In ‘Unsettling,’ Leftist Filmmaker Embeds in a West Bank Settlement
Founded in 1976, Tekoa is one of the oldest Jewish settlements on the West Bank. About an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, it is a world apart, isolated in the Judean Hills and surrounded by Arab villages. Tekoa is a small town whose settlers wrestle with the ongoing controversy about their right to live there. But politics isn’t the only driver that brings people here. Residents say Tekoa is a good place to raise a family and are attracted to the sense of community and affordable lifestyle. Many residents have lived there all their lives.
Documentary filmmaker Iris Zaki wanted to tell the story of Tekoa. While looking for a location in the West Bank to shoot her film, an encounter with a young farmer from Tekoa challenged her to immerse herself in the settlers’ world. “As an Israeli, it’s impossible to even begin imagining the story of the settlers in the third-person, as a passive objective viewer,” she says. So in 2016, Zaki moved to Tekoa and rented an apartment on Happiness Street. She began looking for a part-time job—a technique she has used in the past to get her subjects to talk about themselves candidly, recording conversations by allowing the camera to run without an operator. But no welcome committee—or job—was waiting for the petite 40-year-old filmmaker, who was viewed with suspicion from day one. She describes her 3,633 new neighbors as a “trendy hippy colony of settlers—artists, musicians, actors, painters—who were religious and secular.” Yet none would speak to her, let alone give her a job with camera access. “How do you dispassionately respond to a woman who confronts you with the accusation: ‘You and your red lipstick have only come here to steal our men,’” she asks. No, she didn’t win friends—or trust—that would allow her to say, “I’m a leftist. I am against your presence here, but let’s talk.”
As the days (and expenses) ticked up, Zaki arranged a pop-up studio/cafe outside a small organic grocery with three cameras, a table and chairs. Then, she waited. “The community took pity on me, or the curiosity got the better of them,” Zaki tells me. Zaki played it straight and told people she just wanted to talk. People sit down. Three cameras record, running without operators, except when Zaki jumps up to make adjustments when a new person arrives on set.
There is Matanya, the young farmer, who had issued the challenge to move to Tekoa. Zaki had actively boycotted his products in Tel Aviv. “Yet the sharp-tongued Matanya felt immediately like someone who, under different circumstances, could have easily been a close friend,” she says. The camera also captures glimpses of everyday life. “You see a lot of mothers with strollers, a lot of kids who park their bikes, kind of just throwing them like cowboys coming into a saloon. You see what they buy for Shabbat, everything within the frame of the grocery store door.”
One woman describes herself as a fascist. Another woman, who happens to be the daughter-in-law of the late peace activist and late Tekoa Rabbi Menachem Froman, says she survived a knife attack by a Palestinian youth—but forgave the attacker.
Zaki mostly sits and listens, sometimes asking probing questions, sometimes arguing. On her last day in Tekoa, dreaming of what clothes she’ll wear to one of her favorite nightspots in Tel Aviv, she hears cries and screams from the other side of her apartment wall. Her next door neighbor’s father, a rabbi living near Hebron, had been killed in a terror attack on the road between Jerusalem and his home. Zaki attends the funeral, paying her respects to the woman who had baked her cookies, who had made her feel more human and not so alone on Happiness Street.
Zaki has always lived life as the curious outsider. As a child she was embarrassed by her last name because it was so identifiably Arab. Her father, who was five when he came to Haifa from Cairo in 1950, was among the other Mizrachi Jews who emigrated from Arab countries as nationalism and anti-Semitism escalated with the founding of the Jewish state. Her Egyptian grandmother was the famed Jewish singer and actress, Souad Zaki, whose uncle was the biggest real estate developer in Cairo. Her grandfather, Mohammed Elakkad, was a renowned Muslim qanun player, who stayed behind in Egypt when the couple separated. In Israel, Souad would go on to sing with Zuzu Mousa’s Arab Orchestra for Kol Israel’s Arabic service, but as a single mother she also had to work as a cleaning lady in a bank to pay the bills. Zaki’s maternal grandparents arrived in Palestine in 1946 as Holocaust survivors from Ukraine and Poland, “more on the Likud, right-wing side of the political spectrum,” she says.
Zaki identifies as a leftist, and she is against the Jewish settlements. She says her ideology stems from her family background, her service as an intelligence officer in the Israeli army and her undergraduate studies in communications at the College of Management in Tel Aviv. It is also a worldview that developed over nearly a decade in England, culminating with a PhD in documentary filmmaking from Royal Holloway University of London in July. During her years abroad she also directed, produced and edited three films, which have screened at film festivals and academic conferences and garnered prizes worldwide.
Zaki’s embrace of being an outsider influences her filmmaking. Her thesis advisor, John Ellis, a professor of media arts at Royal Holloway, says Zaki joins contemporary directors who like her write, produce and star in their own films. He refers to Michael Moore, who gained prominence with his first-person critique of General Motors plant closings in his Flint, Michigan hometown, in the 1989 film Roger & Me. Moore, he says, stages confrontations to tell a story, while Zaki’s work is more subtle. Her approach begins to take shape in her first student film, My Kosher Shifts (2011), where she turns a job as a receptionist at a small Orthodox Hotel in London into an opportunity to record random, at times intense, conversations. The hotel guests know her as an employee who answers questions—and sometimes asks them.
Zaki uses the framework of the employee-client relationship to get people to open up and expose the intricacies of their lives. Her innovative camera work—such as the abandoned (not hidden) camera that she first deploys in My Kosher Shifts—is another means she uses to get people to open up. By fixing the equipment in place on the wall behind her and aiming the camera lens out the reception window, she records when people stop to talk. “At first people were curious about the camera running with no operator, but they soon ignored it, less aware of being filmed,” she says. After six weeks and ten hours of footage, she began to carve out her 20-minute debut short, which she says documents “a mosaic that included a modern Orthodox academic from Israel in London for a conference, an upper class Italian couple, a local housewife and a young American who grew up ultra-Orthodox and later stopped practicing, due to his critique of the community and its values.”
Zaki says these encounters dilute stereotypes, allowing viewers to make their own judgments. The experience changes her too. She writes in her thesis: “The dynamic of the interaction shifted from one of a curious, even ignorant, secular-Jewish young person, conversing with religious, grown-up people to one of a cheeky woman chatting with shy men. I sometimes felt like a naïve child, being taught about why I should respect the rules, and sometimes I felt like the grow-up, explaining to a naïve person about dating or even female sexuality.”
Her success with My Kosher Shifts fulfilled requirements for a master’s degree at Brunel University London, earned her top prize in the My Street Competition of the London Open City Documentary Film Festival in 2011 and anchored her style in the abandoned camera.
For her next project Zaki turned to a hair salon in Haifa, which caters to a mixed clientele of Christian Arabs and Jews. Fifi’s is located on Zionism Boulevard in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood, a ten-minute drive from where she grew up. Zaki is hired as a hair washer, and she sets up the unmanned camera to focus closeups on her clients’ faces. All you see of Zaki is her hands massaging their heads, as they tell her stories about their lives.
Zaki writes in her thesis, “Feeling deep discontent with the state of Arabs living in Israel, I approach this project with a political agenda and wished to hear from Arab women about how it feels to live as a minority in Israel, expecting to hear about the frustration of the community members and then bring about this message through my film.” Once running, the abandoned camera, mounted to shoot close-ups of women’s faces and Zaki’s hands, records surprisingly intimate conversation. Cutaways portray camaraderie, laughter, a distinctly Christian décor, the hectic pace as women come and go set against a soundtrack mixed with songs recorded by Zaki’s grandmother Souad.
Women in Sink premiered at the Visions du Reel film festival in Nyon, Switzerland in 2015. Zaki confesses, “It wasn’t the film I had hoped to make. Most of the Arab women were supportive of Israel or indifferent to politics, and the Jewish women by and large shared pro-peace beliefs and critical perspectives on the reality in Israel.”
But it wasn’t a failure, either. Zaki edited the film to show what she calls “authentic moments with inspiring women.” She writes, “Without fulfilling or fully abandoning my initial aspirations, the film would show the salon as a peaceful yet perhaps fragile bubble existing in a complex political landscape, an example of how things might be if people could connect in real life.”
The movie ends with a voiceover that reflects her journey: “I went to my hometown so I could meet Arab women, so I could hear from them about the difficulties of living as a minority in Israel. Within a complex reality, I found a story of a friendship, acceptance and respect between women. And I left not only with a film, but also, with hope.”
Women in Sink would go on to screen at over 100 film festivals, including a large number of Jewish venues in the United States. The movie captured the Grierson Award for Best Student Documentary in 2016 and the next year pocketed the Innovation Award from the British Arts and Humanities Research Council for the seven-minute Women in Sink adaptation she produced for The New York Times Op-Docs.
Unsettling is Zaki’s first feature film and by far her most challenging. She writes in her thesis that she wants “to explore different voices of the community and uncover layers of their identities; through the interaction between ourselves and the mutual otherness.” Thesis advisor Ellis applauds her tenacity and courage to embed herself in a community that wanted nothing to do with her: “She waited for something to happen,” he says.
Eventually, it does.
“I’ve seen many, many films on settlers, but I have never seen any like this. I haven’t seen them [the settlers] so relaxed, speaking not only about their agenda, not only about is it right or is it wrong,” says Sinai Abt, who heads the documentary unit at KAN PBC, the new Israeli public television station. He has followed Zaki’s progress on film, advised her during production, and will show the documentary on KAN later this year. He says Unsettling “challenges well-worn stereotypes about the other, leaving filmgoers with a more complex story than they had expected.”
Zaki sums it up this way: “With time, the mutual stereotyping inherent in a meeting between a leftist from Tel Aviv and a community of settlers began to melt away. In [its] place came deep conversations between people from different worlds meeting for the first time, curious to know and understand the other.” She adds, “As they began to understand that I was driven more by curiosity than anything else, they began to trust me.”
In late May, several months after the documentary debuted in Copenhagen, Zaki brought Unsettling to the 20th Docaviv International Film Festival in Tel Aviv—an audience for whom Jewish settlements in Palestine is a long-standing and contentious issue. Sitting beside her at the first of two packed screenings were four West Bank settlers featured in the film.
Docaviv artistic director Karen Rywkind Segal says Zaki succeeded on many levels. “With her distinct style and personality she manages to reach open and sincere conversations in unfamiliar grounds, people we normally don’t hear or we are not interested in hearing.”
No one from Tekoa had seen Unsettling before the festival. Zaki says among the most satisfying comments came from a 40-year-old Tekoan, who opted to move there because he was secular and his wife (who was religious) wanted to live in a mixed religious-secular community. He thanks Zaki for her honesty. “The way you were able to present the dilemmas, the thoughts, the ideas and the difference among your interviewees gives a sense of empathy and sensitivity to the other, especially since this other is just at the other end of your political and personal stands.”