The Israeli director Jonathan Sagall reclines in a futuristic white leather pod, drinking fancy herbal tea in a private lounge on the 24th floor of the Kollhoff Building at Potsdamer Platz. Down below, the film journalists, industry officials, actors and stargazers scramble like ants toward the various venues of the 61st Berlin International Film Festival, where Sagall’s new film “Lipstikka” (a curiously rendered translation of the film’s original title, “Odem,” the Hebrew word for lipstick) is competing for the coveted Gold and Silver Bears in the main festival program.
Sagall’s resumé is eclectic, to say the least. Toronto-born, Israel-bred and London-educated, he began an acting career in the late 1970s, starring as Bobby in the Israeli cult classic “Lemon Popsicle” and throughout a seemingly endless string of sequels. But he is best known for his portrayal of the Polish Holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” His feature film directorial debut, “Urban Feel,” competed at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival. He is also a published short story author, playwright and contributor to an Israeli-Palestinian version of “Sesame Street” that began broadcasting in 1998.
“Lipstikka,” Sagall’s second feature, is a psychological thriller about the reunion of two Palestinian women who grew up together in Ramallah. In contemporary London, they sift through the past, trying to make sense of their feelings for each other and the events of a long-ago evening that altered their lives.
Although the film’s production, in London and various locations in Israel (where Jaffa and Ramleh stood in for Ramallah), took only several months last year, the story evolved much more slowly. What started as a short story about a mysterious and beautiful neighbor from Sagall’s childhood in Toronto evolved into the story of two Palestinian girls whose bond has more than a hint of the sexual. One evening, they break curfew to see a film and are followed on their way out of the cinema by two Israeli soldiers: What happened next is the film’s central riddle.
Memory and interpretation don’t only cloud the facts of that evening, they constitute them. And, indeed, the film’s more central concern is memory itself, and people’s competing claims on the past. “We’re in a very particular situation in the Middle East. The conflict is very particular. It affects us all. The decision to go into this story with this background and this backdrop was called for,” the director explained.
Sagall certainly does not deny the political component of his film. “The minute you put in one story a Palestinian and an Israeli soldier you’ve got a conflict. It represents conflict. But it isn’t. It’s really a boy-meets-girl situation. It turns into a conflict the minute things go unexpectedly wrong,” he clarified. “I don’t know whether there should be an agenda or not. I was telling a story and maybe I tried to steer away from politics, or maybe I didn’t.” For the director, the important thing was to find a story that put a human face on the matzav, or situation. “We live this reality every day, of the conflict. As an Israeli, I felt that I wanted to look into the human side of our next-door neighbors and I think doing it through young innocent girls who have nothing to do with the conflict was the best way to do it,” Sagall explained.
In casting the film, the director chose the Haifa-born Palestinian actress Clara Khoury as the grounded yet needy Lara. For the daring and sexually provocative Inam, Lara’s childhood friend from Ramallah, he settled on the Israeli actress Nataly Attiya. The film also features younger versions of Lara and Inam played by two first-time actresses, Ziv Weiner and Moran Rosenblatt, both of whom give accomplished performances. Sagall said the decision to cast Israelis stemmed partially from the difficulty of finding Palestinian actresses who were willing to be naked on screen.
The past decade has seen a remarkable blossoming of Israeli cinema, with films regularly listed in the catalogues of prestigious festivals or nominated for top awards. Berlin is often seen as the political film festival, both in its programming and award choices. This year’s Golden Bear went to the Iranian production “Nader and Simin: A Separation,” a choice seen as a nod to the imprisoned filmmaker Jafar Panahi. The last Israeli film to be featured in the main Berlinale section was Amos Kollek’s “Restless” in 2008. “I’m Israeli and I see myself as an Israeli, so I guess in a way, I represent Israel [at the festival],” Sagall admitted. “But first of all, I represent the film. I’d like to think that somehow I represented a bit of the Palestinians as well and the choice to tell a story about two Palestinian girls, maybe it’s a little presumptuous of me to do that. And I assume I will be accused of that as well.”
If Sagall expects to get some flack for casting Israelis as Palestinians, he can certainly count on some controversy for the lesbian aspect of Iman and Lara’s relationship. “Look. It’s not like it doesn’t exist. It’s just not talked about,” Sagall responds. “Palestinians have sex, just like Jews! Hopefully, people will put aside the slogans and flags and treat this like a human story,” he continued.
In Berlin, “Lipstikka” was well received. It was, in fact, one of the stronger competition entries in a year where curiously tepid fare predominated. The film has yet to find an Israeli distributor, but Sagall seems prepared for the response that awaits it. “Israel is a very fiery surrounding. There are a lot of sensitive topics around and [people] will take me to town for anything: For casting Israelis, for being Israeli, for doing a film about Palestinians. People will be appalled, and it’s good that people are appalled. It means it touches something and that’s good.”
A. J. Goldmann lives in Berlin and is a frequent contributor to the Forward.