The Cannes Film Festival has ended, prizes distributed, and red carpets rolled away. Yolande Zauberman's documentary "The Belle from Gaza" didn't win any awards or participate in the competition. Yet, in the world of festivals, the focus remains on the stories directors tell.

"The Belle from Gaza" concludes Yolande Zauberman's trilogy on Israel and its diverse society. Her first film, "Would You Have Sex with an Arab?" (2011), challenged stereotypes among Jews and Arabs in Israel. In "M" (2018), she followed the story of Menachem Lang, an Israeli actor who faced childhood sexual abuse in Bnei Brak.

Zoberman completed "The Belle from Gaza" before October 7, 2023, initially hesitating to release it. However, persuaded by her colleagues, she decided otherwise.

In an exclusive interview with The News of Israel, Yolande Zauberman spoke with Alina Rebel about the film and its reception.

Yolanda, congratulations on the warm reception your film received from the Cannes audience. However, not everyone found the film appealing. In fact, I've already come across a review labeling your film as "pro-Palestinian."

Some viewers perceive "The Belle from Gaza" as pro-Palestinian, while others argue it leans toward a Zionist perspective. Each person interprets it differently, and each interpretation holds its own validity.

Why did you decide to film this story in the first place?

Menachem, the main character in my previous film "M," was deeply involved in transgender issues, and we had many interactions with transgender individuals during filming.

One night, as we were driving through Tel Aviv, I spotted a strikingly beautiful woman on the street. Menachem impulsively got out of the car and pursued her, but she fled. He returned disheartened, expressing, “My parents don’t love me, my children don’t love me, and transgender women don’t love me.” I captured this entire scene—I always film, even if unsure of its relevance to the film. However, this scene did make it into the final cut.

From this moment, with the image of a trans woman fleeing, the concept of "The Belle from Gaza" began to take shape. I needed a shot of a transgender woman in flight. Taking my camera outside, I encountered three women and asked for their assistance in filming, which they graciously provided. My boyfriend, who is Lebanese, spoke to them in Arabic. Upon our return to Paris, he mentioned, “Do you know that one of them escaped from Gaza by foot?”

This is impossible.

I also considered this idea impossible. However, I've always been intrigued by the concept of boundaries and their transcendence. I often contemplate the nature of enmity; enemies are, in a sense, intertwined. They rely on each other. Thus, I felt compelled to seek out this woman and delve into her inner world—to understand her thoughts, motivations, and experiences on her journey.

Did the search for this woman become the main plot of the film?

On one hand, yes. On the other hand, I reached out to Talleen Abu Hanna, who won the Miss Trans Israel competition in 2016 and also appeared in my film about Menachem. In a candid conversation with Taleen, Menachem discusses his sexuality, life after trauma, and the process of rebirth—adapting to a new existence. Taleen's presence in "The Belle from Gaza" represents a dream fulfilled for many transgender individuals: success and the discovery of the freedom to express themselves authentically, which they aspire to achieve.

How did you manage to persuade other girls to speak with you? Considering the grave danger they often face by doing so. The film recounts stories of how the families of these girls track them down and execute them in the most gruesome manner.

I think they liked it. Most people enjoy being filmed.

Even with such an intimate approach? Your camera brings them incredibly close, delving deep into their lives.

For me, filming is akin to a dance with my subjects. I sense their movements. I see that they understand I respect them. When I shoot, I become almost invisible, allowing me to capture moments in various settings. I filmed inside the Hasidic community in Bnei Brak. My camera is an extension of myself, which may explain why my subjects open up so naturally—they don't perceive it as an intrusion.

After October 7th, you considered shelving the film. Why?

The events that unfolded were of such immense tragedy that I felt it wasn't the right time or context to release the film. However, colleagues who viewed the film during the editing process, and who had strong opinions about the events, convinced me otherwise—they believed the timing was more relevant than ever. So, I agreed to hold just one screening to gauge the audience's reaction. After witnessing the emotional response from the viewers, we decided to proceed with releasing the film after all.

Did you screen it in France?

Yes, just one screening. After that, we submitted "The Belle from Gaza" to Cannes, and it was selected. The film is now set for release. It has received positive press, so those who urged me to release it were correct. However, I wasn't sure how it would be received, especially considering the current situation. It's a challenging time, but the movie will still go ahead.

Will the film be screened in Israel? Could this pose a danger to your subjects?

Unfortunately, it is a concern. I always inquire with the individuals I film whether they want the movie to be released in their country. At this point, I can't say for certain if it will be released in Israel.

In 1993, you presented the film "Me Ivan, You Abraham" at Cannes. The film won the jury award in the youth competition. For a young French director, it was an unexpected tale—a film depicting nostalgia for a Jewish shtetl.

Believe it or not, it came to me in a dream.

In a dream?

Yes, exactly. I have a fondness for Yiddish, but I despise nostalgia. However, one day I had a remarkable dream. In it, I was a young girl enamored with a boy, surrounded by Hasidim enjoying fruit on the street. I sensed they were in peril, and we tried desperately to warn them, to coax them to safety, to hide. When I woke, I knew I had to bring this story to life—the story of existence, not just demise; the demise of Yiddish civilization. It wasn't strictly a documentary, but it incorporated documentary elements. I spent considerable time in Ukraine and Belarus, where we filmed. We also made preparations for filming in Moscow and later in Leningrad.

Did you choose to film in black and white to evoke the era?

Absolutely. A film set in the 1930s should be in black and white, as we tend to visualize that period in monochrome. The films I'm currently making capture the vibrancy of the present, filled with colors. If I were to revisit the past in future projects, I might once again opt for black and white.

“Me Ivan, you Abraham” featured Vladimir Mashkov, a Russian actor who has faced backlash from many international colleagues due to his support for the Putin regime. Are you still in touch with him?

Yes, I'm aware of his support for Putin. No, we don't communicate. Recently, I spoke with Aleksey Serebryakov. He's great. We also maintain a relationship with Sasha Yakovlev, who appeared in the film. He lives in Paris.

Each of your recent films has delved into lesser-known aspects of Israeli society, a topic that remains highly relevant today. Will your upcoming projects also focus on Israeli reality?

I currently have three projects in the works, but I'm not disclosing details yet. What I can share is that the first two projects are unrelated to Jewish or Israeli themes, but the third one will indeed touch upon Israeli society.