Iris Zaki is a documentary fillmmaker whose curiosity and opennes shapes her films into studios of human encounters and connections. We are delighted to call her a Cheap Cuts Jury member and chatted with the filmmakers about her beginnings, her latest film and what makes a good short doc.
Iris’s university thesis film My Kosher Shifts (2011) won the top prize at OpenCity doc film festival. In her Ph.D. research, she studies her own technique of the ‘abandoned camera’ in closed communities and teaches twenty-five students. Her new film Women in Sink (2015) has screened at LSFF, IDFA, AFI, Karlovy Vary and Visions du Reel.
What is the story behind your debut, My Kosher Shifts?
During my Master’s studies in documentary practice, I worked as a receptionist at an ultra-orthodox Jewish hotel in North London and I had really intimate, interesting conversations with people. So for my final project, I decided to make my film about my interactions with people there, to present a different perspective or gaze on orthodox Jews than the films I usually watched about this community.
How was your approach different?
I wanted to film my interaction with the hotel’s guests, not in the typical interviewing style. I did not want to interview them, as I realised that the strength of the interaction was in the fact that it is natural, and was happening while I was serving people at the front desk – booking them a cab, giving them their key and then … we speak. I asked myself: ‘How do I capture just that?’ If I bring a cameraman, or a sound engineer, or if I hold the camera, it would change the dynamic. So I brought my camera to work, asked people if they agree to be filmed, and many of them said yes. The camera was on a tripod in the office, behind me, I pressed ‘record’ and returned to the reception desk. Many of them forgot about the camera and sometimes even I did. We started just being and communicating. I think that is the strength of the film. It feels very casual and authentic.
How was the film received?
I got very positive reactions at my university, so when I heard about the OpenCity festival, which had the My Street Competition, I decided to submit my film there. The film won the first prize. I realised how amazing it is to have your film received by audiences and so I started going to festivals. I had received so many different reactions and I loved it. I loved the Q&A, I love the fact that there is the film you made but it has a whole new life when it reaches audiences. I think a film is born with the audience, not before. So I said to myself ‘OK! I filmed myself interacting with people, and people find it interesting and entertaining then… I definitely have to keep exploring that.
Why did you decide to make this your research area for your P.h.D.?
I wanted to see if what happened with My Kosher Shifts was something that could re-happen somehow. I wanted to do a Ph.D. and I did not know what about, and I tried to find a topic but I was not passionate about what I came up with. When I bumped into a professor that I was considering to do my Ph.D. with, he told me to stop looking around: ‘What you did before should be your Ph.D.’
He suggested that I should use the same technique to depict different communities. So I decided to focus my research on that, and I defined the key elements of the technique, which will be tested with different communities and different documentary conditions.
What were those key elements?
I have to work in a place, because I want to immerse myself into the community in a way… Then the location… which is a business. So it is not my comfort zone, nor the subject’s comfort zone. If you take someone to a production site or a studio, you are more in charge. If you go to someone’s house, it is the person’s comfort zone. So I wanted that neutral space… and the fact that it is random people. I do not know them before. I do not do any research. It is not an interview; it is a conversation. We chat. I open myself up a lot. And, finally, the ‘abandoned camera’, meaning that there is no camera operator. All these elements together are there to reduce the awareness of the people and of myself to the craft of filming. So that was the idea.
‘Abandoned camera’ technique
How do you find exploring your work in a Ph.D.?
It is practice based, so at this stage I am working on the films and the written thesis will be a reflection on the process of filmmaking. I think that there is a gap in the literature because you mostly have film scholars who look at the finished film. There is not much on the entire process, which is much bigger than what you see in the end. I thought that could be interesting. Also, in a more selfish way, having two people working with me on my practice: one experienced filmmaker and the other a scholar. It is a kind of green house for me to grow, because I haven’t felt ready yet to be a filmmaker. I still feel like there is something that I need to explore first. So, for me, it was perfect.
How do you feel about being in the films yourself as a subject to the camera? Do you go inside the action with certain intentions or is it totally improvised?
In the first film, I was more naïve. I did not think that the film was going to screen at festivals. When I used the same method for my second film, Women in Sink, I was more aware of the camera and my presence and had the potential film in mind. So my own performance in the film is more self-aware than the subjects in it, I guess. But I am still, while filming, washing women’s hair, so it is still more casual than it would be, if I held the camera. In terms of my presence, I am actually thinking about including myself more as a character in my next project, because my films are not only about the people that I am documenting, they are about the people and me; the interaction. I am definitely a character in my films.
How did you prepare your second film Women in Sink?
I knew that the first community I wanted to do, after My Kosher Shifts, was the Arab community in Haifa – my hometown, with which I never had any real opportunity to communicate with. I never interacted with Arabs. It is very separated in Israel. It goes by religion. So you mostly have Jewish schools, Christian-Arab schools and Muslim-Arab schools with the exception of some democratic schools. I knew that I wanted to work in a place and I was thinking a lot about which business would allow me to have the time and space to talk to people again. And then, one day, it came to my mind – washing hair. I love the fact that it is women only and that there is a certain intimacy. That I can touch Arab women, wash their hair, which I thought could break the ice. So I went to Israel to find a place and I discovered Fifi’s Hair salon.
Fifi’s hair salon – Haifa
With which agenda did you go into the film?
I wanted to hear from the women about the frustration of living in Israel as an Arab. I ended up in a mixed hair salon of Arabs and Jews. At first, I wanted the film to be about Arab women only, not Jews, and I filmed conversations with Jewish women thinking that I was not going to use them. The materials of Jewish women ended up to be very good for the film; they were very political, they asked me ‘Why are you making this film?’
and I explained how I never met Arabs as we were separated in Israel and then it turned into a political conversation quite organically. In the end, it became a multitude of voice put together.Regarding the Arab women, the women that I crossed, they were Christian Arabs who felt more linked to the state. They have been mixing with Jews for many years and live in Haifa, which is some sort of a bubble of coexistence, compared with the rest of Israel. So even though I wanted to have more political Arab women criticising Israel, I have learnt that it is not for me to decide; I also tell people who watch the film that it is not a study and that I am not representing the Arab or Christian-Arab community, only the people that I met. A lot of the voices in Women in Sink were grey. Neither extreme left, nor right. A lot of films look for the extremes, because it sells more and it’s sexier. I was a bit disappointed at first, but now I think that it can be actually quite controversial to show the non-extreme, that grey area, and realise how my film upsets both sides of the political map.
What is your next project about?
I am now working on a documentary in a settlement in the West Bank, which has 800 families. I found a few places to work there. I need to do another film with my technique for my research and I believe that this could be an interesting topic.
How do you feel about your new role as a judge for Cheap Cuts?
I am super excited about it and very honoured. I love watching documentaries from different parts of the world, and I am a big fan of short ones. I tend to have different opinions than others and when a film is not working for me, I sense it right away.
What expectations do you have towards a short documentary?
Make me feel something. Make me laugh, or cry, make me think. Shake me. Communicate with me. A lot of films can be beautiful, but they do not make me feel something. For me, it is all about the content and not about the beautiful HD. It should be existential, trigger a reaction and say something about the world we live in.
What are the best documentaries you recently watched?
The top three would be Silvered Water, a first-person documentary about Syria, which is one of the strongest films I’ve ever watched. Love, Don’t Cross that River, an example of how a pure observational film about a small story can be as powerful and rich as fiction, and Twilight of A Life, is a tiny film yet it is so emotional and philosophical.