This Filmmaker Moved to a Settlement to Make a Movie: 'I Felt Bad About Being a Jew There'

Having previously talked with guests at a Haredi hotel in London and with customers at an Arab-owned hair salon, leftist director Iris Zaki set out for the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, to find personal stories behind the stereotypes

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Iris Zaki. It was clear to her that she was not going to take up residence in a settlement of extremists, such as Kiryat Arba
Iris Zaki. It was clear to her that she was not going to take up residence in a settlement of extremists, such as Kiryat ArbaCredit: Meir Cohen
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

At the Tekoa settlement, you can find outdoor yoga classes at sunset, an organic supermarket and a sign promising “free hugs” to all who ask. But when documentary filmmaker Iris Zaki arrived there two summers ago to shoot her film “Unsettling,” the response of some of the locals was far from mellow. News that a Tel Aviv leftist had shown up and was going to make a movie set off alarms and elicited dire warnings on Tekoa internet forums. She was described as an opponent of the occupation and it was noted that her sister-in-law was none other than Meretz leader MK Tamar Zandberg.

Iris Zaki. 'As I see it, respecting someone who is speaking does not mean that I necessarily agree with them.'Credit: Meir Cohen

Before long, the anger had spread beyond the Internet. “We live in a place where people were murdered. There is blood smeared on the sidewalks here. And leftists are usually anti-Israel and anti-settler,” fumes one resident in the movie’s opening scene. He doesn’t appear on screen and is only heard in voice-over, but his anger toward the invader of his settlement is unmistakable. “Do I want to see my friends humiliated on YouTube? To see on television how they trash the place I live? No! So I don’t want any dialogue with this woman,” he says.

The pressure to which Zaki was subjected didn’t end there. Some people in Tel Aviv were upset with her too. “A lot of friends in Tel Aviv told me, Careful, don’t make them look good in the movie,” she says. “I had to explain that that wasn’t my motivation, to make the settlers look bad. I remember one director yelling at me – ‘I don’t want to see any settlers, I’m not interested in what they have to say.’” At one point, she admits, all the pressure made her think about giving up the project.

>> At alternative Israeli Film Festival in N.Y., film about settlers proves unsettling experience for viewersWhere Palestinians and settlers meet as equals

But in the end, Zaki spent two hot summer months in Tekoa, in the West Bank, south of Jerusalem. Every morning she set up a table outside the grocery store, covered it with a white cloth, placed two chairs and three cameras next to it, and invited anyone who wanted to, to sit down and talk with her.

At first she spent most of her time alone, bored and waiting, but gradually more and more residents came to the table, took up the challenge and agreed to talk, to share their life stories with her, to talk about their sometimes complicated relationship with the place and the impact the choice to live there has had on their lives.

The result is a film that does not offer more of the usual material. “Unsettling” premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival’s documentary competition and is now showing at cinematheques around the country and at international film festivals. It manages to avoid a long list of settler stereotypes. It does not show messianic kippah-wearers frolicking on hilltops, or rifle-toting Arab-haters, or leaders who encourage an entire public to break the law in the name of God and for the sake of Greater Israel. “Unsettling” does not deny the existence of all of the above, but it puts the focus on settlers of another kind: people who aren’t living their lives in the shadow of some extreme ideological passion, but just living their lives over the Green Line, for a variety of reasons.

Zaki’s leftist position is certainly present in her film: The words “occupation” and “apartheid” are part of her conversations with the local residents. Yet the direct and very personal discussions reveal a less familiar side of the settlers. One person who speaks with Zaki in the film says that he’s a leftist who came to Tekoa because of his religious wife, and that he wouldn’t hesitate to leave for the sake of peace.

From 'Unsettling.' 'I like to listen to a different opinion and then to be a bit confused'Credit: Or Azulay

Zaki encountered settlers who were charming to her: They invited her for dinner, celebrated her birthday, went out drinking with her. She even conducted a brief romance with a resident

Another woman says she joined the religious-nationalist hilltop youth when she was a teenager, not because of ideology but for the romantic allure of sleeping in tents and taking part in demonstrations. When she realized what this all looked like from a Palestinian point of view, she immediately gave it up. Her friend, who grew up in Hebron, readily admits that she feels no empathy for the Palestinians and, without so much as blinking, says yes, she is a fascist.

A friendly young single father with custody of his four children describes how he abandoned his past as a hilltop youth after his friends stoned a police car, but remained in Tekoa, mostly for financial reasons. Among the other people we meet are Moriah Kaniel, granddaughter of the late rabbi Moshe Levinger, a leader of the settler movement; and Michal Fruman – daughter-in-law of the late Rabbi Menachem Fruman – who was stabbed by a Palestinian in Tekoa when she was pregnant.

“For me, the goal is to provoke thought, not to silence something,” says Zaki. “And the people who sit and talk in my movie are not unusual. I’ve talked with a lot of settlers, I’ve heard a lot of views like these, and ultimately I chose to put in the movie the people who came out with the most interesting things.”

‘Miss S.’ of Cairo

In her next film, Zaki plans to focus on a story connected to her family history. Zaki was originally the stage name adopted by her Egyptian grandmother, Masouda Helwani, the daughter of a bourgeois Jewish family in a Cairo suburb. She studied music in the big city, became a successful singer in Egypt and in other Arab countries in the 1930s and 1940s, performing under the stage name Souad Zaki. Her fans called her “Miss S.” She worked with the top composers and musicians of the time and starred in several movies, sometimes with Umm Kulthum. Everyone expected her to have a magnificent career, but the 1948 war and the anti-Jewish riots that followed put an end to this dream.

Souad Zaki’s husband, the qanun player Mohammed Elakkad, a Muslim, immigrated to the United States and sent his wife divorce papers from there. Soon afterward, she came to Israel with their son. But here the Egyptian star wasn’t able to rebuild her career. She sang with Israel Radio’s Arab Orchestra, but as a single mother she had to support herself by working as a cleaner and then as the owner of a snack bar in Tel Aviv.

Singer Souad Zaki, Iris Zaki's grandmother. Her fans called her 'Miss S.' Credit: Uri Zaki
Souad Zaki’s husband, the qanun player Mohammed Elakkad.Credit: rami shllush

Thirty-four years after she and her husband separated, and shortly after the death of Elakkad’s second wife, he and Souad remarried. They lived in Brooklyn together, before moving to Israel. “I was 8, and suddenly I had a Grandpa Mohammed, who was a bald American with gold rings,” Zaki laughs. Her grandfather is buried in Haifa’s Muslim cemetery in Haifa, her grandmother in a Jewish one.

Iris Zaki’s biography is a bit more straightforward, so far. She is 40 and was born in Haifa. Her parents, a social worker mother and a psychologist father, divorced when she was 3. In the 1990s, she was a counselor in the Hanoar Ha’oved Vehalomed movement. “That’s when I realized that I was a leftist. There was some activity where they posed the question, ‘adam o adama?’ ‘People or land?’ [Which is more important?] And I immediately said, ‘people.’ So I was actually a leftist even before my brother,” she says, referring to her brother, Uri. Uri, who is four years her senior, once represented the organization B’Tselem in the United States, and is married to Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg.

Haredi hotel

After her military service, Zaki moved to Tel Aviv, studied communications and worked for the MTV music channel. But she found herself unsatisfied. So at age 31, she decided to escape.

London was her chosen destination, and to avoid being alone there, she persuaded two friends to join her. She told them it was their last chance to live it up, with no children and no commitments.

To obtain a visa, she registered for a master’s program, studying documentary filmmaking at Brunel University.

A still image from 'Unsettling.' 'For me, the goal is to provoke thought, not to silence something'Credit: Or Azulay

'These are people who have grown accustomed to controlling who enters or doesn’t enter their settlement, and suddenly someone comes along who breaks down their sense of control'

She found work as a reception clerk at an ultra-Orthodox hotel, and her talent for quickly creating intimacy with total strangers encouraged some of the guests to get into very open personal conversations with her. The curiosity she sparked every time she told people about her unusual job soon made her realize that there was unrealized potential here, and after nine months of studies, when it came time to make a final film, she managed to persuade her boss at the hotel to let her put a camera behind the reception desk and film her conversations with the guests.

“It was clear to me that if I brought a photographer, they wouldn’t speak freely with me. And it was also clear that if I held the camera, I would no longer be a reception clerk, but a photographer, and that would also undermine the conversation. So I placed the camera on a tripod behind me, I spoke to the guests who arrived at the reception desk and I filmed.”

The result was “My Kosher Shifts” (2011), a 20-minute film that includes serious personal conversations in a lighthearted atmosphere. One guest, for instance, described the difficulties of finding a Jewish book in London. Another explained why he doesn’t dress like a Haredi Jew despite being just that. And one couple told her how important it was that she find herself a husband already.

The film was screened at a few film festivals, where it was well received, and Zaki decided to enroll in the PhD documentary film program at Royal Holloway University, outside London.

A meeting with Haim Bresheeth, who headed the school of communications at Sapir College in Israel before moving to the University of East London (and who is one of the spearheads of the British academic boycott of Israel), helped her to focus her research proposal. “He told me, ‘Focus on your method, which is essentially a microscope for communities. In the end, people are not afraid of the camera, they are afraid of the cameraman. It’s a matter of control and intimacy.’”

Her “orphan camera” method, as she called it, enables her to penetrate an alien community and learn about it from within, while conducting intimate conversations with members of the community. Her advisors let her know her that they would accept her film about the Haredi hotel, and she in turn committed to make two more films using the method.

For her next film, Zaki exchanged the Haredi hotel for a little hairdressing salon in Wadi Nisnas, the Arab neighborhood in Haifa. Zaki worked there as a shampooer for a month, installed a camera above the sink, and filmed the conversations she conducted with Jewish and Arab women as she washed their hair.

The intimacy formed around the sink, along with the aesthetic, undeviating frame that was created thanks to the “orphan” camera placed above it, produced a short (36 minutes), original and brilliant film called “The Shampoo Summit,” which earned her high accolades, garnered several awards, and even a star turn as an “op-doc” on the New York Times website .

“When I made the rounds of the film festivals with ‘The Shampoo Summit,’ I realized that the fact that the opinions voiced [in the film] were not extreme, simply drove people crazy,” she relates, “because everyone is so accustomed to seeing films with extreme characters, the types that know, the types who have decisive opinions. Cameras always open up for these sorts of people. And I stumbled across Arab women there who were fond of Israel, and that provoked the viewers.”

Breaking the Silence’ is here

Following the reception desk and the sink came the turn of an old idea she had of moving into a settlement and positioning her orphan camera to document her conversations with the locals.

It was clear to her that she was not going to take up residence in a settlement of extremists, such as Kiryat Arba. After receiving several recommendations about Tekoa, she made a date to go there to meet with Matanya Freund, the contact person who subsequently became the film’s chief protagonist, to discuss arrangements.

A shot from 'Unsettling'Credit: Or Azulay

In early 2016, Zaki arrived from London in order to prepare for the shoot, and that summer she settled into an apartment in Tekoa. She began working at a pizzeria that operated out of a mobile home, with the intention of shooting the film there, but the plan collapsed pretty quickly once discussions on Facebook pages and online forums of the community warned people to stay away.

That wasn’t the end of her problems. When Zaki was walking one day along her street with a Polish cinematographer who accompanied her during the first few days, a few residents of Tekoa went into a panic. “They got hysterical when they saw us filming there,” she relates.

“Two of them grabbed the door of the car and wouldn’t let me drive. And once we’d slipped away and went to a wedding on a nearby street, they wrote on the street’s WhatsApp group: ‘There are two young women here who have run away from us, they may be from ‘Breaking the Silence’; Call security.’ I wrote in response: ‘Listen, you put my cinematographer into a panic, she can’t stop shaking,’ and they countered with: ‘You are coming to show that the settlers are violent.’ When I responded that that really wasn’t the case and that they should stop being violent, they threw me out of the group. I was terribly hurt. I felt that I was bearing a terribly heavy burden of proof, because they saw me as a con man.

“These are people who have grown accustomed to controlling who enters or doesn’t enter their settlement, and suddenly someone comes along who breaks down their sense of control. I am usually pretty cheeky and I say what I think, but here I felt that I had to knuckle under, to swallow something awfully strong in my personality. It was a nightmare. It was the harshest experience in my life. Not for naught is the film called ‘Unsettling’ in English.”

Nevertheless, in parallel with all of these goings-on, she hastens to clarify, throughout her entire stay in Tekoa, Zaki encountered people who were charming to her: They invited her for dinner, celebrated her birthday with her around a campfire, went out drinking with her in the evenings. She even conducted a brief romance with a resident.

Your anger is not reflected in the film. Although you declare yourself a leftist, you speak about occupation and about apartheid, you let the settlers talk, you listen to them politely.

“As I see it, respecting someone who is speaking does not mean that I necessarily agree with them. Actually, because I know what my opinions are, I like to listen to a different opinion and then to be a bit confused, and then go back to my own position. I think that we are now in an era in which people don’t like to be confused, don’t like to hear a voice that is not unequivocal. People want to know who you are, if you’re with us or with them. And I’m interested in understanding what’s in the middle.”

It didn’t disturb you to make a film that gives a stage to the settlers and enables them to lay out a perspective that is opposed to your own?

Zaki shooting 'Usettling.' A lot of people claim that I humanize the settlers in the film. But I do not want to humanize or to demonizeCredit: Or Azulay

“I remember that at the start what I really wanted was for the conversations to be about love and about life, that no one had yet made a film about settler guys talking about how they meet girls. In the end, the film came out very political, but all of the politics in it emerges from the personal. Everything that does not emerge from the personal, the editor and I threw out.”

And weren’t you afraid that in the end you would find yourself with a film that would not represent your stance, what is important for you to say?

“A lot of people claim that I humanize the settlers in the film. But I do not want to humanize or to demonize. I think that the film points up a lot of problems of the settlements, much more than a film about crazed Hebron residents would show, because it demonstrates the problematic aspect of the protracted situation, and the outcome of that situation – what it means to be someone who grew up in a settlement, what it means to raise children in a settlement. I tried to bring a lot of humor into the film, including humor about myself, about the fact that I am an embittered Tel Aviv leftist. Because at the end of the day, I am also part of the occupation, I am living my life, and I, too, am not too much of an activist. Because all of us are part of this thing.”

Did something change in you as a result of getting to know the settlers?

“Look, it was pretty terrible for me to be there. There was a sense of apartheid, in the worst way you can imagine. When I drove out there on the roads, I was scared, and I also hated myself for it, because it was as racist as you can get to be afraid. I felt bad about being a Jew in that place, felt huge guilt, it was obvious to me that we shouldn’t be there. And when we filmed Palestinians at a roadblock in Tekoa, it was awful, I and my cinematographer were terribly embarrassed to see them in this situation, and even more so to film them.

“But when it comes to certain subjects, I am more confused now. For example, yes two states, no two states, I no longer know what is more right. It’s funny, but there, of all places, on a settlement, I felt that Palestinians and Jews could live together, in the same place. It’s obvious to me that the occupation has to end, but is the solution one state or two? I don’t know.

“What I can say is that my experience on a settlement reconnected me to Israel. I connected there with a lot of young people, and these guys that I sat with and drank with and ate with very much reminded me of my friends from Tel Aviv. The language is the same language, the slang is the same slang, and in spite of all the disgust and the difficultly, I had the feeling that I was at home, sort of. So at a certain point I went to the [Israeli immigration and] absorption bureau, they explained to me how to fill out the form of a ‘returning resident,’ I filled it out, and I realized that that’s it, that I am staying here in Tel Aviv. It was clear to me that I had zero interest in going back to London.”

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