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Tribeca ’09 Interview | “Partly Private” Director Danae Elon (World Doc Competition)

Tribeca '09 Interview | "Partly Private" Director Danae Elon (World Doc Competition)

Editor’s Note: This is one of several interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

“Partly Private” (World Documentary Feature Competition), Feature Documentary, 2009, 84 min., Canada
Director: Danae Elon
Primary Cast: Philip Touitou, Dr. Howard Shaw, Danae Elon, Dr. Martin Bergmann, Amos Elon, Kamal Ozkan
Producer: Paul Cadieux
Executive Producers: Maryse Rouillard, Ina Fichman, Arik Bernsterin
Director of Photography: Andrew T. Dunn
Editor: Miki Wanatabe Milmore
Line Producer: Nancy Guerin
(Road Trip, Social Issues)

Synopsis: To cut or not to cut? Pregnant with a baby boy, director Danae Elon and her husband face “a big choice about his little penis. From New York to London, Istanbul to Israel, Elon travels the world in an effort to understand the controversial ritual of male circumcision. At the heart of this emotional, shockingly funny journey is a modern family, an innocent little boy, and a mother’s unwavering love. (Description provided by Tribeca Film Festival)

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Danae Elon. I am a documentary filmmaker from Israel living in New York. “Partly Private” is my second feature documentary. My first film “Another Road Home” premiered at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival and proceeded to be theatrically released a year later after completing a successful festival run.

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

My father is a well-known Israeli author. I was a terrible student, and barely made it through the regular school system. Until I was officially kicked out and saved by a one-of-a-kind arts school that initiated a film department to employ all the non-working filmmakers in Israel at the time. This was a time of no budgets… so my teachers where frustrated incredible filmmakers who later became the leading voice in the Israeli industry. The school saved my life, and we got a wonderful education in the history of cinema. Every Friday, we got to see a different classic. When one day we saw Seven Samurai, I came out saying to myself this is what I want to do, but with it came the daunting thought, “how will I ever manage?”

Elaborate a bit on your approach to making “Partly Private?”

Here’s an excerpt from the film’s press kit that would help summarize my approach:

It all began when Philip, my partner told me about a story his father had told him: “In Algeria”, he said, “there is a tradition of putting the foreskin in the couscous dish after the ceremony”. “In the couscous dish?????”

We never really spoke about what we would we do if we had a boy… It was only when I became pregnant with my first child that I realized that other people’s dilemmas were now my own. My husband humbly came to me one day and said: Danae, we will do it…, right? I realized that my response was both completely simplistic: “No! Are you insane?”, and yet contained a bizarre atavistic reaction that would inevitably bring me to agree with him, one that was laced with ancient historical baggage. I decided that this would make the perfect dramatic setting for a documentary on circumcision. I wanted the film to be most of all witty and humorous and not a dogmatic report on the issue. I realized that it was a way to expose something about our nature as human beings rather than make a statement about whether circumcision is right or wrong.

Making the film and mostly writing and editing it held within it immense potholes, I knew I was going to be walking a very thin line of between taste and balance. It was my intention to portray everyone taking sides on this issue as equally crazy. Using my personal story was a mechanism of touching upon intimate truths that regard us all, a prism through which to look at relationships and sacrifices that go into making a family.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

I knew that taking sides in this story would be its downfall. It is a highly controversial subject that easily becomes banal and redundant. Avoiding this redundancy was the most difficult part of making the film. It was also a challenge to find humor within my search and not include graphic materials. Making a personal film is always very tricky. You do not want to cross the line where the film becomes “too personal” and therefore not universal. My editor, M. Watanabe Milmore, was always the key to making me feel comfortable with the personal materials. She was able to make me “watch” my own family through the correct lens.

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

The success of a filmmaker lies in their ability to interact with an audience. For me it is an emotional response. If I can stir up a variety of feelings in a viewer, make them laugh and cry regardless of a person’s individual identity, I have achieved something important. It comes down to a story well told.

What are your future projects?

I am working on a project called “The Evil Tongue” that will be completed next year. It is based on the Jewish tradition of guarding one’s tongue, speaking no evil about anyone. I am placing this custom in a particular scandal of child sexual abuse in Baltimore.

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