’m sure there are women and men who, when they see the film, say: ‘Look, I’m not alone, it’s happening to other people.’ That’s a consoling feeling, to know that it’s not happening to you alone, that you’re not guilty, and that you can fight against it and also win. That’s something that never occurred to me when I was younger.”
Sherer recruited producers David Noy and Yoram Ivri, obtained support from the Second Radio and Television Broadcast Authority, from the Rabinowitz Foundation and the Gesher Foundation, and set to work. From the start she had to fight the courts, as she sought to have the gag order that had been imposed on the criminal proceedings against her father – with the aim of protecting her – lifted so that she could talk about him in the film. “They refused, they thought it would hurt me. I had to argue with them, to fight with the judge and say that I wanted to tell my story,” she says. But even after she received approval, she had to keep fighting because the court that was hearing her civil suit automatically decided to hold the hearing behind closed doors and under a gag order.
The film had its premiere at the DocAviv festival in Tel Aviv in May 2012. An unexpected ticket buyer for the screening was Sherer’s father, who came with his girlfriend. To avoid the possibility of them taking over the discussion that was supposed to follow the film, Sherer decided to take preemptive action. “I didn’t want to have the kind of scene that they tend to do and that they’ve done more than once – shouting, accusing me, calling me names. So at the end of the screening I got up and went up on stage and said, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I want you to welcome a special guest, my father, who’s sitting in row 13.’ In a second, everybody was looking at him and at a certain point it became impossible to go on with the discussion because of how people in the audience were all yelling at him.”
Even today Sherer continues her daily struggle for survival, and the legal battles and emotional damage are still a part of her life. And yet, the determination of this intelligent and courageous woman remains impressive. “I turned 30 not long ago and people asked me what my dreams are,” she says toward the end of the interview. “I told them that I need to find a new dream, that I’ve already done all that I can do. I’ve achieved a lot in my struggles and I feel that I’ve done my part. This is what this whole process has given me, and what this film has given me – a little bit of peace of mind.”