Youngsters — as well as a few old-timers — roaming the Israeli streets after dark are asked a single provocative question in docu “Would You Have Sex With an Arab?” Paris-born helmer Yolande Zauberman’s film is, of course, less about mixed intercourse than the Arab-Israeli conflict at large, though by arriving at the polarizing subject sideways, the answers often feel fresh, with the ideological and frequently abstract clash turned into something tangible and relatable, especially in the more tightly focused first hour. Despite so-so DV lensing and sound quality, pic should pucker up at liberal fests and on the tube.
Pic was mainly filmed on the streets of Tel Aviv, though it also contains, per the press book, some (unidentified) footage shot in Jerusalem and Haifa. Using a compact Leica D-Lux 4, Zauberman lobs the titular question at night-owls lurking in or just outside bars and discos. Though it is often forgotten (or conveniently overlooked), a sizable population of Israeli Arabs also lives in Israel, and they are asked the equally revealing question, “Would you have sex with an Israeli Jew?”
Some of the interviewees reject the concept outright or think that the idea of an Arab and a Jew making love or being in a relationship is a utopian thing that doesn’t happen in real life. But Zauberman, occasionally heard in v.o., interviews enough people to suggest that such lovemaking is something that occurs more often than one might think (“desire can hit you before you can ask where someone stands politically,” one of the interviewees wisely underlines).
Perhaps tellingly, however, successful ongoing relationships prove about as elusive as long-term peace in the region, though some of the talking heads were in mixed relationships that lasted several years, including an older Arab man whose liaison with a Jewish woman was frowned upon until he told his peers that their being together “changed the mind of the girl about Arabs,” after which they were left alone.
Though it touches on issues such as sex, love and relationships, the material’s recurring theme is political. By turning a faceless, unknown enemy into real people with emotions and opinions, Zauberman accumulates material that suggests harmony and understanding might be possible. It’s not a revolutionary insight, perhaps, but still one that remains necessary. The mention of immigrant Maghrebi Jews, relationships with Christian Arabs and plain old foreigners further underlines the complexities of the sociopolitical patchwork that is the Middle East.
Last half-hour loses steam as Zauberman adds atmospheric footage from a queer Palestinian disco and a beach rave, both in Tel Aviv. They add diversity but little insight, since interview material is lacking. The impact of a prolonged closeup of a kissing couple on the shore is diminished because the lovers remain unidentified (though first names of most interviewees appear in the closing credits).
Since it was shot with a tiny camera and mainly in places where loud music and little light are the norm, “Sex” has some sound and image issues. And somewhat mysteriously, Zauberman interviews most of her subjects in English, which occasionally muddles these non-native speakers’ arguments.
Pic’s dedicated to the late Juliano Mer-Khamis, an actor-filmmaker of mixed heritage who’s among the interviewees.