Dance, drink revolution: Jerusalem's only gay bar is documented in "City of Borders" by Yun Suh.

SFIFF52: Yun Suh's "City of Borders"

David Winks Gray April 26, 2009

Sneaking through a hole in the border fence between Israel and Palestine may seem like a high-risk way to have a nightlife, but for Boody, a young man living in Palestine, it’s the only way to get to Shushan, Jerusalem’s lone gay bar. City of Borders, the debut film by Bay Area filmmaker Yun Suh, follows several characters who have found a second home at the bar. The film testifies to the intolerance that members of the LGBTQ community face in addition to all of the other walls, physical and social, separating people in the region. City of Borders screens in the Documentary Competition at the San Francisco International Film Festival (Sun., April 26, 2 p.m., PFA, Thurs., April 30, 9:30, Mon., May 4, 9:15 and Wed., May 6, 12:15, Sundance Kabuki). Yun Suh answered my questions over e-mail during her time off of her day job, as an assignment editor for KRON.

SF360: How did you find out about Shushan?

Yun Suh: This is the question I get asked the most. The idea for my documentary on the community at the only gay bar in Jerusalem began in 2002 while I was covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for KPFA Radio. I heard about a straight bar that hosted gay nights, which attracted the most diverse gathering of people in the region, including Israelis and Palestinians. At the height of the Palestinian Intifada or uprising, it was unimaginable that Israelis and Palestinians would organically come together and not out of a forced dialogue group. This renewed my faith in our greater ability to connect rather than fight. Although I was focused on covering the bombs, bullets and bulldozers as I was traveling all over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the story of the gay nights at the bar stayed with me. When I grew weary of daily news and mustered up the courage to pursue my lifelong dream to be a filmmaker, I contacted people in Jerusalem and discovered that Sa’ar Netanel, who hosted the gay nights, opened the city’s only queer bar in 2003. Moreover, he was the Harvey Milk of Jerusalem in that he became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the Holy City. Inspired by his democratic vision for Jerusalem and indomitable courage to withstand the regular harassment and threats he received, I began researching this story in the fall of 2005.

SF360: In the press materials for the film, you write that your experience growing up in South Korea and viewing North Koreans as the enemy during childhood has given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict added resonance for you. Does your experience inflect your filmmaking on a conscious level? Did you share these experiences with your subjects in the film?

Suh: My childhood experiences of living in constant fear of invasion by my neighboring country, North Korea, and feeling out of place while growing up as a Korean immigrant in a predominantly white American suburb in Connecticut profoundly impacted my worldview and self-awareness, and therefore my filmmaking. For instance, I am very conscious of being an outsider and our basic human need to belong and be accepted for who we are, which is how I connect with people in City of Borders.

I’m fascinated by people so I don’t often talk about my own experiences because I’m too preoccupied with asking others questions. But when I’m in Israel or Palestine, I obviously look like I don’t belong there so people often ask what I’m doing in the region and why. The participants in my film were curious about how I found out about Shushan and why I was interested in Israel and Palestine for half a second. Then they would move on to talk about themselves. It worked out well—they enjoyed talking and I enjoyed listening.

SF360: Your credits read like a who’s who of San Francisco Bay Area funding sources, with support from ITVS, the Center for Asian American Media, Pacific Pioneer Fund, Film Arts Foundation and The Fleishhacker Foundation. How was the process of funding the film, and did you find it to your advantage to be coming from the Bay Area?

Suh: I’m actually envious of New York and Canadian filmmakers because I think they have a bigger pot of exclusive funds to beg from. However, I feel very fortunate to be living close to Independent Television Service (ITVS) because they are the biggest funder of documentaries in the country and their mission to diversify public media is my purpose for making films. I feel very blessed to have received ITVS’s support from the beginning with development funds, followed by production/completion funds because they enabled me to be debt free and finish my film in three years rather than four or five years, which seems to be the average completion time for documentaries. I’m grateful to get ITVS support on my first attempt with my first feature-length documentary. It’s hard to say whether living in the Bay Area helped because they fly people from all over the country to be on their panel to make the final decision. But I cannot deny that we’re drinking from the same water and influenced by the unique political, social and cultural climate of the Bay Area.

Initially, I thought I was going to perfect the art of begging in my fundraising process but I couldn’t get myself to ask friends and family for money. So I focused on clarifying my vision and writing stellar grants, which proved to be easier. Film Arts Foundation was my fiscal sponsor and the wonderfully resourceful people there like Michele Turnure-Salleo, who is now the head of the SF Film Society’s fiscal sponsorship, guided me to other funding sources. What’s also incredibly valuable about receiving funds from foundations or organizations is that the staff, unlike your friends and family, know the industry and filmmaking process. Thus, once you receive their financial support, you also gain their priceless wealth of knowledge, connections and resources. For instance, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) didn’t just issue the check. They provided incredible moral support, sisterly/brotherly advice, critical story feedback and offered help in areas before I knew I needed it. They’ve created a community of filmmakers who will be forever loyal to them, including myself, because of the generous support they provide. This community that we have among documentarians here is special to the Bay Area and the envy of New York filmmakers.

SF360: You do your own producing and camerawork. Do you find this an easier way to work, or is it a decision that’s based on budgeting? Do you plan to work with a separate producer on your next project?

Suh: I wish I could focus only on directing and the creative aspects of filmmaking but that’s not the luxury that I have at this time. For my next project, I’ll also be producing, but with another person to avoid working 13+ hour days as I did with City of Borders. I prefer collaboration but that’s not always easy.

SF360: All of the main characters have a natural screen presence, and seem to give very thoughtful, open self-assessments for the camera. Were they open and enthusiastic about the project from the start, or did it take some time to earn their trust?

Suh: The relationship between the filmmaker and the participant is very complex and challenging. I can write a book on this or someone ought to write a book on this, if it hasn’t been published already.

I believe all the key participants were enthusiastic about City of Borders from the start and were eager to see this film but not necessarily excited about being featured in the doc. It’s difficult and unnatural to have a camera following your every move for a short period of time and have no control over how the image will be used. I personally would not choose to put myself in this position because I enjoy my privacy and wouldn’t subject myself to this degree of public scrutiny, unless there was a great purpose and need. Therefore, I have tremendous respect and admiration for Sa’ar, Samira, Ravit, Boody and Adam for having the courage to open themselves to the world in the way that they did, even during moments when they felt very vulnerable, uncomfortable and/or embarrassed.

Trust must constantly be earned throughout the filmmaking process and not taken for granted. So I was constantly communicating and negotiating with them throughout production about what I was allowed to tape because of the potential risks involved. For example, it took more than a year for Sa’ar to allow me to tape his mother.

Since I tend to veer away from safe topics and questions and relish complex, challenging and unspoken issues, I made my job a little easier by purposely choosing people who are naturally honest and very comfortable with themselves.

SF360: The film really successfully makes the link between physical walls and borders, and the less-visible walls of intolerance that separate people. Adam is an interesting character in this sense, as he has been a physical victim of a hate crime, but maintains what seemed to me to be a conservative stance about the settlements. Were you looking to highlight the varying degrees of tolerance that exist through his character? I thought the moment where his dog runs under the fence that separates Jews from Arabs brought these issues to the fore quite nicely.

Suh: Each participant reveals a different degree of tolerance and what it takes to peacefully coexist with people with differing worldviews, faith and belief systems. Adam represents one end of the tolerance spectrum and essentially the majority viewpoint among gay Israelis. Adam expresses lots of contradictions (as most of us do) and much like the current state of Israel. He’s conflicted by what he ultimately wants (peace and acceptance) and what he’s willing to give up and do in order to achieve it. His dog Lucky going under the fence from Adam’s backyard in an Israeli settlement to the neighboring Palestinian village where Adam fears he would be killed, was a magic moment. It was special not only because his dog Lucky exemplifies the doc’s theme about crossing borders and finding holes through seemingly sealed barriers. But Adam’s reaction to his dog, when he says, "we should learn from him," reveals his dilemma between what he wishes he could do but can’t because of his fear, based on what he has been told about what would happen to him. This basic fear of the other is something we’ve all experienced.

SF360: Samira and Ravit’s relationship breaks two taboos, as they mention in the film, that against same-sex couples and relationships between Jews and Arabs. Will the film screen in either Israel or Palestine? What do you expect the reaction to be?

Suh: Israelis and Palestinians have been eagerly waiting to see City of Borders since my first year of shooting. I’m hoping to have my Israel premiere in Jerusalem in the summer. One screening we’ll aim to have is an outdoor screening in the dark alley where Shushan was located with the LGBTQ community. I anticipate many different strong opinions. There were several Israeli festival programmers and filmmakers at Berlin International Film Festival where my film had its world premiere and they all seem to enjoy it. One Israeli programmer told me that they are usually wary of outsiders portraying them so he was dubious when he walked into the screening. At the end of the film, he was very impressed with how I captured the complexity, diversity and the spirit of the community and enthusiastically wanted to open his festival with City of Borders. One Israeli filmmaker at Berlin told me it took an outsider to tell this story. That was very heartening to hear because when I began shooting, I received criticism and skepticism from both Israelis and Palestinians because I was an outsider.

A Palestinian German filmgoer liked it so much that he brought his family to see another screening. He’s demanding that I screen it in Ramallah and is organizing a screening at a German community center.

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