A conversation with Gabriella Bier, whose new documentary explores the relationship between an Israeli woman and her Palestinian husband
Filmregion Stockholm Mälardalen
The documentary Love During Wartime, which made its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, chronicles a marriage of inconvenience: Israeli dancer Yasmin and Palestinian sculptor Osama love each other, but settling down together becomes another issue entirely. Forbidden by strict Israeli citizenship laws from living in Jasmin's native Jerusalem, and harassed out of Ramallah, where Osama's family resides, the couple eventually wind up abroad in Berlin. Jasmin holds out hope of securing a German passport (with the help of her mother, who was born in Nazi Germany), but their bureaucratic nightmare only deepens. At one point, while handing down the news of a delayed court hearing to Jasmin and her parents, an Israeli lawyer wryly invokes Kafka.
Director Gabriella Bier's observational documentary, which will be distributed stateside by 7th Art Releasing, is a heartbreaking and unusually intimate account of a relationship impeded by geopolitics. Love During Wartime refrains from staking out political positions. But by exploring the effect of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities on these two individuals and their families, it serves as an effective plea for tolerance. Below, Bier talks about making her film:
As a Swede, what's been your personal relationship or connection to the Israel-Palestine conflict?
It's been a part of my life since I was born, because I'm Jewish. So it's no different if you come from the States or if you come from Sweden. [But] in Sweden, you really are a minority. You can't compare it to Israel, but when I'm here [in the States] people know what Shabbat is and they know what kosher is. They have a feeling what it's about. But in Sweden, nobody knows anything. And it really makes you see that you're outside—you're a minority. Not an outsider, because you're really part of the society still, but nobody knows. So Israel and Palestine—it's always been discussed in my family . . . so it's very personal.
For you, were there political dimensions to your interest in the project, in addition to your personal ones?
When it comes to Jasmin and Osama, I really wanted to find a couple that wasn't ... involved in any political movement. I wanted to find ... ordinary people. Because I wanted to talk from a very personal level. But of course, they encountered different political obstacles—he can't move to Israel, and she can't stay in Palestine. ... But I thought it would be much, much more powerful for us to meet them on a personal level. Because also I think with film, and especially documentaries, you talk to your audience on an intellectual level. You describe a lot of things, and a lot of facts. And I feel that I want to be closer to a narrative way of telling a story, because I think with film as an art form you should talk on an emotional level, and not on an intellectual level so much.
How did you come into contact with your subjects, Osama and Jasmin?
I had filmed two other couples before meeting with Osama and Jasmin, and they didn't want to continue filming because they had been threatened. One couple had been threatened—I mean, actual threats—and the other couple, they were just afraid. And I had filmed them for some time. It was very difficult when they said that they couldn't participate anymore.
But then I had read an article about Osama and Jasmin in Ha'aretz. And the woman from one of the other couple had been in contact with Jasmin's father, so she had the phone number. And I called him and they just said yes from the start, when I called them and explained what I wanted to do.
There are a lot of languages spoken in the film. In an IndieWire piece, you wrote, "The fact that my Hebrew is extremely poor, and that I speak no Arabic, was a challenge. I decided not to use an interpreter." What went into that decision?
My aim was to get closer to the fictional way of making a film, because ... I think sometimes you can ruin your story by only making interviews, because then you think more than you feel. And I think you should do both, of course.
This film unfolds in a number of countries, and it's essentially all about red tape and barriers to entry. Did you encounter any yourself while filming?
Yes. To leave Israel, for example, they make a much bigger check on you if you are a filmmaker. But I know Christian Swedes who go to Israel, they would think, Oh, it's horrible. Which it sometimes is—I'm not saying it's not. But I traveled for many years in East and West Africa. It's not a game. Most countries in the world really check you. And it's not very nice meeting people from the authorities. And in Israel they can be really nice, and sometimes not so pleasant.
I've been asked this question many times about Israel and Palestine, "Wasn't it difficult to work there?" but I'm always surprised when people ask me that. If you look at the world, and the representation of journalists in the world, the majority are in Israel and Palestine. They're not in Darfur, and they're not in Congo, and they're not in the Ivory Coast. And that says something about the ease of working there. And people really help you, and they're really forthcoming. ... Even if you have to ask for permits, they are helpful. For me, it's really a question of attitude. For example, in Germany, it was much more unpleasant, and that's a country in peace. ... You need permits for everything. It was just this bureaucratic attitude, while the Israelis and the Palestinians are so open and pleasant.
Osama is a sculptor, and he exhibits in Vienna at one point; Jasmin is a dancer. We see work in process in the film, but not so much of the final product. Obviously the film is about their relationship, not their work, but did you see some of their difficulties expressed in their artwork?
I would say Osama more than Jasmin. I don't want to label his art "political art," because you would have to ask him how he would label his art, but some pieces are more political pieces. You see in the end of the movie, they're talking to an Israeli gallerist in Austria, and she says [she wants] "something less political." So obviously he does political art.
For me, I don't think I'm a political filmmaker, although I do think I really relate to politics. But he might say the same thing as I do—that on a personal level, it's your everyday life. I don't go to Cambodia to make a story. Although it's really interesting, and I can be interested in that, but I could never relate to that as well as I could to this, because these are really sensitive issues to me, and I really had to struggle with my own attitudes doing this, and accept what I saw in Israel, and in Palestine—I suppose it wasn't difficult in the same way, but seeing things with your own eyes is something totally different than reading about it. And it made me also very sad. But he lives that life. It's part of his everyday life.
Read all of The Atlantic's Tribeca Film Festival coverage.