Suds Up: Israel’s Race Relations Bubble to Surface in 'Women in Sink'

Hair and harmony, as portrayed in a new Israeli-made documentary, bring New York’s Other Israel Festival to a close – though not without a few split ends.

A scene of a woman having her hair washed in Fifi's salon in Haifa, which is the focus of a new Israeli documentary film called "Women in Sink," which debuted last week in the Other Israel festival in New York.
Photo courtesy of Iris Zaki

How does one get to the root of the social and cultural tangles inherent in Israel’s multi-ethnic society? By getting Arabs and Jews to let their hair down — literally and metaphorically — thought Israeli filmmaker Iris Zaki. Her second effort, “Women in Sink,” offers an eclectic view of the issue through the prism of a Haifa hair salon.

The 35-minute documentary, which won the award for best short documentary at the Haifa International Film Festival in October, had its premiere last Thursday in the United States, closing the eight-day Other Israel Film Festival at the JCC Manhattan.

Though the grand finale was meant to be a doubleheader of women-centric films that mine deep social truths through the filter of a beauty parlor, Palestinian directors Tarzan and Arab Nasser had yanked their Gaza-based feature, “Degrade,” at the last minute

Director Iris Zaki at the Other Israel film festival opening night.
Other Israel film festival

As a result, the final event focused solely on “Women in Sink,” featuring a post-screening Q&A with director Zaki, moderated by Israeli actor Mili Avital. (Avital is a co-star in “Hatufim,” the Israeli television series that inspired Showtime’s “Homeland.”)

However disappointed the festival’s organizers may have been with the last-minute withdrawal of “Degrade,” moviegoers weren’t, apparently opting to view it as a case of the glass being half full, rather than half empty.

“It would have been nice [to see the other film], of course,” said New Yorker Merle Woldenberg Wolff. “But in the end, the festival wrapped on a hopeful note. And I’m grateful for that.”

The ninth annual Other Israel event that just ended highlighted women filmmakers. Beauty parlors have made compelling backdrops in many a female narrative, from “Steel Magnolias” to “Beauty Shop” — and for good reason.

“A salon is where we go to feel better and unburden,” Zaki said after the screening of “Sink” last week. “It’s a woman’s alternative to therapy or confession with a few obvious perks.”

Diverse slice of life

A Haifa native currently residing in London, Zaki was no stranger to her hometown’s integrated demographic. But she sought her mother’s help in finding a salon that truly represents an ethnically diverse slice of the city’s life.

“Fifi’s is like no other,” said the 36-year-old filmmaker. “It’s right in the Arab community, but because its owner Nawal is so warm and welcoming, it attracts women of all ages and cultural backgrounds.

But how to get the clients to confide in the filmmaker the way they do with Nawal?

“I knew I couldn’t learn how to cut hair within my tight deadline, but washing hair, I could do,” said Zaki, whose first film, “My Kosher Shifts” (2011) had her working the front desk of a hotel in north London’s Hasidic community.

Employing her signature technique of becoming a secondary actor in her films to provoke discussion and move along the plot – Zaki learned the fine art of being the resident shampoo girl, stroking scalps and stimulating conversation.

The new film opens with Zaki practicing on Fifi’s Christian Arab owner Nawal, a maternal figure with big, brown eyes and an easy manner. With her head immersed in the sink, she gently guides Zaki’s hands. And the two start to bond.

“You know I grew up in Israel,” Zaki says softly, the soothing sound of water flowing in the background. “Here we are being taught to be afraid of Arabs That they want to kill us.”

“God forbid,” says Nawal, the camera unflinchingly focused on her face. “It’s horrible to hear that but that’s the truth.”

Zaki’s sink-side confession engenders an immediate rapport.

“And trust me it’s mutual,” Nawal says. “We were taught that the Jews want to kill us.”

But would Nawal’s clients be as forthcoming with the filmmaker?

Another challenge Zaki faced was a technical one: How to direct, shoot and shampoo all at the same time?

“I came up with this idea to set the camera up on a device right above the sink so it wouldn’t require my hands,” she said. “I was afraid that having the camera right over their heads might intimidate [the clients], but it was amazing how quickly they forgot it was there and spoke freely.”

The ingenious, aerial tripod also gives “Sink” its unique vantage point. The tight lens is a great equalizer, focusing on each client’s face, emphasizing common features while minimizing their differences. All ancillary details — from clothes and even to hair — are whisked out of view, a metaphor for the cultural differences otherwise dividing them. Without these distractions, you’re forced to look into each woman’s eyes and subsequently their souls, arriving at something universal. The lens becomes virtually color-blind.

'You're Arab?'

Further leveling the playing field is Zaki’s three-minute interview format, which means no character is given more of a spotlight than another. At times, it feels like speed dating, an exhilarating whirl of hasty hellos, major eye contact and quick cuts. But “Sink” never feels like a wash or a rapid-fire succession of talking heads. With their heads tossed back, appearing both relaxed and vulnerable, the women let down their guard and let you in.

In the end, you realize that perceptions don’t often match reality, whether superficially or on a deeper level. Zaki remarks to one client: “You’re Arab? You’re so fair, I thought you were Jewish.”

The woman, a native of Nazareth, tells her that she feels free and at home in Haifa, unfettered by discrimination, though she says she experienced some of it when she was in college. This revelation surprises Zaki, who expected to hear veritable war stories. And though the director hardly hides her agenda, gently nudging each woman to address issues of race, culture and stigmatization – she lets them tell their own stories, never twisting or manipulating the dialogue or forcing her own narrative on theirs, as other directors often do.

Zaki's ability to juggle her various roles — instigator, reporter, shampoo girl, shrink — lends the film its quirky pace, charm and surprising trajectory. She arrived at the salon in search of the great racial divide, but emerges feeling oddly in harmony with this colorful sisterhood and hopeful for the future of Israeli society, her theories of segregation washed down the drain.

By the end, she’s traded race talk for steamy confidentials. And that’s when “Sink” finally lands in some hot water. As Zaki starts to dish out on love, sex, marriage and kids, bonding with Nawal over how they’re both single and have chosen careers over family, she opens up about personal details others find shocking. “I’ve had over 100 lovers,” she reveals. “What?!” a stunned Nawal replies.

And that’s how the film wraps.

No heady follow-up.

Just steam, bubbles and pouf!

Perhaps certain cultural beliefs are too hair-raisingly different. Maybe some dirt isn’t meant to surface, even within the sanctity of a hair salon. Still, for all the film’s shortcomings — there are no Muslim Arabs interviewed, and the brevity of each storyline leaves one with many loose ends and not enough flow — “Sink” whips up quite the lather over women, race and identity in Israel through an alluringly rosy lens. And like a good spa treatment, it leaves you wanting more.