Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"City of Borders": Documentary takes on issues of human connection against all odds in Jerusalem

Director Yun Suh shoots on the scene of City of Borders

City of Borders is a 2009 documentary film that accompanies viewers along an intimate journey into the world of Shushan, the only gay bar in Jerusalem. Welcoming all patrons regardless of nationality or religion, the bar becomes a lifeline of support and community amidst a society where life is often defined by a daily struggle against hatred and intolerance. A daring documentary that takes on numerous complex issues with consistent sensitivity, City of Borders looks at how each individual strives for acceptance and belonging—sometimes literally risking everything in order to live with freedom and integrity.   

Director Yun Suh, who emigrated to the United States from South Korea as a child, became drawn to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while on assignment in the region as a radio and television broadcaster. Having grown up being taught to fear the neighboring country of North Korea, and also learning from her parents about the suffering imposed by Japanese colonization, she has been able to understand the sentiments of both Israelis and Palestinians. Amidst the reality of these divisions and tensions, City of Borders offers a vision of something different: a community that comes together in order to find its common humanity. 

Kyoto Journal blogger Kimberly Hughes sat down for an in-depth chat with Yun Suh, who was recently in Tokyo for the film’s Asian premier screening at the 18th Annual Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Kimberly Hughes: The opening scene of the film, where Palestinian bar-goer Boody makes an illegal nighttime border crossing into Jerusalem from the West Bank city of Ramallah in order to reach Shushan, captures the intensity and danger of the moment while also portraying a hint of playfulness as he prepares to strut his stuff later on that night. As an opener, the scene is absolutely brilliant. Did you know straight away that this is how you would lead into the film?

Yun Suh: No. When it came time to selecting the film’s opener, it was down to two potential scenes: the border crossing, and something more traditional, such as a montage of day shots in Jerusalem that reveal the numerous borders confining the Holy City. In documentaries, you always want to hook the audience within the first four minutes, while also setting the tone for the rest of the film. I wanted to hit the ground running without delaying the film with the backstory, and so I decided to open with Boody's illegal nighttime crossing from Ramallah to Jerusalem, where he crawls through barbed wire and climbs the separation wall to reach the gay bar. This scene also provides a stark contrast with the one that follows, where Adam (an Israeli) is able to drive easily through the checkpoint and joke around with the soldiers while on his way to Shushan. 

KH: Actually, I think you are able to hook the audience within the first four seconds with this scene, not minutes!

YS: Thanks. It was important for me to create a cinematic look with this story, because I wanted to portray this community—who has been demonized as "ugly and nasty"—in a beautiful way in order to show the audience that they can find beauty in unexpected places. To do this, I shot the documentary in 24 frames-per-second rather than the usual 30, which tend to create flatter, news-like images.

KH: You seemed to do a very good job remaining “neutral” despite the extreme sensitivity surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Did you have a hard time winning over the trust of any of the participants, who were afraid you might not understand or be on “their side”?

YS: Actually, I did receive criticism from some Jewish Israeli gay activists when they heard that I would have Palestinian participants appear in the documentary. Due to the strong anti-gay sentiment existing in the Palestinian community, the Israeli activists believed that I may have been compromising the safety of the Palestinians. Everyone was aware of the potential dangers, though, and participated in the documentary fully of their own will. I also took all necessary precautions, such as waiting to release the film until Boody had left Palestine for the United States. In fact, Samira (a Palestinian-Israeli lesbian who appears in the documentary) felt that this sort of concern on the part of the Jewish Israelis was actually somewhat offensive and patronizing; as if she was incapable of making her own choices.  

KH: Were there ever any moments of danger with authorities while you were making the documentary?

YS: Yes. There’s one scene where Boody's friend peels back a hole in fence a brightly lit section of the Israel-Palestine border to cross over into Jerusalem. Normally we would have taken a route that is longer and safer, but they were late for a drag performance that night at Shushan. We were caught by the Israeli Border Patrol and turned over to the Israeli police, but luckily for us, the Israeli police officer was not fluent in English. He ended up thinking that Boody was a Western tourist because of his facility with English and his tight clothes and earrings, which is an uncommon look among Palestinians. It was a close call. 

KH: The scene where Samira and her Israeli lover Ravit discuss how they have confronted issues of the occupation bleeding into their own relationship—and how they have tried to overcome this in order to base their relationship on the values of love and respect—is immensely powerful and inspiring for many reasons. Can you comment any further on this? Also, do you get a sense that there are other couples out there who are similar to this one?

YS: First of all, finding any Palestinian-Israeli couple at all—whether gay or straight—is kind of like trying to find a unicorn. With just a few exceptions, it feels like they simply don’t exist. Samira and Ravit, who have managed to come to a place of love and understanding in their own relationship despite all of the mistrust and propaganda that is out there on both sides, give an immense amount of hope.

Every country—not only Israel—must confront this question of how to approach difference. Do you continue to hate and fear it, or do you learn to respect it? Because Samira and Ravit have done the latter in Israel, their relationship truly models what their country could look like when based upon tolerance and co-existence. 

KH: Adam, an Israeli, seems to have quite conflicted views. In the scene where he is inspecting his fenced off backyard at his home on an Israeli settlement, which faces a neighboring Palestinian village, he says, “We need a wall in order to separate us from our neighbors.” When he later sees a dog crawl underneath it, however, he remarks, “Animals don’t know borders…we should learn from them.” Do you feel this is indicative of a larger tension in Israel?

YS: Definitely. Adam speaks to the contradiction that defines Israeli society: he wants peace, but he refuses to give up his privilege to achieve it. There is a tremendous amount of fear in Israel toward Palestinians, and Adam thinks that having this fence around his home and his city will protect him. He does not understand that the fence is in fact caging him in, however, because his own freedom in fact depends on that of the Palestinians. His failure to understand this connection between himself and others whom he perceives as different prevents him from being able to transcend barriers.

KH: Given these tensions, as well as the violent homophobia that is also portrayed in the documentary, Shushan seems to be the one place where people can come together and escape from the problems and dangers around them. The scene where an Israeli bar-goer chokes up while saying “I realized when I entered this bar that my previous views had all been based on hate…only here would it have been possible for me to meet and kiss a Palestinian” is immensely poignant. Do you feel that this bar is the only place where this kind of understanding can flourish? Or are there other sources of hope?

YS: Actually I think that Shushan serves as a kind of metaphor. Yes, it represents the ideal…but what I tried to do in this documentary is to show how everyone is actually engaged in their own struggle to find their own places of belonging and acceptance. I also try to end the film in a positive way, by showing how each person has somehow embarked on a new journey to maintain their full humanity in accordance with whatever personal struggles they may be facing.

KH: Was there any particular underlying theme or motivation that inspired you to make this film?

YS: Well, my hope is that after seeing the documentary, people will start to think about the matter of the mental, physical and cultural barriers that might be preventing us from having a real connection with others who are different from us. 

Having moved to the United States when I was eight years old without speaking even a word of English, I know firsthand what it feels like to be an outsider. I hope that people will start to realize that we always have something to learn from others and their particular worldview. I also think that the people appearing in the documentary are amazing teachers about how to be true to yourself, even against all odds. The purpose of City of Borders is to honor the spirit of their tremendous courage.

For more information about City of Borders and a schedule of international screenings, see the official website.  

City of Borders Director Yun Suh

- Posted by Kimberly Hughes

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