Iris Zaki is an Israeli documentary filmmaker, living in London since 2009. She shot her first short documentary My Kosher Shifts (2011) at the hotel where she worked at the reception desk in order to pay her rent. In 2013 she commenced a practice-based PhD in documentary filmmaking.
Her latest documentary Women in Sink (2015) takes place at Fifi’s, beauty salon in Haifa, owned by a Christian Arab. The film is highly praised and currently showing on festivals around the world.
I’ve talked with Zaki about Women in Sink, her beginnings in filmmaking, reasons why she likes to keep the camera rolling while she works and chats with people she is filming, and the surprising ways which made her love the colour gray.
After several years of working in the Israeli music media industry, you moved to London and started a Masters degree course in documentary filmmaking. Why documentary filmmaking?
I was working for the Israeli music television, in an office, from 9 to 7. I was really bored and I realised that there is something I need to do in my life, that I need a change. I went to London for a holiday and really liked it so I decided to move there. I applied for studies and was accepted, but it wasn’t documentary filmmaking. However, my friend took the documentary filmmaking course and I went to some of the classes and really liked it, so I switched.
Working to pay the rent at the reception of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish hotel in North London, you decided to make your debut film, My Kosher Shifts. How was that experience like?
I love to talk so I was just talking with these people, and I had never before had any communication with ultra-orthodox Jewish people. I found myself talking with them so openly and they opened up to me, and I decided to make my final film about my conversations with them. I was very cautious when directing, I didn’t want to change the way it is.
I thought that bringing people to do camera and sound and all of that would ruin the atmosphere, the natural flow of things. So I just decided to leave the camera filming and communicate normaly. So, with that film, the technique of “abandoned camera” developed and I continue working that way.
The technique of “abandoned camera” functions very well in your films, and you mainly film in closed communities, communities you don’t know well. How does it work, tell me more about it?
I really like to work this way, it suits me. After finishing my masters, I decided to do a PhD and continue filming that way. I like to go into communities that I am not a part of, that is what is very interesting to me. I am not a great cinematographer or a director, and this techinque allows me to find my place in documentary filmmaking. If I am talented for something, then that is first and foremost my communication with people.
This technique allows me to capture this very sensitive and interesting interaction with the people, instead of staging something or doing interviews. I want to get the normal, everyday flow of conversation, that is my main interest.
You are from Haifa, usually portrayed as a model of co-existence between Arabs and Jews. Growing up, did you interact with Arabs/Palestinians/Muslims living in your neighbourhood? Was there segregation and was it obvious?
No, there was absolutely no interaction. The educational system separates children by their religion, so there was no possibility for interaction in school. In Haifa, segregation is actually very obvious in relation to the class – rich people live on the top of the mountain, and under it, around the sea, are the poor people, and mostly Arabs live downtown.
In Haifa the difference might be that there is more respect between people, more respect for otherness, even though it is not ideal. You can’t really look at it in a black or white perspective, it’s complex. The biggest issue is the social mobility – when an Arab wants to buy a house in a Jewish neighbourhood, there can be a problem. The same thing goes for jobs.
You ended up doing a film, Women in Sink, in a mixed hair salon where Arabs and Jews come to get their hair done. What were your thoughts when coming into that film, what did you want to find out?
I actually didn’t go there because it is a mixed hair salon, I didn’t want to talk to Jewish women, my aim was to talk to the Arab women. I wanted to find a place that will let me do this crazy thing. When I came to Haifa, I ended up at Fifi’s hair salon, and I really liked the people and the atmosphere of the place. The energy was great, and I didn’t think about anything else, I decided to film there.
But yes, in the beginning in only wanted to talk to Arab women, it was important to me as a Jewish girl from Haifa, to hear how they feel living in the city where I grew up and felt very welcomed. I wanted to know how different our experiences were.
What happened and changed during the shooting of the film? How did you end up filming Jewish women too?
There were two things that happened at the same time. The first one is that I didn’t have a lot of Arab women that wanted to be filmed nor women who allowed themselves to be very political. Living in Israel, I think that everybody is political, but I think the issue here was that some of the women didn’t want to share it with me.
At the same time, when I started washing Jewish women’s hair and talking to them, they turned out to be very political, very opinionated. Also, I felt more comfortable to confront Jewish people than to confront Arab women. Jewish women felt more comfortable to criticize Israel, because when you are the priviliged one you can complain, but as a minority it is more complicated and that is what came to surface when I started filming.
Did Women in Sink surprise you? Have you expected more extreme positions from the women you talked to? What can we learn from that?
I think that a lot of documentary filmmakers, most of them really, go into filming with a certain agenda and then they find characters that fit their agenda. I put myself in places and just hang out with people, and I let the film develop in its own way. Of course, with Women in Sink, I did have my position and expectations from day one and I was very open about it. During the shooting, I learned a lesson, and I decided to let people say what the want to say.
What is surprising to many people, and it was also surprising to me, is that most of these opinions are very light, altough they are very different. There’s no extremes. A lot of filmmakers look for extremes, they want black and white, and the gray area is not interesting to them, it can even be disturbing to many. It’s the same with news and media. While making this film, I became really interested in the gray area, because that is where majority of the people fall into.
Were you afraid that, after watching your film, people would generalize and take it as a representation of the whole community?
I was worried and I am worried about that. Whenever I am doing Q&A, I say that it shouldn’t be taken that way, I already feel like a lawyer who worries about being sued. These are individual stories and they should be seen that way and that’s it. But yeah, I am still worried.
You live in London now. When you visit Israel, how do you feel, do you feel the changes in the atmosphere, how is the situation now? Would you like to go back and live in Israel?
I feel it is going in a very bad direction, I am very sad about it. When I finished Women in Sink I went back to London a little hopeful, but then there was the war in Gaza. The goverment now is so racist and the atmsophere is the one of creating fear.
I want to go back to Israel at some point, but as long as this goverment is in charge, as long as Netanyahu is in charge, I am not going back for sure. They don’t offer any solutions, they see war as the only solution. The word peace used to be something that every party included in their manifest, and now they don’t even mention it, it’s not even on the agenda.
To end this conversation on a more positive note – what are your plans for the future, what are you working on at the moment?
I am working on my next film for the PhD, this time I want to do it in a settlement. I already chose a settlement where I’ll be living for a month and filming the people. I don’t know anything about settlers, all I have is black and white stories about them, and I want to find out more. I am doing that this spring and we’ll see what happens.
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//all photos courtesy of Iris Zaki//
Find out more about Women in Sink here.
This interview was also published in Croatian, on Libela.