Print this page

CentEast Student Report: Interview: Yoav Shamir "I want to know what makes a hero"

Agnes Emri for CentEast 2009-10-20

Participating in the Documentary Competition section of the Warsaw Film Festival, Yoav Shamir's thought provoking documentary "Defamation" sets out to understand the contemporary obsession with anti-Semitism.

Never having experienced it himself, Shamir goes on a colourful journey, which includes talking to people from his own grandmother in Israel, to the Anti-Defamation League in Manhattan, or a group of Israeli teens on a trip in Auschwitz.

The Israeli cinematographer and director talks about his approach to filmmaking, his next project and the filmmaker's ultimate need for luck.

Your presence in the film is very much underlined, you introduce yourself, keep a commentary and people address you personally. Do you distinguish between your on-screen persona and your real-life self?

When you are making a film sometimes you want to get a reaction from people so you use different kind of tactics to get a response from interviewees but that's pretty much who I am. I don't appear on camera, I am part of the film through my voice, but it is still me.

How did you choose the title?

The title changed about a hundred times. I pitched it in Amsterdam under the title "It Used to Be a Great Flag". Then for a long time it was called "Anti-Semitism, The Movie," but the producers were afraid of distancing non-Jewish viewers, so they didn't want to have the word Jew or anti-Semitism in the title. Defamation came up the last minute. I don't like it so much but it wasn't my decision alone. Now in the United States when it will be released it is going to be called "Defamation" but underneath it will say "Anti-Semitism, The Movie" as a second title.

You have traveled to many festivals with this work. How does audience reaction differ in each country?

The question and answer sessions after the screenings are relatively similar wherever I am, but the hottest places for debate were obviously Israel and New York. The more Jewish people you have in the audience the more heated the discussion will be. Many Europeans see the film more as being about another culture, about somebody else and it does not really relate personally to them but New York is the biggest Jewish city in the world and they respond differently to the film.

Do you sit through the screenings to see how the viewers react during the film?

Not anymore. On one hand, I am always really curious to see what the audience responds, but on the other hand, I watched it too many times and I just cannot watch it anymore.

The teenagers in "Defamation" are warned of potential attacks on them in Europe for being Jewish. They are accompanied on the streets in Poland by somebody from the secret service there to protect them in case of any trouble and they do not dare to leave their hotel rooms in the evenings. Is it true that you yourself have pretended to be Spanish when you were traveling because you were afraid?

Many Israelis, young and old, traveling in the world have an existential fear. It is rooted very deep in culture and history. There are hardly any Israeli tourists in Morocco, and when I was traveling there many Moroccans assumed I was Spanish because I could look Spanish and I speak Spanish very well. I didn't let them think differently. It was funny for me to see how they relate to somebody from another country, but I don't think I ever said I was not from Israel.

In the film you talk about looking ahead to the future and not living in the past. You have a daughter who is three years old now. Do you have a plan worked out on how you will educate her in Israel?

I hope she is not going to be educated in that way that she thinks that everybody hates her in the world. I am going to try to make sure that she will grow up in a more liberal atmosphere.

What are your future projects?

I got accepted to the forum in Amsterdam, where you can pitch your next film, commission editors and broadcasters from all over the world. The film is going to follow a psychological study based on very famous experiments that show that the majority of people will act badly when they are put in certain situations. There is the Milgram experiment, for example, when people were ordered to shock other people or the Stanford Prison Experiment, which studied the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. Each experiment shows how good people turn evil. What I am trying to find out is what the minority of the people are like, those who do not surrender to being evil. I want to know what makes a good person, what makes a hero.

We will shoot it in Israel and in the United States. I am doing it with a famous American psychologist, Professor Zimbaldo. He is the original man who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment. The question is how would you react, how would you act when the circumstances are very oppressive? Would you obey authority if you were asked to? Are we good enough people?

Then you don't know what the conclusion will be?

If I knew the answer already, I would not make the movie. If I know something, then I am not interested in making a film about it. I am curious.

What do you think makes a good documentary filmmaker?

Determination, curiosity, being a good observer and knowing how to tell a story. This is not only true for documentaries but also for features. It is also important to feel comfortable with yourself and what you are doing. But it is all about luck eventually. You have to be very lucky.