Veverka Bros. speaks with filmmaker, new media artist and self-proclaimed Jewish rebel Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon about his work and upcoming feature-documentary, A People Without a Land.
How did you get interested in film?
When I was 17, I took a cinema class in high school for the easy credit. I was introduced to the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Stanley Kubrick and I understood that film could be more than just entertainment. I knew then that this is what I wanted to do with my life.
Do you consider yourself to be primarily an activist, or a filmmaker, or some combination of the two?
You know, I’ve always said that I’m not an activist, I’m an artist. And the truth is that when you’re making documentary films about political issues, if you’re doing your job well, it sort of looks like activism. But it’s not really. Here’s the difference: I judge the success or failure of my work based on the quality of the experience that I can provide to my audience, not on how many people I can persuade.
You grew up in an orthodox Jewish household. Tell us a bit about this background and how it informs your work.
It’s tough to summarize a world in a few words. Hell, it’s difficult to do it in many words. Growing up as an Orthodox Jew is in some ways like coming from another planet. It has given me a perspective on the world that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it has also posed challenges, some of which I continue to struggle with. I try to keep the good stuff and let go of the bad stuff. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart.
You describe yourself as a Jewish rebel, can you tell us what this means to you?
I like the ambiguity of the term “Jewish Rebel.” Am I a person who rebels against Judaism, or a rebel who happens to be Jewish? I feel that it accurately describes my spiritual state of being. Every heretic needs a text.
Your first film, Cut, is about circumcision, how did you first get interested in the issue?
When I was a teenager, I was given the honor of holding my cousin at his bris. I had never been in that kind of proximity to the actual act before (excepting my own circumcision, which I thankfully do not remember), and when the mohel finished cutting, while my cousin was still screaming in my lap, he bent down, took the freshly cut penis in his mouth and sucked. When his head came back up he had a trail of blood on his beard. This experience and that image of the blood on the mohel‘s beard seared itself into my mind and raised my awareness to the problematic nature of infant circumcision.
Many Americans are surprised to learn that circumcision is a controversial issue. Tell us about the controversy.
There are a number of reasons why it’s controversial. First of all, it’s about penises and we’re a very puritanical society. But it’s also a ritual that we Jews claim as central to our tradition. So it contains within it the potential to expose a very serious conflict of values: On the one hand, society’s desire to accommodate a robust cultural and religious pluralism. On the other hand, [society’s] need to protect its most vulnerable citizens from bodily harm.
Have you felt outcast from either your family or the community at large for expressing views that are considered controversial?
Yes. But interestingly, not so much around circumcision. It’s my views on Israel that really piss people off.
That brings us to your new film, A People Without a Land. Tell us about it and what you hope people will take away from it.
A People Without a Land is my second feature-length documentary film. It’s an exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an attempt to articulate an exit strategy. It’s my most ambitious project yet and it is kind of a hybrid between an idea-driven doc and a character-driven doc. What I’m trying to show is that the conflict actually boils down to an Eastern European concept called “Ethnonationalism”-the idea that one ethnicity has more right to a given territory than all others. This concept was adopted by the Zionists, who were mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, and applied to Palestine with devastating consequences for the local Palestinian population.
While shooting the film, what was something you learned that you found surprising or shocking?
I think the most surprising thing that I learned was how genuinely tolerant and good-natured the Palestinians are. Given the hell that they’ve been through over the past six decades, I expected to find much more hatred. What I encountered was unmatched hospitality and a people interested in justice, not revenge.
What were the biggest challenges you faced shooting this film?
I’ve become quite particular about how my films look, and what that meant on this production was traveling with a crazy amount of equipment. Moving all of that gear with just two people was very challenging. But the post-production challenges of editing 360 hours of footage down into a feature make the production challenges pale in comparison.
Funding independent documentaries can be a challenge. What tools have you utilized to raise money for this project?
We did have an Indiegogo campaign earlier in the year. We didn’t meet our goal, but it was moderately successful. Begging and borrowing along with a few generous investors have gotten us this far. We still have some money to raise, so if anyone reading this is interested in helping out, we have a fiscal sponsor, which means that your donations are tax-deductible!
When and how can readers see A People Without A Land and your previous work?
A People Without a Land is in post-production. My producer and wife, Pennie, and I are doing everything we can to get it done by the end of the year. In the meantime, you can visit our website: www.withoutaland.com
Jeremy Veverka is a San Francisco-based media professional, with specialties in documentary filmmaking, photojournalism, cinematography, sound design, and commercial work. His award-winning films, including the feature documentary China: The Rebirth of an Empire, cover a range of geopolitical issues and have been screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide. With a degree in English from Cornell University and extensive travel experience throughout Asia and the Middle East, Jeremy brings his background in storytelling and international journalism to each of his projects and strives to give a voice to historically underrepresented groups.
To learn more, visit www.jeremyveverka.com.