Thursday, May 7, 2009

An Interview with Yariv Mozer, the Winner of TJFF's 2009 Tzimmie* Award

Assistant Programming Coordinator
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

(left to right:) Yariv Mozer and TJFF Assistant Programme Coordinator, Stuart Hands

When filmmaker Yariv Mozer was called up by his unit in the Israeli army during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, one of the first things he hid was bring a video camera. In My First War, Mozer gives us a personal view of the war, with all of its confusion, chaos and disorganization. This first-hand look at the conflict focuses on the soldiers — their fears, their problems and their reactions to the contradictory orders and facts surrounding the war. At one point the government ordered a large land operation into Lebanon at the same time it accepted a ceasefire. The result was the unnecessary death of many young men and the open revolt of some soldiers who refused to obey their orders.

During the festival, I had the opportunity to interview Mozer where we discussed his film, his family as well as why, after what he has seen and documented in
My First War, he still agrees to serve in the reserves.

STUART HANDS: When you decided to bring your camera, what did you initially expect to find?

YARIV MOZER: It’s not that I expected to find something. It was more about what I was feeling when I received this phone call to go to the front. First of all, understanding that I’m going to war—which raises a lot of fears— there’s immediately the thought that you are going to be in a life and death situation. The second thing—which is unique to me—is that I went to a unit that I didn’t know about, with people I never met. I was going to replace an officer who ran away from the battlefield with an anxiety attack. I think this made me more fearful because if I knew that I was going to war with people that I knew already, it would have felt different. So I can understand why I had this urge to take my camera (really at the last second) as I left the house. In my house, I had one battery and five cassettes, which in the digital age, is not the amount that you take for a documentary; I never had the feeling that it was going to become a film. I think that I used the camera to cope with my fears, to have something to—as I say in the film—mediate between me and the reality I was in, and to look at the reality as if it were a film and not reality. And I remember at the beginning of war, I was looking only for the surrealistic things. So I only filmed things that looked unusual to me or raised questions. And latter on I started dealing more with the meaning of this war.

Three stills from My First War

SH: Is it common for soldiers to bring their video cameras into the army with them?

YM: Yes, because the army in Israel is a regular phenomenon so everyone comes, bringing their things from their homes.

SH: In your film, you demonstrate this natural instinct to use the camera as a mediator between you and reality. Did you develop this instinct when you were young?

YM: It comes from a very early age. I always had a camera, starting from twelve years old, from the minute there was an available video camera. I had the first VHS-C camera (do you remember this one?), which I used. And then when I was in my obligatory service, I was always filming my officer’s school and trainings and things that I had during my army service. I was always walking with a camera so it was very clear to me that was going to be a filmmaker. This is why I had a camera and used it [when I was called to the front for the Second Lebanon War].

SH: My First War offers a very poignant depiction of male sensitivity. Was this open display of vulnerability readily apparent among the soldiers or did you have to seek it out?

YM: I know that I had this intuitive interest in this world of men. For example, you can see a very clear shot of a women reading a book, but I was not interested in those women soldiers. I was interested in men. I was interested in the joint experience of men together in a situation like war, like the army. [I think that you see the male] vulnerability in the film because I was talking to the people eye to eye, not as a director or a journalist asking questions from a distance. I was talking to people as a friend, as a fellow officer or fellow a soldier. I really talked to their emotional situation, so it was something that interested me and it brought out the vulnerability of the men, which I think you can see in this film in a very clear way.

SH: In general, do you think Israel is a macho society in terms of how it nurtures male identity?

YM: For sure, as every born male child is raised knowing that he needs to go into the army at the age of eighteen, and then needs to serve in an elite unit, and be brave and follow after all the heroes of Israel. So it becomes a very macho society.

Being gay myself helps me look at this from a different point of view, from a different angle, with sensitivity, with a desire to understand men and to be with men—that’s the undersurface of the film. It’s not on the film’s surface; I didn’t want it to be. I think gay people notice it, as do people with a good sense of filmmaking that can read cinematic language. People who know me also can see it in a clear way. When I’m saying in the film that I’m attracted to Ilan’s blue eyes, it’s a way for me to say that I’m in love with him. When I see such an officer, who is—in a way—also macho, but has a heart, I fall in love with him.

SH: You mentioned the other day that My First War is playing at a Gay and Lesbian film festival in Israel.

YM: Yes, just before I came to Toronto, the head of the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Tel Aviv asked me if they could present the film in a special program of documentaries that have a gay subtext. Of course I agreed. It’s not something that I am hiding.

Standing army Lt. Col. Ilan Levi in Mozer's My First War

SH: Are you in the reserves of the Israeli army?

YM: Yes.

SH: After what you have seen and documented with your film, how come you still agree to serve?

YM: It’s a thing that I need to deal with on a daily basis. But, the most important thing for me to say is that I don’t want to leave or give up. I don’t want to leave the army in the hands of people with a different point of view than mine. I still think that left wing people who are part of Israel, who care about Israel, should also be part of the army. Because if you want to change something, if you want to be in the inside and not look from the outside… this is why I still need to be there. At this point in my life, I don’t want to give up and say that I’m not part of the Israeli society. I want to be inside and criticize and I want to still serve. And if I will find myself in a situation where it contradicts my beliefs, I will not do it. Until now, I have not found myself in such a situation.

Like the majority of Israel, most of the officers and soldiers in the reserves are right wing and they talk very nastily about Palestinians Their way of thinking about Arabic people is very racist. And when I’m serving in the army, the people there know that I’m a journalist, that I’m a director and that I have a left wing point of view, and so they try to avoid talking like this. They try to hide their personal point of views. And I like this, I like being there, not like a policemen, but as a guard of human rights.

SH: Would talk about your parents? Were they born in Israel?

YM: The roots of my family—both grandfathers and one grandmother—are from Poland. My grandmother on my father’s side was born in Tel Aviv. My grandfather on my father’s side came to Israel before the Second World War when he was three years old. My Grandparents on my mother’s side were survivors.

SH: What did your parents do for a living?

YM: They served the security forces of Israel. They are now retired. My father still deals with recruiting and hiring young Israeli guys for guarding Jewish communities all around the world. My grandfather was also from the security agency of Israel.

SH: What do they think of your film?

YM: They support everything I do as a filmmaker; they also support the point of view of the film. I must say that it is not a controversial film in Israel. It’s really a film that shows, in a very sincere and honest way, what happened in this war and what happened to the soldiers. And if someone doesn’t want to deal with the reality of Israel, then he has a problem; most of the people know the reality and can cope with this.

I always thought it was important to
not have my film be too left wing, so it could shown to the majority of Israel. The very left wing people in Israel hate my film and they criticize it. They think it’s a propaganda film and the Palestinians also think it’s a propaganda film. They don’t see the criticism in the film.

SH: In what ways do they see it as a propaganda film?

YM: Because it raises an emotional attachment to soldiers in the Israeli army…We knew that if we wanted to address the majority of the Israeli audience, we needed this film to be sincere and honest, and not against the soldiers. I would never be against the soldiers, I’m part of them, and I respect them. I respect the people that were with me. I respect every human being as he is; I do not say ‘oh he is a soldier in Israel, so he is a monster’. This film comes from a lot of respect towards the people who served with me, and towards my country… I care about this country and I want to address the people in it. In Israel, nobody sees the majority of the very left wing documentary films that are being supported by the European audience. When my film was released and when it played on the documentary channel, a lot of people saw it. Now the Israeli channel 1—which is the main public channel—is re-running this film on prime time for the three-year anniversary of the war. So then it will be shown to more people in Israel, who would not watch a film that is too left-wing.

SH: Would you talk about the film you are directing now?

YM: My next film as a director is called Noa and Mira. It’s the story of internationally acclaimed Israeli singer Noa, who is asked to represent Israel at the upcoming Eurovision song contest in Moscow. She said that she would perform there only on the condition that she goes with Arab-Palestinian singer Mira Awad, and that they do a duet with a song that combines Hebrew, English and Arabic. So this is the first time that Israel is sending an Arabic singer to represent Israel at the Eurovision contest. This is a big thing in Israel and it brings out criticism from both the left and the right.

A shot from Mozer's music video of Noa (left) and Mira Awad (right) performing the duet, "There Must be Another Way"

You can visit the website of Yariv's production company, Mozer Films, by clicking

*The Tzimmie Award (also called the David A. Stein Memorial Award) is presented in memory of David A. Stein, a gifted Toronto filmmaker who passed away in 2004 at age 34. Named after his production company, Tzimmes Entertainment, it is an annual $5,000 award to the director of the best documentary making its Canadian premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, and supports documentary filmmakers in creating works that would have interested David and that carry on his passion for storytelling. Yariv Mozer's film was selected as this year's winner by a jury consisting of filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, casting director Marsha Chesley, and author/journalist Evan Solomon.