In the climactic scene of Mor Vital’s documentary “Julianna Lev: Arab, Israeli, Transgender, Porn-Star,” Julianna, an Arab transgender, wears a black Arabic gown and burka, which cover her from head to foot. That’s the only way she dares to get out of a taxi in her childhood neighborhood in Jaffa.
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She stands for a few minutes on the street where she grew up before fleeing into the car and asking to be whisked back to Tel Aviv, a few minutes’ ride away but a world apart. Only as she is leaving the ancient Arab area does she dare to lift the fabric covering her face and breathe.
In her daily life, Julianna doesn’t hide much — she acts in pornographic films for a living. On set, she is neither panicky or deterred.
The gap between the place she came from, which doesn’t accept her or even tolerate her presence, and the life she now lives under the aegis of the supportive community of Tel Aviv transgenders, earned her a spot in the documentary that Vital was invited to create for the film collection "Fucking Different XXY." The documentary will be screened this week as part of the Panorama section of the Berlin International Film Festival, which opened Thursday.
Vital’s documentary work, although far from sophisticated or “professional” in the usual sense, challenges accepted cinematic categories and the role of film in general.
In “Julianna Lev: Arab, Israeli, Transgender, Porn-Star,” Vital combines footage from interviews with Julianna, clips from porn films Julianna has appeared in and footage of Julianna living her life.
Vital, too, is involved in the porn industry, acting and producing her own movies, which appear on her flourishing website. The website also includes chat rooms, dating sites and an advice forum. But mainly there's porn, lots and lots of porn, all designed, she says, to help Israeli transgenders form an independent communal identity.
She also documents the Israeli transgender community and maintains a kind of archive that includes hundreds of hours of film.
She says the documentaries are a kind of protest against the stereotypes of transgenders. “They say we’re violent and that we’re all prostitutes,” she explains. “That really bothered me, and I decided I wanted to change it. And because I love film and documentaries, I began to document. I’ve been documenting the lives of transgenders for 11 years. Each of them is an entire world, with a story of her own and dreams of her own.”
Vital, a Jewish Israeli who was born as a male, was 14 when she began to look for pills to help her change her body. The family doctor wanted parental permission to prescribe hormones for her. But when she asked her mother, she got a slap in the face. “I didn’t know what it was called, but I felt I was like those I had seen on Hayarkon and Allenby [in Tel Aviv]. I wasn’t gay, I felt like a transgender. I felt that the way they live and what they do - that was me. Only later did I learn the concepts.”
Vital eventually managed to get pills without going to a health maintenance organization. Although unsupportive at first, her family gradually came around. Today, she says, she is very close with them, especially her mother.
The Israel Defense Forces didn’t draft her, because she was already in the process of change. At the age of 19, she began to act in porno films and opened a dating site with her partner. She was invited to participate in several films in England, and her salary enabled her to upgrade the website. She also began to produce films herself. In some she appears, and in some she employs other actresses.
The only men on her set are the actors, and the films include a relatively well developed plot leading to the sex, she says. She feels it’s important that all her films carry a humanist message of peace and brotherhood.
She couldn’t understand why people were shocked when, at one festival, she screened a film in which an Arab boy fantasizes about two Israeli soldiers kidnaping and having sex with him.
“I received harsh complaints,” she says. “There were people who thought it was too much. But I see the sexual potential in every situation. On the other hand, in my pornographic films I like to have a story. There’s a lot of interest in the film, which is supposed to cause the viewer to understand something not hurtful. I’m not looking for tough porn. I want it to be pink, beautiful, with a statement.”
But the importance lies not only in the films’ messages but in their very existence, since they reveal the bodies of the transgenders and their sexual fantasies. Vital isn’t willing to give up sex and nudity, even in her documentary films. “Porno helps transgenders to accept the change that their bodies are undergoing. To change from a male to a female isn’t easy. Everyone likes the result, but the process is very hard. It’s hard for you to see your body in the mirror. When you see others who undress and feel good about their bodies, it helps you to learn to love your body too. To feel comfortable with it.”
Haaretz: Why do you like porn?
“I enjoy the situation, the filming, that people see me and my body. Everything that comes with it. I enjoy the little story before that. That’s how I built myself, too. I can’t say, now I’m a lawyer. I began with this passion, with this enthusiasm, and I still have it.”
Did you have a choice?
“Yes, of course. I’ve done other things too. I washed dishes in a café on Nordau Boulevard [in Tel Aviv], for example. But it didn’t interest me. I like to film and to be filmed, and I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I don’t see a difference between a pornographic film and an ordinary film, because everyone undresses in the end and fucks. Today in the greatest movies they want as much sex as possible. As a transgender, I’m also immediately connected to sexuality. So where should we go? It seems a normal place to us.”
Do you want to make other films, to become mainstream?
“I’m working at the moment on a script for a full-length film,” she says. “I don’t know what you call mainstream. But when you see how many people come to see my films, that’s mainstream. The moment that people enter and see what I create, that’s enough for me. I do what I want in any case. I’m not supported by any external entity or cinema fund.”