Films A to Z

Zero Degrees Of Separation

85 min.
Year of Production:
Production Company:
Graphic Pictures Inc. in co-production with National Film Board of Canada
Berlinale Section:
Berlinale Category:
Documentary Film

When your lover is considered your enemy, your relationship may have more at stake than the average affair. Selim and Ezra are lovers caught in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Selim is Palestinian and Ezra is Israeli. Samira and Edit met at a demonstration. They too are lovers. Samira is Palestinian, Edit is Israeli. The documentary feature ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION takes viewers on a unique journey through the complex lives of Israeli and Palestinian gays and lesbians in interethnic relationships. Though living on the margins of society, these couples defy the odds, existing in the midst of conflict with a gentle humanity and mutual respect. Interwoven with these stories is director Elle Flanders’ own rich narrative of growing up with Zionist grandparents intimately involved in the founding of the state of Israel. Drawing the past into the present through the use of home movies, the director retraces her grandparents’ travels as they tour a fledgling nation brimming with pioneering, joyous youth, immigrants, refugees and endless open vistas of the Holy Land. In stark contrast, the modern images of the Occupation expose the cracks in the country’s foundation. Faced with endless barriers, the Palestinians in ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION must constantly detour roads, their own homes, their lands and their lives. And though violence is a daily intrusion, perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to Palestinian daily existence is the Israeli bulldozer as it destroys homes, builds barriers, settlements, bypass roads, and tears up what little is left of this land. Elle Flanders breaks with the sensationalistic media coverage of the violence in the Middle East by documenting the everyday lives of courageous, outspoken individuals as they take small steps towards peace, mutual respect and hope. Through their example, ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION builds bridges where only walls exist. Production note


Director’s statement
In 1971, I moved to Israel with my family. We were immigrating, Jews returning to Zion. I was in first grade and learned many new things including a new language and how to identify a terrorist: we were told to be suspiciousof those wearing kafiyas (Arab headdress). I also learntthat most Arab countries did not want the state of Israel to exist, and were fairly hostile to the Jews. I lived on andoff in Israel until 1982, after which I rarely returned. I became a filmmaker and political activist. It was then that a different story emerged for me: about Palestine and Palestinians, about dispossession and exile. I learned that our 1948 War of Independence was their “Nakba” or disaster. I chose to no longer be a bystander in the conflict. After my grandparents died, I discovered an archive in their Jerusalem home; a box of 16mm films shot over a fifty-year period. Some of it documents their impressions and involvement with the establishment of the state of Israel. With these archives in hand and my political involvement for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, I decided to return with my camera for a personal and political exploration of the conflict. At the same time I had just learned of a gay Jewish Israeli and Palestinian couple who were trying to survive the ongoing conflict. Ezra is a plumber and peace activist and his partner Selim, recently released from Israeli prison, had been an activist in the first Intifada; if gays could exist beyond the boundaries of the conflict perhaps there was hope for others too. I began the research for a film about these couples. When I contacted Ezra, he repeated my last name, Flanders. It became clear that we had once known one another in different circumstances. He had been my grandparent’s gardener. Our fate was sealed and ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION was born. ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION is a continuation of my ongoing engagement with themes of exile, displacement and social justice. It is a film that connects my passions and my politics, my personal history and that of others who attempt to overcome their histories against all odds.


Interview with Elle Flanders

Question: The handling of found material – your grandparent’s 16mm films – in ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION is very compelling. Rather than being solely a source of the past, it is also an entry into the present. It is also not simply deployed for the interrogation of the “very personal”, but for the articulation of the history of Israel and Palestine. Can you comment on how your approach to “the personal and the political” in ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION evolved?

Elle Flanders: I found these films in my grandparents’ home in Jerusalem and after I cleaned them all by hand, repaired them with splicing tape, essentially treating them as found treasure and a fetish object, I screened them. I immediately felt the joy and excitement my grandparents had experienced and recorded about their discovery and interaction with Palestine. My grandfather had been traveling there and involved with the mission of creating a Jewish state from the 1920s forward. Then with my grandmother, after the Holocaust, they together made this a mission and a passion; obviously the two cannot be separated. I too had a mission and a passion which was to convey the reality, as I see it of course, of what is Israel and Palestine through a different lens, one with hindsight and from the perspective of justice, peace and responsibility. It was clear to me that we were both on journeys somewhat similar in many ways, although by this point I had the benefit of Edward Said’s work on Orientalism, and Noam Chomsky’s work on just about everything else. Not to mention an acute sense of how we see, built through the lens of critical theory. As I watched the films I became more and more fascinated with what was in them, what I was looking at exactly, what they chose to record and its meaning today. Of course I have framed it to suggest that everything we need to know about the current situation is already there, it – the present – is in the archive. I have always wondered what were they thinking when they shot these films. What did they see and what did they not see? What and/or how does one choose to see? I was careful not to condemn my grandparents individually or otherwise. I used their work as a reference point for myself in terms of an investigation into the practice of seeing, recording and political analysis (or not). I wonder did they saw and chose not to see or know at the same time. I will be specific: the Palestinians whom they film, who were these people to them? Did they know they were displacing them? Were they the enemy already? It seems that in the images, they are more a curiosity, a figure of the Middle East as only Orientalism led us to document and view. My grandparents are clearly voyeurs here; clearly strangers in a strange land. But I still wonder what they were thinking in those moments. How can one choose to “not know” what is happening? Of course this leads to questions about responsibility, action and guilt. I chose, for the most part, to not cut into the archive, to not edit it. I have done so in two places only, once introducing the film, the archive and the concept, and once at the end for the credits. I did indeed choose a very formalist approach to the archive as I wanted as much as possible to maintain its integrity. Not for any foolish notion of truth and documentary, I would be the last to propose that idea. I wanted the viewer to experience what I had to some degree upon viewing the archive, and more importantly, so we could witness how my grandparents chose to document their time in Palestine. How they experienced it, their journey, their tour. And so I mimic their tour with my own in terms of my political point of view and then also with Ezra’s tour, how he chooses to show me the landscape. It is such a familiar way of seeing the land of Israel, with a tour guide pointing out all the important sites, old and new. I wanted to remark on this, to mimic the archive and the notion of the tour with a contemporary one. I think my choice in using the archive for a political examination of the present cannot be separated, however, from my love for my grandparents. I think I handle the archive with such care, precision and attention that you cannot miss the handling of my grandparents in a way. We may not have agreed politically but I have clearly not dismissed them, I have rather interrogated them and their choices in history. I could not have done this with anonymous archives.

Question: You chose to tell the story and stories of your film largely through the depiction of different relationships. What is your relation to these relationships (both to the individual persons and the “conceptual choice”)?

E.F.: I think it is only fair to say that my relationship to all my subjects is strained to some degree. I am not sure how it comes across but I don’t know if we really are “carried away” by any one character, even Ezra. I am not sure we can create deep connections and identifications with any of them. I think partly this was my own limitation. I am not sure I was so compelled by their stories, but rather their circumstances. I think I could say the same of my grandparents. Is their story really that unique or is it about the circumstance? So I am afraid my answer to this question may be less than satisfactory for those who believe that we need to create identification models with our subjects in cinema and perhaps this may well be the failure of ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION, but my sense is that this is indeed not a film about relationships at this level, or of love. I believe that relationships, that is: human relations, is what I spend most of my time thinking about, the psychology of individuals and how we interrelate. How our past is reiterated throughout our lives, how repetition is a fascinating cycle to understand and while I may not have delved into the more traditional aspects of relationships as romantic relationships, I think I have investigated how individuals, including myself, live their complex pasts through their present relations. I think I have perhaps used the notion of relationship to convey certain aspects of a problem, that of mine to my grandparents, of these characters to one another, in order to delve further into the role of history and our place within it. I suppose I am back to personal responsibility – I think all the characters exemplify that. They each take responsibility very seriously, as do I, through the repetition and therefore deconstruction of my grandparent’s archive.

Question: In ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION it becomes obvious that love is not “enough”. Love and history – and politics – do not form a relation of progress, guided by the romantic notion of completion, but of the simultaneity of ruptures and connections, of continuity and disjunction. Your treatment of the love relationships appear like a comment on the role of narrativity, of narration, both in regard to history (to historicism, or maybe anti-historicism?) as well as to film as such. Can you elaborate on your understanding of the element of the narrative?

E.F.: I am indeed driven at times by narrativity and sometimes by notions of love, history and politics. I think we all are, it is what we do with them that differentiates us. I think ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION follows the threads while knowing full well that they are merely always threads and will never weave together in any cohesive way. I confess, though, that it is often desirable to do so, to complete, to sew neatly, to love without angst, but I cannot say I have ever reached any of those states. But the desire to do so is really the point of remark I think. And perhaps I am not convinced that this is not as romantic a notion as is completion. I suppose I am arguing that romantic notions of love are equally about simultaneous ruptures and connection. So I am left with my fragments and I am driven onwards by those fragments. I suppose that is indeed where I find meaning. I never for a moment believed that love could move us through anything more than what it could not move us through. And perhaps more importantly, I chose not to take on a great love story; it seemed that was not the point. I did indeed choose what I know best, fragments of lives, of love, of history and of memory in order to elucidate a passion and a mission, finding a way through the conflict of Israel and Palestine. Perhaps the place, Israel/Palestine, is also symbolic of something I had and did not have simultaneously as exemplified by my characters – these are all deeply flawed relationships. Even that of my grandparents, their relationship to the land, my relationship to them and then the other relationships in the film. I am not sure I know how to tell a story in a more traditional narrative way, if that is what you are asking. I think I am clear through the years that I can best convey the complexity of a situation through the shell or the carcass of a narrative by using referents that one can identify with. I am always personally more satisfied with moments and experiences than I am with story.

Question: Your precise use of material as a link between past and present is connected to a sophisticated use of materials, of materiality; it also reflects on your treatment of texts and textures. How did your notion of visuality, of the relation of text and image take shape, for instance, how did you develop the appearence of (written) text in the film, how did you go about handling the different materialities of the old and the new, the found and the “made”?

E.F.: The found archive and its presence as image, its fragilit and its concrete nature was the link I needed to connect that past to the present, to try to look for answers in the archive. I find myself often looking to images as referents, as markers of both something found and lost simultaneously, that keeps me engaged. And I know bringing the past forwards in this particular way, through home movies, is not just a fascination of mine, clearly. We often look with fascination at home movies, not knowing who the waving figures are or their relationships, but we attempt to find ourselves in these images of the past to create a connection by looking for something: Lost and Found, lost and found, peering into another’s world, perhaps looking for that lost part of our own. I have used text and image for as long as I have been photographing, for the past twenty years. Not exclusively but certainly often, and I think I came to this in ZERO DEGREES because I wanted somehow to reflect my diaristic approach to making this film. That indeed it was a journey and a re-journey (backwards and forwards). I felt that my voice rather than text would not have connected the viewer in the same way, as I find there is often less room for audiences to enter a work when you are talking at them. And so I came back to text. It is meant to be read as a discovery for the audience, much as I was discovering and much as the archive was a discovery: a reading of the situation rather than a telling, I suppose. But I like to think of the archive similarly to the text: that we are reading those images much in the same way we are reading my text. They are indeed both diaries of sorts, markers of movement through a space and time.

Question: You have taken ZERO DEGREES IN SEPARATION as a work in progress to many different countries, locations and contexts. Can you comment on those encounters of debate, contestation, conflict and support? In which way did this process influence your work? This traveling is of course also a partaking in a political work. In general, how do you place visual work within politics and activism, what is your notion of “political cinema” (in relation to ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION)? And finally: where do you place your film, in its final form, what is your idea of exposition?

E.F.: I wanted so much to begin relating the issues and the immediacy I was experiencing in relation to the conflict and what needed to be understood, witnessed, recorded and done that I created a twenty-two-minute work that I took to some very key locations and festivals. I also wanted to have a sense of who would come to see the work and if it could exist within an activist realm. I think it can and I would very much like it to have this kind of life. I screened the twenty-two-minute piece – which is in fact very different from the film I have now – in New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Los Angeles, Hamburg and Berlin a year and a half ago. I showed the work at gay festivals and activist events. I had large audiences who I would say, for the most part, were supportive of the work. There was a general understanding that I was coming from a leftist perspective and was dealing with the conflict from the position of someone who is anti-Occupation (as are all my subjects). Thus there wasn’t great controversy although one is always sure to find it wherever the work is shown. I have indeed engaged with very pro-Israel characters in my screenings and discussions, and often many (gay) Jews who take a fairly conservative outlook towards the conflict. This I often find interesting because so many Jews, and people in general, do not actually know what is going on there (and if I may say so, many Israelis as well. This is the point; many live in Tel Aviv and are totally oblivious to how life is in the West Bank, only a few kilometers away). Most people have the media-distorted version of the conflict, wherein there are two sides: suicide-bombing Muslim fanatics on one and Jewish victims in a civilized society on the other. Or if there is radical media (hardly remarked on), the commentary is of Zionist conspiracies. But most people truly know nothing of the day-to-day, more mundane details of what this conflict has brought about: for instance what it means when you live in a town that is surrounded by a fence or wall and you can only get in or out with a special permit (and most don’t have these). And what it means, therefore, to not be able to get an operation because the doctor who specializes in that is in a hospital you cannot get to because you don’t have a permit. Or what it means to stand, day in and day out, in long lines at checkpoints, having eighteen-year-old boys decide your fate. Can you get to work that day? Can you visit your family in the next town? And of course, finally, there’s economic devastation. I would very much like to see ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION screened in cinemas across Europe and North America and Asia (and of course the Middle East, but I do not have much hope of that) and I would like to travel with it to help engage people in a necessary conversation about politics and action in general and then the conflict specifically. I would like to place it in the realm of “activist” work, not only as political cinema. I draw this distinction since it is one thing to make political work but it is another to then use that work to activate change and dialogue by being present with it and “active”. I know this route will be a difficult one because ultimately there is an apathy around politics and the sense that individuals have the power to create change (for the greater good rather than driven by personal motivation). It is easy to get people into the cinemas to view strange lives or phenomena, documentaries that have created forums (or circuses) for the unfamiliar or the taboo. I know many people commented that they wanted my film to tell them more about being gay in the Middle East (the danger, the suffering, especially), or when I first introduced the notion of this film, the desire for a story about love that conquered all. But I was fed up with gay stories rather than characters who happen to be gay as that is the world I live in, talking about the complexity of their lives, be they gay, Palestinian, women, Jewish, etc. I wanted to move beyond the simplicity of identity to the complexity of it. We are drawn to the prurient, to the examination of the strangeness in life, of the impossible. Perhaps that has ist legitimate place but I am drawn to what is possible and to question why we are here and how to do a better job of it. I suppose I believe that by bringing these archives and this film forward I hope to create a new realm of consciousness. Like Ezra, I would say I am a “pessoptimist”, or as I have called myself a “pessimistic optimist”: I am not sure I believe that I can create change or that we are capable of it, but it doesn’t mean I won’t try.

Interview: Nanna Heidenreich, Berlin, January 2005

BIOGRAFIE Elle Flanders

Elle Flanders, born on January 2, 1966 in Montreal, Canada, is a filmmaker and photographer based in New York and Toronto. She was raised in Canada and Israel, and studied art and critical theory at Rutgers University, and is an alumna of the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum. She was the executive director of the Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival of Toronto, and was on the board of directors of the Images Festival of Independent Film and Video.

FILMOGRAFIE Elle Flanders (selection)

2011 Road Movie  2005 Zero Degrees Of Separation 

Elle Flanders IMDb

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