‘The Monayer Family: Three Videos by Dor Guez,” on exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York until September 7, presents a series of short films that offer an intimate, subtly critical assessment of contemporary multicultural Israel. Guez’s films consider the Christian Arab population — a minority within a minority — whose social identity is subsumed by sweeping political considerations. Spanning three generations of the eponymous Monayer family of Lod, the films collectively pose complicated arguments about the construction and negotiation of personal identity, teasing out the threads by which the different family members construct their sense of self. The questions that the films prompt are neither subversive nor willfully provocative; but by emphasizing the interplay between personal and political constructions of identity, they serve as a bold attempt at reconfiguring the stereotypical assumptions that prevail today.
Jerusalem-born Guez studied photography and video at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and is currently pursuing his doctoral degree at Tel Aviv University. His choice of medium, he argues, offers greater potential for social commentary than painting, sculpture or other visual media. “Photography and film always contain a slice of reality — manipulated, of course, but still reality,” he said during an interview at his studio in Tel Aviv. Tellingly, when asked about his main influences, Guez cites theoreticians from the cultural and sociological fields, such as Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon and postcolonialist scholar Edward Said, rather than other artists.
Personal history played a major role in shaping Guez’s critical approach to contemporary society. “My father was born in Tunisia to a religious Jewish family,” he explains. “I grew up in a very traditional Mizrahi family, and it always struck me as strange that our history was not taught in school.” Then — as now, Guez argues — this attitude revealed a resistance to embracing Israel’s genuine diversity, which is poorly served by the cultural dominance of Ashkenazi traditions. “We are in an Eastern arena, and a majority of the population has Arab roots — Christian, Muslim, Jewish,” Guez says. “This is not a Western culture, not at all.”
A personal connection between artist and subjects lends the videos authenticity: The members of the Monayer family featured in the three films are members of Guez’s extended family. In a sense, the films serve as auto-ethnography, using personal history as a tool to explore and reconstruct historical narrative. The point is to allow individual voices to challenge the dominant — and constricting — narrative. “It isn’t objective, obviously,” Guez acknowledges. “It is personal history, after all. But it still is the truth — it’s their truth.”
“The Monayer Family” is extracted from a bigger one-man exhibition, “Georgiopolis,” which ran at Israel’s Petach Tikva Museum of Art earlier this year. The exhibition focused on the largely untold history of Lod’s Christian Arab community, many of whose members were segregated in ghettos or expelled by the Hagana after the city was occupied during the 1948 War of Independence. “Georgiopolis,” according to the exhibition’s catalog, “proposes scrutiny of the Christian-Arab minority in Israel, a reference group which has not … been granted profound perusal as a differentiated ethnic group in the local cultural field.” Guez says he was gratified by the overwhelmingly positive reception the exhibition received. “Perhaps most surprising was how, after guided tours, people started to talk about their own histories: about their grandparents, about what they had been through,” he says. “They acknowledged the similarities between their stories and the stories in the films. History has an odd way of repeating itself.”
Criticism of the exhibition — such as it was — focused on the notion that by giving voice to the untold stories of the country’s minority populations, Guez might threaten accepted views of Israel. “I did receive responses along the lines of ‘What do you want us to do? Give them back their houses? Their land?’ ” he says. But on the whole, he is optimistic, hoping that “Georgiopolis” contributed, in its own small way, to an evolving appreciation of personal identity in contemporary Israel. Similarly, Guez suggests that “The Monayer Family” offers American viewers an authentic and close-up opportunity to experience modern Israel’s social tensions. “I think the first step toward civil responsibility,” he says, “is simply to engage with history from a wider perspective.”
Watch a clip from one of Dor Guez’s films below:
Blond, blue eyed, and in her early twenties, Samira lives in Jerusalem, studying Psychology at the Hebrew University and waitressing – like many of her contemporaries – at a restaurant in the city’s German Colony neighborhood. The film starts with her relating an incident at work; her boss summons her for a chat, ostensibly ‘friendly’ but with a discomfiting undertones. Three customers had complained, Samira is told, when they discovered that they had been served by an ‘Arab’, a fact that only became an issue when they received their bill with Samira’s name on it. It might be better, her employer suggests, if she hebraizes her name to something more neutral. To Mira, perhaps. Or, if not, to perhaps reconsider her position at the restaurant.
(Sa)mira’s potency stems from the obvious intimacy between subject and film-maker – who remains off-screen throughout – and how he uses this familiarity to goad her into reconsidering the full import of the exchange with her boss. As the short film unfolds, she at first maintains a firm carapace: the ‘problem’ about being Arab is not hers, one senses. But as the film-maker cajoles her into reconsidering the exchange and it’s broader context, he forces Samira to re-evaluate her own sense of self. How does she construct her own identity? Or is she the prisoner of someone else’s configuration?
Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer based in Tel Aviv. He contributes to the Jerusalem Post, the Times Literary Supplement and other magazines.