Elle Flanders is probably best known in Toronto for transforming the Inside Out film festival from a smallish, community-based event into an international sensation. On the one hand she believed this growth would engage more of the community. On the other, a high-profile queer festival has the opportunity to change the face of queer filmmaking. A stable and viable venue for the presentation of films involving homos means films can be made about people’s experiences in which their homosexuality does not inform every moment of screen time.
The last time I interviewed Flanders was back in 1999, her name was Ellen and she was on the verge of leaving Inside Out. It was time to get back to her roots as an activist and artist. While uncertain of exactly what she wanted to do, she says she felt the need, “to look at Israel and Palestine again, from a personal place.” Her ongoing photo-based project on the conflict had been on hiatus since 1989, after the first intifada.
Revisiting the situation in Israel and Palestine meant careful consideration. “If you take an anti-apartheid stance,” she says, “you have to know a lot. It’s not hard to know that racism existed within South Africa and that this was a terrible thing. But to go in there and try to deconstruct it, you need knowledge.” She wasn’t finding this kind of conversation around Israel at home in Toronto.
Then fortunate coincidence struck. Flanders inherited an archive of her grandparents’ home movies — a document of their lengthy involvement in the creation of the state of Israel. Simultaneously, a friend put her onto a story about a gay couple living in Jerusalem. One man was Israeli, the other Palestinian.
She recalls thinking, “Someone should make a film about this. But I didn’t want to make a ‘gay film,’ didn’t want to make a film about Israeli-Palestinian relationships,” especially since “there was this footage, this political story.” Flanders then got in touch with Ezra, the Israeli half of the couple she had heard about. Turns out he and Flanders had met years before: he had been her grand-parents’ gardener. Hence, Zero Degrees Of Separation, Flanders’ intricate, compelling and very personal consideration of Israel and Palestine screening at Hot Docs on Thu, Apr 28.
The film weaves together three main strands: her grandparents’ film archive, interviews with two Palestinian-Israeli couples and images of Israel and Palestine with text-over statements about the situation in the region.
The archival footage — from 1950, a mere two years after the state of Israel was created — is startlingly beautiful, documenting tours of the countryside and fledgling settlements. It is joyful, showing a beleaguered people as they arrive at last, after millennia of displacement, in a place they can call home. Acutely aware of the hope etched onto the films, Flanders presents pieces of the footage unedited, though occasionally slowed down to simulate for the viewer the process of discovery she herself went through upon seeing the footage for the first time.
The interviews shed light on the quotidian situation in the region as it is at present. Ezra laments the gap between the socialist education he received and the reality of life in the region, where violence and oppression are forever in the air. Edit and Samira, a lesbian couple, are hyper-aware of the pressures of their differing identities and histories and of what the nations of Israel and Palestine mean to them. Ezra’s boyfriend Selim tells of his imprisonments and his losing legal battle to be allowed to remain in Jerusalem.
The text-over sections outline a litany of problems that plague Palestinians under the occupation — forced displacement, barriers to impede movement, the difficulty of obtaining permission to enter or remain in Israel, the shockingly expensive wall (twice the height of the one that divided West Berlin from East) that keeps non-Israelis out of the country. It’s a lesson for those who know little about the conflict, a reminder for those who are more familiar with the situation.
Screenings of the film at the Berlin International Film Festival and elsewhere have been warmly received, inspiring much discussion. But there has been a good deal of criticism, and doubtless there will be more. Some queer viewers want to know more about being gay in Israel-Palestine but, true to her word, Flanders has not made a gay film. “I refused to put forward a gay agenda, a ‘woe is us’ story. As queers involved in cinema, we [need to] talk about how it is to be, instead of how it is to be gay.” The interview subjects were selected more for their politics (“There’s my agenda,” Flanders says emphatically) than for the fact that they are queer.
The archival footage is, of course, seen through the lens of history. Fifty-five years after it was shot, Flanders asks, “How do we understand and interpret these images? What is it that [my grandparents] are seeing?” These are Jewish people joyfully returning home to Zion, yet they are strangers in a strange land. “Knowing what is going on there now,” Flanders says, “what did they think when they went to Palestine [then]?” In the archival footage, we see some Palestinians. As Flanders notes, however, “They are the people who live here, but they are curiosities, as opposed to people with lives, families, children.” Distressing though it is, Flanders cannot help but see this archive as a document of Westerners arriving with a colonialist mentality. “They were not paying attention.”
Conservative Jewish viewers are critical of the film’s clear anti-occupation stance. And certainly, there is no presentation of “the other side,” the reasons and circumstances that might be discussed in order to justify the occupation. “The other side…,” Flanders nearly snarls. “Since when has this been my responsibility? I’m not a journalist. It’s not my job to tell you about the however-many Israelis were killed by suicide bombers versus the however-many Palestinians have been killed. I’m not playing a numbers game. I’m talking very specifically about what it means to be me and how to come through this history to a point of challenging the status quo.”
Zero Degrees is not a historical document, rather, it is a very personal consideration that uses the current situation in Israel-Palestine to ask difficult and important political questions.
“What is our responsibility in history?” asks Flanders. “[This is] a conservative time in North America in general — and even more so within the Jewish community.” Her question to that community: “How [do we] deal with a history fraught with victimization and oppression… and then wrongdoing? How do you go from victim to victimizer and deal with it in a way in which you say, this part of our history is true and real, and this part of our history is true and real [as well]? We need to be as true to our history as victims as much as we need to deal with having completely consumed — not just subsumed, but consumed — that, and regurgitated it as a way to oppress another people. To me it’s abhorrent. And I can’t live with myself and I can’t live with a community that chooses to ignore that.”
* Zero Degrees Of Separation screens at 9:30pm on Thu, Apr 28 at the Bloor (506 Bloor St W).
Most screenings $10.
Fri, Apr 22 to May 1.