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Tribeca ’09 Interview: “Defamation” Director Yoav Shamir (World Doc Competition)

Tribeca '09 Interview: "Defamation" Director Yoav Shamir (World Doc Competition)

Editor’s Note: This is one of dozens of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival in the narrative and doc competitions as well as the Discovery section. The festival takes place April 22 – May 3.

(World Documentary Feature Competition)
Director: Yoav Shamir
Producers: Karoline Leth, Knut Ogris, Sandra Itkoff, Philippa Kowarsky
2009 | 94 min | Feature Documentary (Austria, Denmark, Israel, USA)

Synopsis: In “Defamation,” director Yoav Shamir sets out to discover the realities of anti-Semitism as an identity issue. Is it an extant threat continually on the verge of coalescing into a second Holocaust? Or is it a scare tactic used by right-wing Zionists to discredit their critics? Most opinions fall in the gray area between two vastly different poles. Representing one end of the spectrum is Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League and ardent advocate of the theory that anti-Semitism is ubiquitous and requires constant vigilance to be kept in check. His foil in the debate is Norman Finkelstein, a controversial author, professor, and son of Holocaust survivors, who asserts a vast conspiracy orchestrated by Israel itself to undermine critics of its policy. Through Shamir’s evenhanded lens, both men have moments of visionary clarity as well as unhinged ramblings. And they are only two voices in a cacophonous global debate. [Synopsis courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival]

Please introduce yourself.

Hi, my name is Yoav Shamir, from Tel Aviv, Israel, and I am the director of “Defamation” which screens in the World Documentary Competition.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

I drifted for a long time after my military service, traveled all over the world with a motorbike for about 3 years–one year of traveling for each year of military service, ending up with a bad injury which led me to university where I studied History and Philosophy. Then I found a job at National Geographic-Israel, as the guy that translates the promos into Hebrew–“the sharks are roaming, the lions are roaming etc.”–these kinds of things. This got me interested in documentaries on one hand and hating animals (or at least films about them) on the other. Then I heard about a new program for a master’s degree in film which had just opened at Tel-Aviv University. I learned about cinema verite which was a kind of revelation, and started making films. “Defamation” is already my fifth one.

What prompted the idea for your film?

Anti-Semitism is very present in our lives as Israelis–not so much in the sense that we are victims of it (personally I never experienced anti-Semitism) but not a day goes by without a mention of the words “Anti-Semitism,” “Holocaust” or “Nazi” in the media. I am a curious person by nature, and like to see things for myself, so I decided to learn some more about the subject and I found my self in an endless labyrinth which took a very long time to make my way through only to realize that there is no exit sign in the end.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

Anti-Semitism is probably one of the toughest subjects a film maker can take upon himself. Besides the fact that it is a super sensitive issue, so much has been done about this subject–there is actually a whole genre of Holocaust films which normally include a lot of testimonies from survivors edited with old black and white archives, so when people come to watch a film about Anti-Semitism they are coming with preconceived notions about what they are coming to see, and in many cases what they are looking for is actually some kind of catharsis. I knew I had to take a completely different approach, especially because in a certain stage I realized the most interesting thing for me was how Anti-Semitism is influencing our life and the lives of the victims.

In a way it could have been an essay film, which usually consist of many many talking heads, ut which I felt would not be the right approach for me as a filmmaker. I like cinema verite, I like films that are happening in present tense. So I tried to make this film a travel log of a personal journey of someone (me) searching for answers. Being an experienced traveler, I know that getting to where you are going is probably more important then getting there, and that having fun on the way is the only way to reach your destination, so I tried to make the film in a way that, despite the heaviness and seriousness of subject matter, would be fun and interesting to watch.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

The most important thing for me is to enjoy what I am doing. If I manage to do that then I consider myself successful. But unfortunately the real world acts in a different way, and eventually if you want to continue making films–film which are being financed and sold–then you need to make it to the big film festivals, get some awards, some good reviews, mange to sell it to TV stations, have a cinematic release, and of course to be able to make a living and support your family. It’s a tough job!

I would like to continue making films, to do fiction as well as documentaries, and reach a point at which I will be financially stable.

What are your future projects?

I have a couple of very exciting projects lined up, in an early stage, and I always like to get involved in an exciting project that was initiated by some else, so all of you big shot producers and distributors reading this–you are very welcome to give me a call ;-)

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