An interview with Iris Zaki

Monday December 3rd, 2018

Dr. Iris Zaki is a Grierson award-winning documentary filmmaker and researcher, who uses first-person narratives to depict closed communities. She recently finished her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, which explored her own interviewing technique ׳The Abandoned Camera’. Her latest film, “Unsettling”, screened at the 9th Athens Ethnographic Film Festival – Ethnofest.

The interview was conducted by Lillian Dam Bracia, Traffic and Programme Assistant at Ethnofest.

Ethnofest: Could you explain to us your technique of the ‘abandoned camera’, what does it refer to, how did you came up with it and how have you used it in this occasion?

Iris Zaki: So, basically, I developed the ‘abandoned camera’ technique, when I made my first film, that is called “My Kosher Shifts”. This was in the time when I studied for my Masters in documentary filmmaking and I worked in an ultra orthodox Jewish hotel, in London, as a receptionist. And as a receptionist you know you have communication with people, they come to the desk, they need their key, they need recommendation for a restaurant so, naturally, you have conversations developing and I’m a very curious person, I always find people very interesting – that’s my biggest passion. And we started to talk and talk, and when I decided that I wanted to make a film about this hotel and the guests and this interaction, I wondered how I can do it, in order to keep the dynamic of receptionist-guest because I think once you tell people to find like a spot to sit them down there, to film them, ask them questions, I wanted basically to have those very authentic interaction. But there’s a camera and a camera changes a lot of things, but I thought to bring in someone to do the sound and I realized that it’s not an option in any way because the intimacy it came from the one on one dynamic. And, I didn’t want to carry my camera, because I wanted to be the receptionist and I wanted to stay in the position of the other side of the conversation without being an interviewer. And so I brought the camera to work and I placed it at the back of the room behind me and I went back to being the receptionist after setting the camera, when each guest agreed to be filmed, than I left the camera unmended, running. And after a few conversations I was shocked that people forget about the camera, I forget about the camera, it even seems like a hidden camera because it is so untouched. And I really, really liked it, because it allowed me to have organic conversations with people. When you know the person before, when you do a pre-interview research, you know the questions that you want to ask and it goes that direction, but for me the interesting part is that I don’t know what we are going to talk about. So basically when someone came to ask, you know to order a taxi and they started to tell me that I need to get married than we started talking about marriage. So I had a lot of conversations about marriage but each came from a different person, very organically, and for different reasons. And I’m interested in that, when it comes to communities, I wanted to bring the community as a collection of individuals and to actually break. So they have things in common, they have their rituals in common but each have their own personal motivation to the same codes. So I’m very interested in that and to find out what we have in common with people. This organic dynamic that is created via the abandoned camera, allows me to have open conversations that I don’t know how they are going to turn to be and also I try to be very open and put myself in the same position, being vulnerable and exposing my own opinion, thoughts and feelings.

Ethnofest: I think that’s fascinating, because you approach people and not necessarily treat them as simply representatives of this whole culture, while at the same time, being actually there and not behind the camera. And how was it different, I mean, you’re interested in closed communities in your past work but how was it different in “Unsettling”, to use the ‘abandoned camera’ in your experience?

Iris Zaki: So I made “My Kosher Shifts” and I realized that it brought this kind of representation that I really like, on the community so it brought some nuanced voices. No big phenomena, no drama, just normal people. And I wanted to keep exploring the same technique, so I went on to the a PhD that in the PhD I will make two more films using the same abandoned camera technique. So the second one I went to Haifa, my home-town, and I made “Women in Sink”, my second film where I would be the hair-washer in a Christian hair-salon in Haifa, my home-town. And while washing women’s hair with a camera that I put above the sink. I filmed the conversations with different women and I wanted to make another film for the PhD, so I thought OK, I made two films, it worked really well. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe I should make another one, a third one. I decided to do on a community that is still part of my identity, because I always wanted to do on something that is related to my identity because that’s where is the motivation for me…I’m not exploring something that is very far away from me. But, I wanted to find some community that I would have tension with and to see if I would succeed there in making totally strangers and get them to open up to me, to the camera. Little did I know that settlers are really really paranoid when it comes to cameras. In that sense it was very, very interesting because when a settler sees the camera they have almost a physical reaction, seriously because so many films, documentaries and TV news, they usually highlight the very extreme settler, the violent settler, the super religious ideological settler. And they do it in a very, very, specific way towards their agenda. Now, even though my agenda is that I’m against settlers when I went there I tried also to tell people that I, as an ethnographer, I want to bring again a collection of people, nuanced voices, not a just black and white representation and that’s my motivation. But, because I’m a leftist, an Israeli leftist, they really struggled with trusting me and my camera, and that was this huge question of trust in making this film, so it was much tougher, it was very challenging, so in the end of the day for my research even though some of the elements are elements that I used in my previous films, it was much harder, but for my research it made things much more interesting.

Ethnofest: And how was it received to the people you’ve shown already, in Israel?

Iris Zaki: So it had it’s premiere in May, in Spring at the biggest documentary festival here. I had really really good reactions here and then it went to different countries. I always have people who really connect to it and there are characters who are complex and interesting. For some people it’s hard due to the fact they say that the problem is that I’m humanizing settlers. So I always say, I’m not trying to humanize but I’m not trying to demonize. The world today is very polarized and it’s always either black or white, I’m interested in this grey area, I call it the grey pallet, because between the black and white you always have the range of colors, I mean grey is not a color, it has these beautiful areas. And I think it’s important, especially for someone like me, to listen to different opinions than myself, and I’m very confident about my opinions and I’m not afraid to test them. It is very political so we cannot only discuss in terms of anthropology, it is way beyond because the political aspects of it, defined the film and when I go to festivals now, I’m not even asked about the film anymore, I’m always asked about Israeli politics. But I think that my biggest passion as a filmmaker is when the film is actually out. I think the editing is like the pregnancy, but I think the film is really born when it gets to the people, to audiences. And in my research, I talked a lot about the relationship of the filmmaker and viewers, because you have a lot of ethics around filmmaker’s subjects, how to respect them and in my release, I put that I’m not going to take things out of context and that I have a lot of responsibility towards those subjects but also the community as a whole, but also to my viewers, I wanted to bring them, the most authentic look from my experience but it’s of course really subjective, everything is really subjective. But now the reactions that I get from people, are always another journey because the reactions, for instance, that I got at the beginning, it’s you know, it’s very personal and now in Israel, the film is online, it’s you know on Youtube and when I read people’s reactions, they are killing me. And it shows a lot about people, from both sides, when something is not as exactly how you view it, they blame you for not being accurate, but that’s not my job, I’m not here to echo anyone’s agenda.

Ethnofest: I imagine you probably get criticism from both sides, either from the very left or right, the very extreme. I imagine it must be quite tough…but congratulations. We are so happy to have your film at the festival.

Iris Zaki: Thank you so much. I’m very happy to be a part of the festival and especially to be at an ethnographic film festival- I wish I could be there. It’s so different when I go to a documentary film festival…ethnographic film festival is all about the journey. It’s not just about the outcome of the film, and the journey is such a strong aspect of the discussion and that’s again, my biggest passion.