It’s the end of 2016. Every morning, Ines Moldavsky goes from her Tel Aviv home to another day at the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem. She spends the monotonous bus trip on Highway 443 – which passes through the West Bank – staring at the scenery.
On one of these tedious bus rides, she has an idea: What would happen if once the bus passed the Green Line (the pre-1967 border), she took out her smartphone and turned on the Tinder app? Would the location-dependent dating application, ignorant of borders or religious and national differences, offer her meetings with men living on the other side of the Green Line? If so, what would it be like to chat with a Palestinian man from the territories, to flirt with him, and perhaps even have sex with him? Would she have enough courage to actually do it?
It’s February 2018. “The Men Behind the Wall,” the short documentary made by Moldavsky, is being screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, winning the prestigious Golden Bear award for best short film. Moldavsky had taken up the challenge she’d imagined during those long bus rides and gone on an internet dating spree with men living in the West Bank and Gaza, allowing online flirtations to advance to the level of actual dates across the border. Ignoring warnings she received, she came back alive to make a movie about her adventures.
“I’d be going every day though the occupied territories on Highway 443, and since Bezalel is also a kind of an enclave in East Jerusalem, I had daily access to areas along the seam line,” says Moldavsky by Skype from Berlin, where she’s been living for the last few months.
“It freaked me out to think of the internet as a meta-national space that can be used for subversive or creative purposes, both radical and activist,” she says.
As she was playing with the Tinder idea in her mind, she recalled a number of performance artists – such as the Russian Petr Pavlensky, who nailed his scrotum to Moscow’s Red Square, and the Yugoslav Tanya Ostojic, who shaved off her hair and went looking for a husband with a European passport – and decided she wasn’t interested in producing another conventional documentary.
She says that “these performance artists take subversive decisions that rattle governments and legal systems, trying to find openings in order to do things that are national taboos. I understood that this is what I wanted to do. When I decided to make contact with men beyond the border through dating websites, I started doing so obsessively.”
Her film will be shown Tuesday night at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, as part of an international festival of student films. It is a bold and provocative documentary, trampling conventions and scoffing at anxieties.
“Tell me, did you ever screw a Jewish woman?” Moldavsky asks a young man she meets on Tinder. “No, you’ll be the first, if you want to,” he replies, as the camera pans over Palestinian villages seen from the bus traveling to Jerusalem.
Moldavsky quickly turns the conversation toward sex, describing her preferences, and when things start to heat up a problem arises: This young man has no way of getting to Tel Aviv to fulfill these hot promises.
In the film, Moldavsky makes contact with other Palestinian men and crosses the border to meet them, demonstratively ignoring Israel Defense Forces warnings as she travels to meet her dates in the territories.
The 31-year-old was born in Buenos Aires and came to Israel when she was 3. She grew up in Rishon Letzion, but her parents didn’t blend in well and left the country at some point. She was discharged from the army due to some emotional issues.
“It was clear to me from a young age that I wouldn’t serve in the army,” she says. “I never bought the Zionist lie and all the propaganda. I never felt part of it, and I think it shows in the film.
"I’m in a strange situation in this country, since on one hand I could be seen as Tel Aviv hipster, but I’m not really from here." she continues. "I wasn’t born here and my parents didn’t fit in – people find it hard to even pronounce my name properly. So I have this background that allows me to look at things from a different perspective, and to some extent that allowed me to make the movie, since I didn’t buy into the threats that most Israelis believe in – according to which most Palestinians are terrorists and it’s very dangerous to go there. My complicated identity allowed me to observe this from a slightly different angle.”
Most people she told about her project thought she was crazy, she says. They told her people don’t go to the territories, that it’s illegal and that she’ll surely be killed there. And to go alone to meet men she didn’t know and talk to them about sex! Who does something like that?
Only her mentors in Bezalel supported her. And yes, she was a bit afraid, since she had never been there before and didn’t really know what was going on there.
“What allowed it to happen was that there were many student exchanges then at Bezalel, and there were many students who got their kicks out of going to Ramallah and Bethlehem every couple of days. I saw that it was actually quite easy and people do it,” she explains.
“One woman came with me twice and helped take some shots there, and that gave me the courage. Besides, I have an Argentine passport, so I knew that if I were detained at checkpoints I could always produce it.”
‘Israeli women their only option’
In addition to Tinder, Moldavsky also used the OK Cupid dating app and corresponded with many men.
She ultimately met four of them, three of whom appear in the movie.
“All of them were really nice, they wanted to meet me,” she relatse. “On OK Cupid there are no women from the territories, only men. So their only option for meeting women is women from Israel. That’s too bad, because they are striking, strong and gentlemanly. In all my conversations with them, I never encountered any racist or Israel-hating comment.”
Sexuality is very prominent in the documentary. Not physically, but through correspondence and conversations. When Moldavsky creates her profile online, for example, and gets to a question of “What do you think about a lot?” she answers simply and to the point: “Sex.”
When she talks to men she meets online, the conversation deals with the subject many times. “My previous films and projects also dealt with sexuality. Something that is not sexual doesn’t interest me,” she explains.
“So it simply happened. It’s quite obvious in a movie about the dating world, especially the online contemporary one, in which you immediately talk about hard-core sex.”
When Moldavsky fills out her profile online, she’s also asked if she likes to talk about politics. Her answer is an emphatic no. This is quite surprising for an artist who chose to make a documentary about relations between Israelis and Palestinians, and about life on both sides of the Green Line.
“That’s precisely it: I wanted to make a film that would be very political and charged, but from a different perspective," she explains. “There are thousands of media and film representations of the well-hashed topics that have become almost clichés. I don’t enjoy arguing about politics. When people tell me ‘Bibi said this and Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] said that,’ it doesn’t interest me. I wanted to investigate it from another angle, a gender-based one, examining reciprocal relations between nationality and gender. This is not a classical political movie about the conflict.”
She was fearful when she embarked on this journey, but she is no less anxious now. “I’m dying of fright before the screening in Tel Aviv. Scared of the reaction. I know I could be eaten alive, from left and right. People were angry after the Berlin screening,” she says.
“People get mad when you relate to sexuality. It’s hard for many people, it angers them. I was asked why I talk to these men about sex. I was expected instead to commit some heroic act in trying to bring about peace.”
Nevertheless, she hopes that, along with the anger, there will be some laughter at the screening. There are funny situations in the film and, in general, the whole situation is absurd and funny, she reminds people.
“Besides, I hope people will see in this film a different and new representation of Palestinian men, as people who are gentlemen, tender and sexy. This is so different than presenting them as terrorists – the usual way Palestinians are portrayed in the media. I hope people realize the absurdity. We’ve been a web-based society for a long time, so what do physical barriers mean? What’s the significance of all this nonsense?" she asks. "The internet era requires a new spatial way of thinking. Land and squabbling over land is old world. What’s to fight about over land? Maybe I’m a naïve hippie, but that’s what I feel.”