When Maya Zinshtein was named winner of an Emmy award last month for her debut film “Forever Pure,” she was fast asleep. The Israeli filmmaker was so certain she wouldn’t win that she’d decided not to fly to America for the ceremony. She even put her phone on silent. The next morning, when she sleepily reached for her phone and saw two messages congratulating her on the win, she rubbed her eyes in disbelief.
“It seemed very unlikely that we’d win the Emmy,” she says with a laugh. “I admit that the thought of traveling all that way just to hear ‘no’ is what led to my decision to stay home, because in Israel we didn’t receive an Ophir Prize,” she notes, referring to the Israeli equivalent of an Oscar. “And even though ‘Forever Pure’ was nominated in eight categories by the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum, we ultimately didn’t win anything. The fact that I went to sleep just goes to show how much I was trying to protect myself.”
“Forever Pure” looks at the relationship between the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club and its hardcore group of fans called La Familia, known for aggressive and racist behavior. The film has been acquired by Netflix and by numerous broadcasters around the world, screened at festivals and awarded a prize for documentary editing at the Jerusalem Film Festival. It has also brought much attention to its creator. But Zinshtein was still keeping expectations low. “We were up against some major films [such as the Frontline documentary ‘Bannon’s War’], but in the end, when I won the Emmy I was sleeping.”
“Forever Pure,” Zinshtein’s debut film (the title is taken from a slogan of the team’s fans) brings to the screen a concentrated dose of racism. It follows the 2012-2013 season during which the owner at the time, Russian oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak, brought in two Chechen Muslim players, Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev. Their arrival spurred a violent response. Beitar fans from La Familia shouted racist epithets, rained curses on team captain Ariel Harush, and protested outside the home of the team’s chairman Itzik Kornfein, cursing him and his wife. When Sadayev scored a goal for Beitar, the fans got up and left the stadium. Then they boycotted the team’s matches and set fire to the club headquarters in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, and drew many followers.
The film follows all of these events as the season unfolds, tracking what happened to those who supported the club and its Chechen players, in tandem with the rise of a player who supported La Familia and its protest. Zinshtein also lets Gaydamak’s voice be heard. The oligarch, who bought an ownership share of the club in 2005 and held it for five years, later admitted he had done so to bolster his chances of being elected mayor of Jerusalem. In the film Gaydamak says that he knew that signing the Muslim players would cause an uproar and claims he did so deliberately in order to reveal the racist face of Israeli society.
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The La Familia organization was not born in the 2012-2013 season, though it has admittedly gained notoriety in recent years for its prominent presence at right-wing demonstrations and violent actions at sporting events.When Gaydamak purchased the club in 2005, La Familia was already a violent, far-right organization even for the highly political Beitar. Still, Zinshtein captured La Familia at a particularly sensitive moment, when its influence began spreading from the soccer playing field to the national political playing field.
The kernel of the film started with a segment for the investigative reporting program “Uvda” (“Fact”). Zinshtein, who was working for the show then, was assigned to follow the Chechen players for a few hours on their first day in Israel. She almost turned down the assignment because the pay was so low. After four days of filming, and after a friend, director Ido Haar, advised her to keep following the story “and stop working for others and start working for yourself,” she decided to make the film. “I spent four days there finishing the segment. It was aired, but I knew that the story was just beginning. I went to [club chairman] Itzik Kornfein and I said to him, ‘Something big is happening here, I think a movie should be made about it.’ He said, ‘That’s an interesting idea. Can you recommend anyone?,” she laughs. “I recommended myself. It was a real lesson – Life sometimes gives you opportunities and you have to grab them. Then Itzik Kornfein asked me, ‘OK, so what are the conditions?’ and the journalist in me said: ‘Total openness.’ Then he asked, ‘When do I get to see the film?’ And I said, ‘At the premiere.’ He took a little time to think it over and then he agreed, but told me I would have to convince the Chechens.”
I imagine you had to convince La Familia too.
“No, because in this season I had to choose sides, and I chose from the start to be with the club. The side of the fans and the side of the club were opposed, and it was never meant to be a film about fans. But still it wasn’t like Kornfein gave me the okay and then I could walk right into the locker room. In the film it seems like they just opened the doors to me and I walked right into Beitar. That’s because I believe that the viewer doesn’t need to know about all the problems I had behind the scenes. In reality, I showed up with approval from Itzik Kornfein but the coach Eli Cohen looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ So I kept returning time after time.”
Getting back to La Familia. That was obviously not an easy experience.
“There was something unbelievable in the level of hatred, in the emotions that it brings out in people, and yes the verbal violence. And standing among this group are also young children who are shouting these same things. I think that stunned me more than anything. Seeing the youth that are part of this thing. It scares me because that’s our future as a society. That’s one reason I’ve been taking this movie to schools and after each screening there’s a discussion with the students. Because ‘Forever Pure’ is an amazing lesson on how racism can break up a group or a society from within. These are very powerful encounters, because it’s not so unusual for some of the teens to be involved with La Familia. And the discussion with them is fascinating and shows that a shift in mindset is possible.”
In 2013, Zinshtein was still far from this insight. After four months of documenting the season from the vantage point of the club whose fans rose up against it and determined who would play for the team and who wouldn’t, she wasn’t sure where she would go from there. “And then the Chechen players left,” as La Familia had demanded, “and I was left with all this material but I didn’t yet know what I had there, if I really had anything.”
Influence of The Guardian
It’s a little odd to hear this from someone whose film tells its story with the power of a punch to the gut, but Zinshtein apparently wasn’t fully aware of her film’s potential impact. In late 2015, while working on the editing, with expenses getting hard to bear, she and her production partner Geoff Arbourne decided to start a crowdfunding campaign. In order to promote it, they agreed to a proposal from the British newspaper The Guardian to broadcast a 10-minute edited excerpt. Zinshtein says this turned out to have a major unexpected effect on the film and on her life.
“I was in the midst of editing, in the midst of chaos, we felt stuck, but we’d made the commitment to The Guardian so we had to do it and we thought it could aid the fundraising campaign,” she says. “We edited the film in London and I remember the editor said to me, ‘You know, you’re a brave woman,’ and I replied, ‘Tomorrow we’ll see whether I’m brave or stupid.’ I thought about a million terrible scenarios that could happen, about the subjects and how they might react. I braced myself, but still I really never thought that La Familia would go nuts about me. Before the movie was out at all, I didn’t really understand how volatile this stuff is. I know that sounds hard to believe, but maybe if I’d realized it then it wouldn’t have happened.”
The short clip went on The Guardian home page and stayed there for one day. It got two million views and became the most-read story in the left-leaning paper known for its criticism of Israel. Zinshtein thought it wouldn’t get much attention in Israel, and figured that the story of the Chechen players was old news by then. She was mistaken.
She soon began receiving threats from fans associated with La Familia. She ignored them until, one evening, she received a different type of letter. “The person who wrote it had done very thorough background research on me; he cited old articles that I’d written. The text was: ‘You don’t know us Beitar fans. You are one and we are many and soon you will learn the power of the many. If you’re lucky, your life will end suddenly.’ It was horrible.”
The letter writer, Avi Agam -- a fitness trainer who was later convicted of threatening Zinshtein and, in a plea bargain, sentenced to do community service -- also inundated Zinshtein and her mother with phone calls and threatening text messages, forcing her to leave her home for several days. “I was in total hysteria. I wasn’t a public figure of any kind and suddenly I was thrust to center stage. He didn’t stop calling for three days straight.”
Zinshtein ultimately decided on a surprising response to the threats. She returned to Israel and through Barak Cohen, the lawyer for the organization, requested a meeting with the fans. “I met with the group of La Familia fans that led the protest shown in the film. It was an incredible meeting on several levels. Suddenly there was a dialogue and I learned from them.”
What did you learn?
“There are things that got into the film, in its current version, because of that connection. I told them from the start that I wasn’t taking anything out of the film, but that if I was mistaken about something, or if I missed something, I’d be glad to add to it. An amazing discussion ensued. One thing that came up was the sign that was held up in the stands in protesting the signing of the Chechen players: ‘Beitar Forever Pure.’ That moment when the sign was held aloft was a key moment and that’s where the title of the film came from. And one of the fans said to me: ‘That sign wasn’t new. It had been held up in the past and no one made a big deal out of it.’
“That was a real shock for me. Turns out the sign had been waved in 2008, five years before the Chechen players arrived. The fan had no trouble finding a picture of it and for weeks we tried together to figure out which game it was at, to try to find video of the sign from then. It was a little research project we did together. I felt it was important because it was a way to show how the ‘No Arabs’ thing was already quite rooted in Beitar years before and how the story of the Chechens just brought it out. I still think it’s one of the strongest bits in the film.”
This first meeting led to a series of encounters that took place at various screenings of the film. At a screening at the Tel Aviv cinematheque, a group of fans arrived all charged up and left in a different mood. The way Zinshtein handled the encounter was admirable. Despite the aggressive tone directed at her, she came across as fearless. “This happened after a lot of preparation. I met with people and spoke with people -- there was a serious effort,” she says. “I had a lot of fear and there were conversations where I told them that they’d gone crazy, and how could they threaten my mother. It was a journey and a huge lesson. You have to come with humility if you aim to make movies about worlds that you’re not a part of. You have to be humble and come and listen.”
So that’s how you stopped being afraid and learned to love the La Familia fans?
“Even if in the end these people didn’t find their way into the film, I saw that there is a whole spectrum of people who are connected to La Familia, and some of them changed over the years.”
From the outside it tends to seem that they’re all the same.
“I don’t want to relate to the fans as a single bloc, or to the members of La Familia. They are made up of a whole mix of people, with a wide range of occupations and social backgrounds, and this organization gives them all a strong sense of belonging. For teenagers, it can sometimes be like the Scouts, only cooler. And that’s the big danger, of course. You have to be very strong to pull yourself out of it and change direction. So there are still many who despite a good deal of discussion have kept the same views, and then there are those whom I could see were changing. Before they were uncompromising and now they’ve started to ask questions and even to change their views about whether Arabs or Muslims can play for Beitar.
“I think that for me, what happened in these meetings was that the human mass called La Familia became names and faces. I had long talks with some of them and I discovered people with life stories that I could find points of identification with. I’m certain that this seeped into the movie and made it more complex. By the way, looking back on it now, I think there was something justified about the fans’ anger over after the segment in The Guardian. The segment wasn’t good. It wasn’t complex enough.”
Still, there’s a reason why La Familia has such a notorious reputation. It’s an ideological group that chose a sports team and not vice-versa.
“In the course of my research for the film, I met with Dr. Yair Galili [a professor of applied sociology and communications], trying to understand the story I was telling. We met near the end of the filming, at a point when it was clear that La Familia was going to score a big victory over the club, and he said it would be very interesting to see what they made of this victory going forward. There’s a sociological theory that says sport is not a mirror of society but rather an early reflection of a society’s path. Go to the soccer field and you’ll see what’s about to happen to a certain society. What happened is that in wake of their victory over the club they set their gaze beyond the field too. “And then we saw their support for Elor Azaria,” says Zinshtein, referring to the Israeli soldier who was convicted of shooting to death an incapacitated Palestinian assailant. “We saw La Familia shirts at every right-wing demonstration, and at demonstrations against the alternative Remembrance Day [a joint Palestinian-Israeli ceremony of bereaved families from both sides]. These are the same people, in soccer and in politics. In this sense, that season was significant as a before-and-after watershed moment.”
A lot of La Familia’s messages seem to have gained a kind of acceptance in recent years.
“There has been an increase in extremism and I truly believe in the idea that sports anticipates the direction of the country. It’s hard to say what feeds what. Is it that after the prime minister warns that ‘Arabs are going to the polls in droves,’ the guy from La Familia feels that it’s okay because even the prime minister is saying this sort of thing. Or is it that after the atmosphere becomes more extremist, the prime minister echoes the same messages. I think it’s a reciprocal process, with the messages echoing in both directions.”
Freedom of expression in Israel
Even now – when she is at work on a second film, also on a sensitive subject, one that straddles the seam between religion, big money, politics and foreign influence – Zinshtein still keeps a Beitar scarf at home, and it’s hard to imagine a more incongruent item in her wardrobe. Red-haired and attractive, she likes to dress in clothes that harken from another era. Watching her, in a puffy dress, discussing soccer with diehard fans at that screening in Tel Aviv, was visually as well as ideologically jarring. She is 37 and her family made aliyah when she was ten. They came from Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s third-largest city, straight to Kibbutz Beit Hashita.“The funny thing is that Gaydamak also ended up there. Like the song says, we two are from the same village.”
After the army she worked as part of the team that set up the Russian-language Channel 9. She produced three movies and a series there. Then she became a producer at Haaretz before going on to become a researcher for Uvda – which led to “Forever Pure,” a film she initially financed herself.
Culture Minister Miri Regev didn’t call to congratulate you on the win?
“No, and it’s a little insulting, not nice even. She has an amazing ability to get the things she wants done -- she’s a bulldozer, she never stops.”
The Loyalty in Culture Law she recently passed pretty much explains why she hasn’t called, doesn’t it? What did you think about it?
“Well, first of all – any attempt to paint ‘Forever Pure’ as an anti-Israel film is ridiculous. The movie received a commendation from Yad Vashem! It said it was an important movie that documents ‘dangerous forces that threaten Israel’s Jewish and democratic values.’ And that’s just the thing. Judging everything on the basis of ‘you’re either with us or against us’ is so simplistic. I have a lot of friends in Russia who are always envious of me that I live and work in a country in which freedom of expression is one of the strongest values. In Israel there is a multitude of voices, and even if I don’t agree with them all, I want to live in a country where these voices can be heard. I want to keep on working and creating here and keep telling stories that look reality right in the eye. I don’t think it’s the government’s job to draw those kinds of boundaries for us.”