Israeli Artist Shira Geffen Takes the Heat for Criticizing the War in Gaza

The writer and prize-winning filmmaker, who hails from a scion of Israeli artists, is under fire for her outspoken views, but is not easily burned.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Shira Geffen. "You don't need a monster hugging a smiling child to sell a book."
Shira GeffenCredit: Eyal Nevo
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

In the last few months writer and filmmaker Shira Geffen found herself in the eye of two media storms sparked by the explosive friction between artists who dare to express an opinion about their surrounding reality — and that painful, forlorn reality, which displays ever decreasing tolerance of criticism.

It first happened last summer during Operation Protective Edge at the Jerusalem Film Festival, when Geffen asked the audience at a screening of her film to stand for a minute of silence in memory of four Palestinian children killed that day by Israel Defense Forces fire. The second time was a few weeks ago when her father, the songwriter Yehonatan Geffen, was assaulted at home for comments he made about the left's less of the election.

In an interview two weeks after the incident, Shira Geffen demonstrated steadfastness and determination by not retracting previous statements. Instead of panicking over the venomous criticism directed at her, she explains her position. Instead of caving into pressure she insists she will keep expressing her views the way she was taught to do. Instead of apologizing for politics penetrating her work, she expresses hope it will engender change.

Amid the storms, Gefen’s creative projects still remain at the core, and as usual she skips with surprising ease between different, varied fields. Last December her sixth children’s book, “Sea of Tears,” was published. She is now promoting her second film, “Self Made,” while writing her first television drama series with her partner writer Etgar Keret. She is also busy writing her next feature film, “Accompanying Parent,” about a girl’s coming of age. Her other interests — theater, dance, acting and songwriting — have to patiently wait their turn. Even Geffen has her limits.

Being multidisciplinary does not make her work shallower, Geffen says. She certainly isn’t sorry her multiplicity of tasks prevents her from specializing in one profession.

“I’m not a linear person at all. I’m all about breadth, being associative,” she says. “That’s how I write and think. That’s how I think I develop.”

Geffen, born in 1971, never studied film, but this fact didn’t stop “Jellyfish” — the film based on her script and co–directed with Keret (who also has no film education) — from debuting at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. It even won the Camera d’Or, the prize for best first feature film. Seven years later, when she finished the first film she had written and directed on her own, she was invited back to the prestigious French film festival. The critics praised “Self Made,” and the film made the long festival circuit around the globe. Along the way, Geffen won AFI’s New Auteurs Critics’ Award and picked up two awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

The heroine of “Self Made,” which will debut next weekend (translated into English) in Israel, is Michal (Sarah Adler), a successful Jerusalem artist. One morning, just before going abroad for an important event, her bed breaks. She hits her head and loses her memory. One army roadblock away lives Nadine (Samira Saraya), a young Palestinian woman whose internal reality is also a bit shaken. By coincidence, the two women exchange identities at the roadblock. Nadine is sent off to live the life of the Jerusalem artist, and Michal is sent to live Nadine’s life in her Palestinian village.

Shopping instead of exploding

Geffen conceived the film’s original idea a decade ago, when she read a Haaretz interview with Arin Ahmad, a Bethlehem student whose fiance was killed by soldiers.

“They contacted her when she was in pain and sadness, and recruited her for a suicide operation, to be a shahida ("women martyrs"). They dressed her as an Israeli woman, put an explosive belt on her and sent her to the Rishon Lezion pedestrian mall,” recalls Geffen. In the interview she said she reached the mall, saw people shopping, and what she wanted to do was go into the stores and shop. That moment aroused in me the question when and where does the will to live awaken? Suddenly, I imagined the continuation. What would have happened if she had entered the stores and because of the explosive belt looked like a pregnant woman, and would start trying on maternity dresses and buying things for the expected baby. My imagination suddenly went there. In reality, Arin Ahmad suddenly had regrets and decided not to blow herself up, but this moment basically drove me to write the script.”

Geffen consequently researched the subject of shahidas. She visited Ramallah six years ago to see the home of the first female suicide bomber, Wafa Idris.

“I was scared. It was my first time in Ramallah, and before I entered her home, I was really afraid of what I would say, how I would speak with her mother. I had a lot of fears,” she says. “And then, when I went in, I saw an elderly, tired woman, and the first thing she did when she saw me was hug me. I saw behind her a huge poster of her dead daughter, and during this hug I suddenly felt her daughter, the one she didn’t have. It was all mixed in my head. I was suddenly her daughter, who wanted to kill me, and this confusion — the understanding that all is one, and suffering is suffering, and that a woman who loses her daughter is a woman who loses her daughter no matter where, and that I can be anyone’s daughter — is basically one of the things that brought me to writing the script.”

Geffen recalls that she then said to herself that if she chose to live in this complex, volatile place, she had to say something about it, so she decided that would be the next thing she’d do.

Neither shock nor dismay

Last summer, “Self Made” was screened in Jerusalem’s International Film Festival just as Operation Protective Edge was beginning. The directors whose films were competing in the Israeli festival got together and decided to use this stage to protest the war. They convened a press conference and called on the government to agree to a ceasefire. They protested the tendency of the local press not to investigate what was transpiring in Gaza and read the names of 30 Palestinian children killed in IDF bombings there.

Culture Minister Limor Livnat called the protest a “disgrace” on her Facebook page, but Geffen and her colleagues kept protesting throughout the festival. Geffen took the most flak after calling for a moment of silence. Some in the audience jeered her. Some left the hall in protest. Social media went wild. The curses and invectives spread across the Internet, and the news broadcasts and newspapers reported it widely.

Looking back, Geffen explains that she had read the headline about the children’s deaths that morning and was filled with pain and sorrow. She felt she couldn’t remain quiet.

“I felt the need to present the names of the children, who in another moment would be forgotten. So I did what I did. I didn’t think at that moment about how it would reverberate, and I was surprised to discover how much rage people have,” she recalls. “When I mentioned the minute of silence, a minute when people are used to standing and remembering the soldiers, it was suddenly perceived as treason. But for me it was instinctive, and I’m not sorry about it. I am not sorry that I am humane. I think I acted from a place of connectedness, and all the harsh criticism about me was very sad and also very scary.”

The threats she endured for expressing her opinion are nothing new to the Geffen family. Eight months later, a man showed up at her father's front door, and attacked and beat him, calling him a murderer and traitor, a few days after comments he made at a concern. The elder Geffen had said that Election Day, March 17, would be declared “the peace camp’s Nakba Day,” referring to what Palestinians call their catastrophe, the day Israel was established. Gefen also called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist,” and charged that Netanyahu’s regime was based on “scaring the people.”

Ynet wrote the Geffen family was in shock and dismay [over the election results], but Shira Geffen says the family was neither in shock nor dismay.

“All these years, which have encouraged polarization, have led to this. All the walls and barriers between the Palestinians and us, and among us, this racism, what Netanyahu said (on Election Day) about Arab droves — these things don’t come out of nowhere,” she says, referring to the prime minister's warning that the Arabs are "coming out to vote in droves."

" My father said it most precisely: It’s not a matter of right and left. There is no more right and left. There’s humanism and fascism. And in this place they’ve already forgotten what it is to be humanistic, what it is to be a human being," she says. "My father was attacked because he spoke against the [last] war and the next war. And people, like Michal Kayam, the character from my film, have a very short memory. Repressing wars is something this place is expert at. No one here talks anymore about Protective Edge and the people who died and the soldiers who died, except for Michal Kasten Keidar (widow of Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar, who fell in the operation), who broke the automatic circle of mourning and expressed pain, and even then they came down hard on her," she says referring to the widow who spoke out against the Gaza war in a recent interview in Haaretz. "Why was my father attacked? Because he spoke about this taboo, about the war that was and the children who will die in the next superfluous war.”

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