Israeli Documentarian Tackles the Question of What Makes a Hero

After documenting West Bank checkpoints and anti-Semitism, filmmaker Yoav Shamir is now training his camera on the individuals who, despite all odds, help other people in distress. Last week, iconic filmmaker Michael Moore came on board.

Little did director-cinematographer Yoav Shamir dream, when embarking on an Internet campaign to raise funds for his latest movie, that he would hook the biggest fish of all: Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore. Never before has the acclaimed and controversial Moore agreed to participate in producing a movie which he himself is not directing. Last week, he came on board as executive producer of the new documentary "10% - What Makes a Hero," and will no doubt lend it his inimitable, and inestimable added value.

When filmmaker Shamir began working, about two and a half years ago, on the movie - which is about people who "go against the grain" to help others, sometimes risking their own lives - he expected to produce and direct it himself. To that end, he also opened a page about two months ago at Indiegogo, an Internet fund-raising platform. The goal: to come up with $30,000 by January 31. For every donation, whether $10 or $30,000, he offered a "perk" (i.e., autographs, special viewing rights, credit, etc. ). As for Moore, "he said he would donate a dollar for every dollar raised during the campaign," said Shamir, himself a filmmaker who has achieved both local and international renown.

Yanai Yechiel

Moore apparently became aquainted with Shamir when the latter's 2009 film about anti-Semitism, "Defamation," won the Stanley Kubrick Award for Bold and Innovative Filmmaking at Moore's Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan. "It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship," said Shamir, according to the online movie site

Said Moore: "This is an urgent film, someone needed to make it, and I can't think of anyone better than Yoav Shamir. Shamir is that rare documentary filmmaker who is fearless and willing to show us the uncomfortable truths about the world we live in."

And, he added: "I have been asked by many documentarians over the years to executive produce their films. This is the first time I've said 'yes.'"

To understand the interest in "10%," one must look both at Shamir's own record and also at the topic he investigates, relating to two groundbreaking social psychology experiments conducted decades ago in the United States. Their grim revelations about human nature have prompted a new study by an Israeli scholar, along with one of the original American researchers, which constitutes the subject of Shamir's new effort.

For his part, Shamir has never balked at investigating controversial issues. For example, in "Checkpoint" (2003 ) he showed the prosaic and melancholy reality of the experience of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians at a number of checkpoints in the territories. This was followed by "5 Days" (2006 ), about Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip. In 2008 he released "Flipping Out," which follows Israeli backpackers in India who experience psychotic breakdowns as a result of substance abuse. "Defamation" examines how Israel and Jewish organizations use allegations of anti-Semitism and the memory of the Holocaust to reap political benefits.

International recognition of his work has come in the form of festival awards and reviews. Michael Moore described "Defamation" as "incredibly bold and brave," and Nick Broomfield (an award-winning filmmaker whose work includes "Kurt & Courtney" and "Biggie and Tupac" ) - speaking at the 2009 London Film Festival where "Defamation" was awarded the prize for best documentary - called it "a fantastic film, which does exactly what documentary, at its best, can do."

Yanai Yechiel

"10% - What Makes a Hero" focuses on the flip side of the troubling responses revealed in experiments conducted by American psychologists Stanley Milgram, in the 1960s, and by Prof. Philip Zimbardo in 1971. Milgram sought to examine obedience to authority, even when it meant ignoring universal moral codes. Zimbardo's so-called Stanford prison experiment focused on behavior in simulated prison conditions.

In his film, Shamir looks not at the majority of people who tend to lose their "moral compass" in extreme situations, but rather at the small minority, estimated to be usually about 10 percent of the population, who will extend a hand, sometimes even to an enemy, simply because it's the moral thing to do. His goal: to understand what makes a certain small percentage of people "heroes," why they will help a stranger in distress - despite an authoritative order to the contrary or social conditioning or other, natural inclinations - whereas others will turn their backs. Among other things Shamir filmed bonobo chimpanzees in Congo; people recognized as "righteous among the nations" for rescuing Jews in the Holocaust; and a wide range of individuals who risked their lives to save others. At present, he is reviewing his footage, ensconced in the editing room.

Like 'Lord of the Flies'

Yoav Shamir was born in 1970, in Tel Aviv. He obtained a B.A. in history and philosophy from Tel Aviv University and a master's in fine arts with honors in cinema. Besides the recognition in London, his films have also won awards at international festivals in Amsterdam, San Francisco and Tribeca, and at Hot Docs in Canada. He lives in Tel Aviv with his partner and his daughter.

What prompted you to make the new film and probe these particular questions?

Shamir: "I was approached by Dr. Rony Berger, a clinical psychologist who worked in Natal, the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War. He had seen 'Defamation.' He told me about a new idea he had for a research study - the one I follow in the film - which comes from two directions. There is his direction, that of someone who treated Palestinians and Israelis that experienced posttraumatic stress disorder. He was the person in Sderot and throughout the south when Israel was bombing Gaza.

"He noticed," Shamir adds, "that most of the people he treated had become more extreme in their views. They turned far more militant and nationalistic, and displayed less tolerance for the 'other.' There is something logical in that. It's a type of defense mechanism.

"On the other hand, there was a small group who, even though they underwent the same experience, joined groups like Combatants for Peace, Breaking the Silence and others. In other words, it's the same trauma but there are a few who take it in one direction, whereas the majority take it in the other, supposedly 'natural' direction."

Yanai Yechiel

Regrettably, the "natural" way in this case is the direction of exclusion and hatred.

"Rony told me about an American psychologist named Philip Zimbardo, who in the 1970s conducted the 'Stanford prison experiment.' He took a group of volunteers, all of whom underwent testing and were found to be completely normative. He simulated a prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology department, and divided the participants randomly into guards and prisoners. The result was astonishing. Within a few days, the guards became sadistic, something like 'Lord of the Flies,' very extreme. Some of the prisoners had nervous breakdowns. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but had to be called off after five or six days. The project was based on a previous experiment, conducted by a colleague of Zimbardo's, Prof. Stanley Milgram."

Shamir continues: "Milgram conducted a so-called 'obedience experiment.' He was from a family of Holocaust survivors, and wanted to know why so many Germans cooperated with the Nazi regime and obeyed authority blindly. He told the participants he was investigating learning improvement. They entered a room on the other side of which was, behind a glass barrier, someone hooked up to electrodes. They were told that whenever that person answered incorrectly to a question regarding pairs of words, they had to administer an electric shock, and that with every mistake the voltage would increase. The man was an actor, but they didn't know that. The electric shock eventually reached 450 volts, which is lethal."

The pre-experiment hypothesis was that about 1 percent of the participants would in effect electrocute to death another person sitting across from them. In practice, however, more than two-thirds did. "Those two experiments are true milestones in social psychology," Shamir notes. "What is amazing is that a great many studies of evil have been conducted, the world of psychology is fascinated by this. I think that there is no group of evil people who have not been thoroughly studied. But no studies were done of the good people; in other words, what caused the behavior of the people who did not succumb to sadism. It's connected to a field generally known as 'positive psychology' and is relatively new.

"Zimbardo and Berger decided to embark on a joint project. Berger comes from a living laboratory (that is, with real-time patients ); Zimbardo from a laboratory of psychological experiments. The two are now doing a study to find out more about this minority whom we call 'the 10 percent' - the people who are willing to take a stand against evil. I found the subject riveting. Berger was about to go to San Francisco to meet with Zimbardo, so I joined him."

Shamir thus became involved in the project at its earliest stage, about two and a half years ago, even before the researchers had developed their methodology; all they had at that time was the germ of an idea. The public usually hears about academic studies when the conclusions are published, but Shamir's film shows how a study takes shape.

'In' vs. 'out' groups

Berger and Zimbardo - two very different people, from completely different backgrounds - first busied themselves trying to develop the research method. In the meantime, Shamir discovered that the subject stirred many questions in his own mind, which led him down a number of different paths, all reflected in the film.

"If we are looking for historical parallels of people of this kind, the 10 percent, then the classic examples are Germans who helped Jews during the Holocaust and white Afrikaners who joined the African National Congress and fought apartheid. Those are the most salient historical groups from the last century. They were people who decided to help someone from the 'out group' - not the 'in group.' So those people allegedly helped their enemies.

"Another criterion of the research was the scale of transformation," Shamir continues. "Examples of heroes in Israel include two Jonathans. One is Jonathan Pollak, who comes from a family of peace activists, so his path is almost cut out from the start. I have great esteem for activists who are ready to take risks and pay a price. Still, there are people for whom this is not a surprising route. There are also people like Yonatan Shapira, who was a fighter pilot and whose father was a squadron commander, and whose brothers are all in commando units. He is not someone you would expect to become such a radical activist left-winger. So, one condition for the study involved undergoing a transformation.

"I think the basic question can be reduced to the following illustration: 100 people are standing on the bank of the Yarkon River. Someone is drowning and only one person will jump in to save him. Why? What is different about him? What makes him do it, while the other 99 stand and watch? After I started following the study ... the process generated more questions and I embarked on all kinds of detours of my own."

What kind of questions?

"Heroes are a very popular phenomenon, from Greek mythology to comic book superheroes. It's hard to say anything new and original on the subject. I had dozens, maybe hundreds, of conversations with people I told about the film, about 'what is a hero.' Everyone has his own definition. Here the definition was simple from the beginning: A hero is someone who is ready to risk himself without seeking anything in return to help someone he doesn't know - that is the most basic level."

Do you feel you have reached some sort of conclusion in the film?

"One of my goals in the film is to make viewers challenge themselves by asking, 'What would I do in that situation?' What I found out is that the very act of asking the question produces an effect. In other words, the fact that it is lodged in your consciousness brings about a behavioral change, like it or not. The very fact that you see someone in trouble and you take even a fraction of a second to ask yourself, 'Hey, am I going to do something about this or not?' I don't know how long that consciousness will last. I hope it will last for more than an hour or two after people view the film. I believe both the film and the research can have an impact on our behavior, on the way we see things.

"One of the dangers in a film like this is slipping into pathos. Many films about activism and heroes tend toward hagiography, the idealization of the characters. In my film I took the opposite track. In many cases there is almost a deconstruction of heroism, which is a thin line to tread. But even if you deconstruct the hero, he is still a hero. The things he experiences have a very large impact when you confront people with the question, 'What would you do?'"

The trailer online mentions a concrete plan of which Berger and Zimbardo want to implement after the study. What is it?

"They want to create programs that will be implemented in schools from an early age. Zimbardo has been saying for a number of years, 'For 40 years I dealt with evil, now I want to do something good.' He set up an organization called the Heroic Imagination Project. That's what he's into now. He wants 'to seed the world with heroes.' If it's done from a young age it can have an impact in the future. At the extreme level, Zimbardo maintains that in the same way we can identify athletes and cultivate them from an early age, heroic behavior can also be cultivated. This is something you won't find in any school curriculum. Still, from my point of view, as a director, as a storyteller, the future application is occupying me less right now: My interest is to tell a good, fascinating story and above all to raise a lot of questions."

'A kind of dissonance'

In school we are taught endlessly about the Holocaust, about the Germans and the Poles and the Ukrainians, which makes us fearful of becoming collaborators with racist despotism ourselves, but at the same time we are appalled at any comparison between them and us. Isn't there an internal contradiction here?

"It's a kind of dissonance which is easier for us to occupy ourselves with because we are to a certain extent alienated [from that era]. It happened there, we were the victims, and you can't compare, but human nature is human nature. Berger and Zimbardo are looking for a mold - a psychological 'gene,' as it were, something that will point out the patterns which make a certain individual become a good person.

"So the first question is whether there is such a thing [as a hero] at all. It might turn out that heroes are best left in the world of mythology and legend, that it's not a concept which can be grasped concretely, the way science is. This question hovers in the background throughout the film, and to tell you the truth, I am just about at the end of working on it and I still don't have an unequivocal answer. As a storyteller, I have the advantage of being able to raise questions like these and think about them.

"One of the first things I did was to go to people who, for us as Israelis, are the first reference that comes to mind [as heroes]: the 'righteous among the nations.'

"I asked the person who is in charge of this category at Yad Vashem, Irena Steinfeld, whether she thought it was possible to find a common denominator among them. 'There is no such thing,' she said. 'That is nonsense. I have interviewed thousands of them and they are all very different from one another - you will not find any resemblance among them.'

"Then I spoke to a lovely Belgian woman who lives in New Jersey, by the name of Arlette deMonceau Michaelis. Part of the image [of such people] that I was raised on, and certainly the one my own daughter was taught about, is more like something you find in a Tarantino movie: This is what apparently happens when you hide Jews, this is what you are in for. Anne Frank stories, things like that. But deMonceau presented a very different picture. She said the majority in Belgium helped, that the right thing to do is to help. Go argue with that.

"In other words she said, 'It was terrific, we had an apartment upstairs and we hid Jews there.' And the truth is that they rescued a great many Jews. Hundreds of people took her surname. That is how the family helped, among other ways: by granting their surname to persecuted Jews, in addition to physically hiding them. In the end, though, she adopts a slightly more serious tone and says, 'When someone is in trouble, you have to help him; that is the basic thing.'

"It was amazing to see the way the woman from Yad Vashem talks about it and the way the Belgian woman talks about it, and to realize how little of that we emulate.

"Helping someone or not helping someone, being aware of another's distress or not being aware - these are absolutes, they constitute a humanistic approach free of historical context. Either you help or you don't, either you are empathetic to someone else's distress or you are not."

Were there any heroes in the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments?

"According to the research parameters of Berger and Zimbardo, to be considered a 'hero' in that kind of experiment, not only would you - in Zimbardo's experiment, say - not be a sadist, you would also bring about the end of the experiment. You would say, 'There is something wrong here.' The only person who did that was a psychology student. She told Zimbardo: 'You are insane, don't do this.' He was actually dating her at the time and she later became his wife. She declared, 'This is something that must not be done.' So that's what it takes - not being a 'couch' humanist."

Not just to say, "I will not do that."

"Yes, you need to act. Obviously, as a first step you need to say, 'I will not take part in these wrongs.' But afterward, it's all about how you are ready to make sacrifices and do something that changes reality."

I read that Zimbardo himself really got into the role he played in the experiment, as a prison superintendent.

"Yes, he assumed the role of chief guard, and he ... he's a character. He's a special character. He comes from a poor Sicilian family and grew up in the Bronx slums. Whatever he does, he does all the way, and as a director I can say that it's great to be able to follow someone like that."

Do you think that what Zimbardo and Berger are doing has a sense of mission to it, or is it purely academic?

"There is something of a mission. They started the research almost without funding. It's hard for me to believe that someone who does not find the subject of interest will devote a good few years of his life to such a study. What practical application will it have? I hope it will have an application. They want to change the world."

When you make a film, are you thinking about the Israeli audience or a universal audience? Or does that calculation even enter into your thinking?

"Absolutely not. A good story is a good story. It will be just as interesting to an Israeli as to someone from Japan or from the United States. In practice, if I do different versions, an Israeli version will be a little different from an international version. When it comes to matters relating to Israel and Palestine, there are information gaps which need to be filled in for the foreign viewer.

"My approach is that I will not make something I myself will not want to see. That's basic, a rule of thumb, which I set long ago.

"I see a lot of junk on television, and many of the creators of the junk are super-intelligent people, people whom you can talk to, who read books and see films and go to museums, people of culture. But when they create something for television, they tell themselves: 'It's for them, for the inferior audience on the other side of the screen.' I do not accept that. There are limitations here, and constraints and implications, but I can only do it this way."

Between "Checkpoint" and "Defamation," you seem to have moved from being a fly on the wall to becoming a character in your films.

"First of all, you have to adjust form to content, not vice versa. In other words, for 'Checkpoint' the fly-on-the-wall approach was appropriate, whereas in 'Defamation' that wouldn't have worked. I am in the forefront in 'Defamation,' it's my viewpoint. I think that affords you far greater artistic freedom. It's a really nice working tool. I would say that I integrate the two approaches: There is a large element of observation and an element of guiding the story. It's almost a genre in itself."

Turning to the public

Local funding sources already on board for "10%" include Reshet, the Channel 2 franchisee, and the New Fund for Cinema and Television. Shamir also obtained about a million euros in Holland, "on paper," as he puts it. Meanwhile, in addition to his own personal investment and that of other donors, Shamir has managed to raise upward of $17,000 for "10%" from the general public. He admits it was the malaise in traditional sources rather than ideological reasons that led him down this particular path.

"The economic crisis started to affect us. All kinds of things went awry. I found myself shooting the film as though I had a million euros, when in actuality the budget is far smaller. The situation became more and more difficult. And then I looked at how many of my colleagues around the world had done the ... let's call it the 'experiment' of raising funds via the Internet. I don't come from an affluent family; my parents are teachers. I don't have the kind of wealthy background that lets me do whatever I want. I earn a living from the films I make, and that's all. No one makes a lot of money from documentary films.

"But beyond the immediate need to finance the film, it seems to me very democratic and very beautiful that there is a way for people to support something they believe in. The very notion of turning to the public, this basic thing of 'if you need help, say that you need help,' might sound like very logical, but not everyone does it.

"This has also a kind of reality check for me. I have had a lot of international exposure and I wanted to see what that means. I was curious to know whether this democratic process by which people finance films has any basis in reality. It is very hard to raise money from people. To this day I am thrilled and moved that someone is willing to spend $10 or $25 or $500 or $1,000, which is what some people have donated. ... And these are people I don't know.

"And there is something else, too. I think this is the first time anyone has done anything like this: As a perk for donating $10,000, you get me for 48 hours, with my camera and editing gear, and I make a short film with you. That's not a bad deal, you know, for a film buff who wants to experience it concretely, or wants to have a cool souvenir from an event of some kind." And that could take you to new and fascinating places. Or not.

"I told myself that if this is what's required of me, to be a kind of escort service for the cinema, then I will do it. I believe that if you don't have the passion and the desire, you can't really work in this profession. I'm ready to go a long way to reach the goal. What's surprising is that many people are not interested in the perks being offered.

"Nick Broomfield sent me an email offering help. Many other directors, less well known, gave me help and support. Film festival directors, without seeing a frame, want the film and are ready to donate. So it's nice to see that there is support and that the work is appreciated. What will come of it in practice? I don't know."

Before calling it a wrap, Shamir wants to add something about the importance of documentary filmmaking in Israel: Despite flourishing in recent years, he stresses, it has not yet received the budgets and the platform it deserves.

"The documentary genre certainly does not occupy a very important place in Israel. Documentaries tend to be screened late at night and no one expects much from them. It's partly a regulatory thing: Some governmental body decided that X hours have to be set aside for documentary films. It's a kind of pill the media outlets have to swallow, and they treat it accordingly. They broadcast the minimum required to meet the criterion.

"I have encountered this in a different form. For example, 'Defamation' was broadcast on Channel 4 in England and was afterward chosen as one of the most successful films they ever showed in that time slot. It brought them a fine viewer rating. In Israel, the film was shown at 11 P.M. and got a 3 percent rating. That's all right, you know, but documentaries can be fun, they can be interesting. And they can pin you to the seat in the movie theater."