What's a nice Israeli girl doing in a N.Y. strip club?
In her new documentary, filmmaker Zohar Wagner relives, processes and analyzes the profound damage she obliviously inflicted upon herself while working as a stripper 20 years ago.
Bare-breasted, in pink short-shorts and blonde curls, the young Zohar Wagner obeys the instructions from the man filming her: She stands, sits, reclines, sways, flirts. A moment earlier, she was still dressed in a kind of black lace garment, tight and see-through with matching garters. "Draw it out, don't take it off quickly, this is your time, play with it slowly," the man behind the camera tells her. Wagner moves as instructed and he says, "Yeah, yeah, baby." She sits with her legs spread open, he instructs her to lie on her stomach: "The floor is the horniest thing that's happened to you since you were born." She performs as asked, and says: "What, like this?"
All this occurs in a short video made in New York about 20 years ago, which appears in Wagner's new documentary, "But Why Did You Dance Naked?" which premiered last Saturday at Docaviv: The Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival.
This is the third film by the 41-year-old documentary filmmaker and journalist. Wagner's first effort, "Zorki" (2006 ), dealt with her family life, and described how she became her mother's confidante at 12 and concealed from her father the affair her mother was having with another man. In her second film, "Stretch Marks" (2009 ), she documented her pregnancy and examined her sexuality and relationship with her partner at the time. In the new work, she revisits her early 20s, when she worked as a stripper in New York.
"But Why Did You Dance Naked?" is the final installment in this trilogy of personal films by Wagner, all three of which will air June 9 on the Hot cable television's Channel 8.
"Chronologically it begins exactly where 'Zorki' ended," she says. "After 'Stretch Marks,' I said that would be my last personal film, but I realized that the issue of exposure wasn't resolved. I realized I had an obligation to interpret for myself and the viewers, out of an inner reckoning, the matter of using the body in 'Stretch Marks.' Now I feel my next film can be a feature, or a film about somebody else. I don't feel there are any loose ends left."
"When I embarked on the [new] film," Wagner explains, "I told people: 'I'm going to make a film about a girl who chose stripping, loved stripping, and doesn't see anything wrong with it. It's a film that sets out to debunk what people think. A stripper is not necessarily stricken by fate, she isn't to be pitied, she isn't a drug addict, she isn't exploited. On the contrary, she is a strong woman.'"
But working on the film brought her to a completely different place.
Wagner grew up in Afeka, an affluent neighborhood in north Tel Aviv, the daughter of wealthy parents - public relations agent Dasi Wagner and businessman Eli Wagner. "I grew up in a very sheltered environment," she explains. "My parents did not expose me to the real world."
When she was 20, after her compulsory military service, Zohar went to New York. A man she met on the street there, a former Israeli, got her into the stripping business. Among other things, he taught her what she was supposed to do at a strip club, a "lesson" that is seen in the video he shot then, which appears at the beginning of "But Why Did You Dance Naked?"
At the time, Wagner recalls, "I convinced myself that I had the most amazing job in the world, that I loved this job, that I was living in the most amazing city in the world, that I was making loads of money."
That mind-set apparently didn't change over the next two decades, because, "I always thought, how cool am I, I was a stripper, I worked at a club run by the Italian mafia. I knew all the porn stars of the '90s in New York, I was at a strip club on Wall Street," she says.
Wagner decided that her third film would deal with this glamorous period in her life, and the obvious first step, she says, was to get in touch with that man in New York. "As a documentary filmmaker, at the beginning of a project, you first of all contact a person who played a significant part in the experience. But I guess I was afraid to make the movie that way. And as though to avoid making that call, I decided I would film reconstructed narrative segments.
"I went to several strip clubs," she continues, "and got my first big shock, when I entered some club and saw the girls who do the lap dancing and the men touching them. That is something I experienced and saw a thousand times, but at that moment I was terribly nauseous. It made me feel bad. And yet I went home and said: But in New York then it was a little different, it wasn't like that."
In any event, Wagner adds, "I didn't know how to approach the subject. I went into a strip club and did an audition. I stood in front of the club owner and told him: I've come to work. He explained to me what to do, told me: 'Now strip, and now dance a bit,' and these are things that were done to me there. And I still didn't get that there was something wrong here. I shot a few scenes, and even started working at a club, albeit with a camera . It was a sort of docu-reality.
"And then, suddenly, after a while, I realized that what I was doing was not a process of investigation, or healing ... that once again I was doing something terrible to myself. I was harming myself in the same way. It astonished me to see how, 20 years after the fact, I could dive into the same destructive place where I let people touch me, insult me, exploit me - even if it was in the name of making a film - and there was no difference. I had been filming for a year. The head of Channel 8, Eyal Oppenheim, saw some of the footage and said, 'I feel like you are getting raped in the shoot. I think it is terrible.'"
At that time, Wagner continues, "I also met my [current] partner, and one day I told him what happened on the shoot, and cried bitterly. I began to understand that if I had hid what I was doing from him until now, and that when I eventually got around to telling him, it was accompanied by such pain - something bad was going on. I stopped everything and said, I will make that phone call to New York, to that man."
At the time she considered that former Israeli a soul mate. "He was also my support back then," she says, "because the contact with my parents was pretty much severed and I didn't have any girlfriends from the 'normative' world. The moment you're a stripper, you plunge into another world. You have no friends from the legitimate world, you only have stripper-friends."
Journey of self-discovery
It turned out that this male friend had held on to the videos he made of Wagner 20 years ago, and he sent them to her. That basically marked the beginning of her journey of self-discovery. Her life partner also joined in the effort and also appears in the film, but prefers not to be mentioned by name. His motive for taking part, Wagner says, was related to "the impact of this story on our relationship. He told me: 'You have a problem when it comes to sexuality. Your attitude to sex is technical.' No one had ever said that to me. At first I naturally took issue with it. But in the process of making the film I began to examine my sexual conduct in all sorts of ways. For example, I began to really be with myself a second before the sexual act, and suddenly noticed that my body filled with dread. That I experienced fear. Why? I am in my own bedroom, after all, with my partner, a person who loves me. I noticed this for the first time. And I consider myself a person who is aware, I've been through therapy, but never reached such an in-depth investigation there. And I think that in my relationships over the years, a lot of partners maybe saw my problem and simply chose to walk away. Or close their eyes."
The manner in which the figure of Wagner's partner is constructed as the film progresses is interesting: In the beginning he seems to be possessive, a typical "chauvinist," but he ends up being the one who plays the major role in helping Wagner expose - to others and herself as well - what happened to her in the past. Wagner, so it would seem, continues to placate the men in her life.
"This is a new sort of awareness for me," she reports, "a new way of seeing things that I have acquired in the wake of making the film: How not to be afraid to say no. The one who is suffering the most from this now is actually my partner, because I'm 'sharpening my claws' in battling him. Because I feel secure there."
This powerful tendency to please may stem from her family history, Wagner says: "Because my mother rejected my father, perhaps I wanted to make up for it. I didn't want to be the woman my mother had been, a woman who didn't want her partner, who rejected him."
In general, she adds, "being a good girl, no matter what, is something I apparently learned at a very young age."
But on the face of it you were far from being a good girl: You rebelled, acted out, went off to be a stripper.
"Even while stripping I was a good girl: I was placating the owners of the club, the clients - everyone ... It was awful that all sorts of strangers touch you like that for $20."
And you kept this up?
"That is the awful thing, that I went on."
In the film, in conversations with her partner, among other things, Wagner has difficulty recollecting precisely what she did at the club. She remembers that aside from the dancing there was a champagne room where strippers would take clients for a private session, but does not recall what she did there. "I guess I was so dissociated," she says, "because I remember my pain more when I look at other girls being touched. I don't remember."
Another biographical detail that comes out in the film is that Wagner suffered in her youth from pain during intercourse, a phenomenon that is not rare among women aged 20 to 30; whether its origin is physical or mental remains unknown. Wagner was treated and the problem was solved, but even afterward, "my attitude to sex never went back to being normal. I remained anxious. It scarred me in the sense that sex has become really complex for me. After the therapy I slept with men too easily, too fast. I never understood why. Now I understand everything. Only now am I beginning really to rehabilitate myself from a sexual standpoint. First of all, because I realized that I have a problem. And I understood that I have a deep fear [of sex]."
Frightened 'free spirit'
Wagner's relationship with her present partner, which has lasted almost three years, is the longest she has ever had. "I think I also ran away from relationships to avoid dealing with the problem," she says. "I just knew that when I am in a relationship, after a few months there is no more sex. And therefore I never had long relationships. I thought, I am not a girl who believes in settling down, in a bourgeois life - that I'm a free spirit, a hippie, and don't believe in the marriage institution. It's incredible, the ideology I built for myself so as not to contend with a problem I have, which is, sex within a relationship, sex within intimacy."
Wagner is aware of the paradox inherent in the fact that she has doubts about being exposed in a film in which she bares her soul. When asked what it is like to display her intimate life on screen, she replies: "I guess it really proves that I still have a problem."
Why a problem?
"Because I learned from those around me that ... it's not natural for a person to want to tell his secrets in public."
Maybe it's a way to deal?
"It is certainly my way of treating myself, healing myself. I have been cured of all kinds of problems with the help of my films. Honestly, it is therapy first and foremost. And besides, I like telling stories. I like to express myself.
"At first I thought of making a film about other strippers. In 'Stretch Marks,' too, I started off filming other pregnant women. I said, we'll investigate the subject of a woman's body and sexuality during pregnancy, within her relationship with her man. And I sat across from a lot of couples, men and women. I'd bring the interviews to the people at Channel 8 and they would say: In the end your own stories are the most interesting. Because you are totally committed, and you have the access, and nobody says 'no' to you. Or, 'my husband doesn't allow that.' And here too I began with the strippers, and I saw they were lying to me. And I said, but I have the story."
What do you think about the feminist view that stripping is tantamount to prostitution and that prostitution should be outlawed?
"Stripping is prostitution. Sure. It's prostitution in a nice wrapper. Every stripper provides sexual services for money. Whether it's with penetration or without penetration. What's the difference? Maybe there's one stripper in a million who doesn't have sex for pay. There was that story on Bograshov beach a few weeks ago," she adds, referring to an incident in Tel Aviv, during which a woman, apparently emotionally unstable, had sex with a group of men in broad daylight. "I took it very hard. Because I see a bit of a resemblance. Maybe she thinks that she did it of her own volition, just as I thought that I did it of my own volition."
Some people say that feminists treat such cases patronizingly.
"No. It's self-deception. She doesn't know. And there is also an unwillingness to know, to acknowledge the situation. Because there is a fear of changing, or of discovering that you can't change."
But, Wagner herself is changing. And so is her partner, she says. "My partner is a man who used to go to strip clubs, went to hookers. He is the classic story of the man who at 13 is told by his father: 'It's your bar mitzvah, now I'm taking you to a hooker.' That's his first sexual experience."
Would he go to a hooker now?
"No way. He underwent a transformation. He has a group of guys he's been hanging out with for years, and a few days ago they said to him, 'C'mon, let's go to hookers.' He came home and told me, 'You know, I feel such disgust, such contempt, such pity ... Today he cannot go along with that."
That inspires hope.
"True, and I hope men will see this film."
On the other hand, have you ever considered not giving a damn about what men think?
Wagner gives me a piercing look, pauses and says: "I wish."
Surprise at the end
Zohar Wagner does most of the work on her films by herself. "I am also the producer, I am the director, I am the cinematographer. The editor, Tal Rabiner, was with me part of the way, but then moved on to the next project and I was again on my own."
The surprise in the new film comes toward the end, after a long and fascinating process. After she was treated for intercourse pain, when she was 18, Wagner came for a follow-up appointment to the gynecologist who had treated her. And he raped her.
Up until the scene in the film where she and her partner are seen discussing this, Wagner had not fully realized what she went through. "I remembered very vaguely," she says. "I didn't think anything wrong had happened, and I certainly didn't think there was a connection of some kind between that story and what happened in New York."
After the realization, "I went through a period of mourning," she says. "Suddenly I understood how the whole story of my life that I had told myself was wrong; it's another story. Suddenly I realized that something terrible happened to me, and this terrible thing had shaped 20 years of my sexual perception. And I looked back at all the relationships I had, and suddenly understood everything differently."
The gynecologist who raped her is still seeing patients, she says, adding that it is important to her to warn women not to go alone to the gynecologist, certainly not teenage girls. As for exposing the doctor who attacked her, she says: "I feel bad for his wife and his children."
In the film, when she tells her mother about the rape, the mother's reaction is surprising, shocking. "My mother saw the film and only then began to think that maybe there had been something problematic there," Wagner says. "She asked me if this should really be called rape, because I had offered no resistance. Something inside me is waiting for her to apologize. I think she doesn't know how to digest what happened."
Wagner's goal in making "But Why Did You Dance Naked?" involves conveying what she sees as a burning message: "I feel that if I come to 20-year-old girls, and I say that I too believed in what is called sexual freedom, and I present them with my conclusion - it will make an impact," she says, adding that she made the film with a mainstream audience in mind: "There was a more artistic version of the film, avant-garde, that was tougher to watch, more challenging. More silences, more darkness. And I chose to make a different version, so that as many people as possible will see it."
The change Wagner wants to bring about in her own life is related to her role as a mother. Her daughter, Lucy, is 4, and the family lives in an apartment in the so-called old north of Tel Aviv. The living room is strewn with clear plastic boxes containing an abundance of toys.
"I look at her and I see a joyful and happy girl, she's constantly dancing and singing," Wagner says. "And sometimes I say, is it possible that I was like that too? I see myself through her. And I want that not to be spoiled ... Before I made the film," she continues, "I didn't think that it's a problem if, say, a little girl walks around naked at the beach."
It shouldn't be a problem, but the world is twisted.
"That's it. That is what I never took into account, the twisted world. I didn't take into account that not all people are advocates of goodness. That is my greatest awakening."
What has changed in your life since Lucy was born?
"First of all, I am happier. I never worked at a steady job; I always worked from home, and would get up in the morning with some kind of heartache, I felt uncertainty, meaninglessness. Today, first of all, I have structure. Everything is orderly. And I have an obligation to her; I have a child and when she needs me she comes first. That is amazing and liberating."
It's interesting that you experience it as liberating and not constraining.
"When there's a kid for whom I have to be there, even before myself - that is liberating. I never feel she robs me of my self-expression, or of my own place."
As for what the future holds, Wagner says, "People say to me, 'what'll happen when Lucy grows up and watches the films, and her friends say all sorts of stuff?' And I say, even if Lucy pays at 13, say, some kind of price for the film I made 10 years earlier, she will profit a million times more. Because thanks to my understanding myself, I feel that I can keep her safe and guide her. I did not have the tools to protect my child before I made 'But Why Did You Dance Naked?'"
In the meantime, Wagner is contemplating writing a book. (She used to be a journalist at the weekly Ha'ir, and today, along with her documentary filmmaking, she writes film reviews. ) She also has a new movie in mind: "I want to make a film about my partner's father, who is a multifarious character, a legendary figure who all these years nobody knew exactly what he did. There are loads of stories about him, and today he is prepared to tell the stories himself."