Jerusalem's Lone Gay Bar

Michael Fox September 17, 2008

In 2002, Yun Suh was dispatched to the Middle East to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Pacifica radio. A few months later, with tensions peaking during the second intifada, she heard about a straight bar in the Israeli capital that held a weekly Gay Night. "It was the most diverse gathering in Jerusalem," she recalls. Even Palestinians, who aren’t usually allowed to travel to west Jerusalem and aren’t exactly welcomed once they arrive, were greeted warmly. After that watering hole closed, a gay city councilman filled the void by opening a queer-oriented cabaret and bar. In this peaceful, passionate meshing of Arabs and Jews, Suh would one day find the seeds of a documentary.

It was somewhat unexpected, to say the least, given Suh’s undergrad career as a biology pre-med major at UC Berkeley without any training in film. But back in the States after her war-correspondent gig, working as an assignment editor at KRON-TV, Suh dreamt of making a long-form piece. She took classes at Film Arts Foundation, won a grant, and embarked on Freedom on the Rocks. Suh made six trips to Jerusalem in the last two years, and has a rough cut that she intends to finish in time for the 2009 festival circuit. [Editor's note: The film was subsequently renamed City of Borders before its world premiere.]

A Korean Buddhist who immigrated to the U.S. when she was eight, Suh must have the most unusual story of all the filmmakers who’ve ventured into the morass of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "In South Korea as a child, I lived in constant fear of the North Koreans invading," she explains. "I would always devise places in my house I could hide. I thought North Koreans were devils with horns, and that’s how many Israelis see Palestinians. I also got a firsthand experience of what it was like living under the Occupation. I understand both sides."

Trying to make a documentary halfway around the globe presents obvious hurdles, but Suh turned obstacles to her advantage. "I have, obviously, no Israeli or Palestinian or Jewish or Muslim roots. I don’t speak the language, I’m not of their community. If I was Israeli or Palestinian, they could be wary of me. The fact that I was such an outsider helped me in some ways."

Freedom on the Rocks is inevitably an optimistic film, for the bar (which was also featured in Jerusalem is Proud to Present, a doc in the 2008 S.F. Jewish Film Festival) was an oasis where anybody could come, be themselves, and be accepted. But Suh is a pragmatist, and a realist. "It’s not a romantic view, because the film explores the barriers between the groups. I have a gay Israeli, a proud Zionist who’s not willing to give up his house in a settlement. It’s not a model for what peaceful coexistence can look like, but it’s a step in that direction."

Suh’s concern is that people’s eyes glaze over when they hear the phrase "Israeli-Palestinian." So she describes her film as a universal parable that transcends borders. "Every society deals with different beliefs, different groups, and how those different belief systems coexist. For me, that’s what the film’s about."