Israeli director Keren Yedaya is well known for her political activism in Israel, particularly over women’s rights and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Last year, she created controversy during her acceptance speech for the Camera d’Or (Golden Camera) award at Cannes, when she said that Israel is “responsible for the slavery of three million Palestinians.” Combative as her politics may be, her film, Or (My Treasure), is a starkly realistic and human depiction of a mother and daughter struggling with prostitution. Societal ills and masculine brutality are deep issues here, but so are the flaws and emotions of the female characters.
“Many of my friends who know my politics were very surprised by the film,” Yedaya says. “They didn’t think I was capable of such complexity with this issue.”
Though Or is her first feature, Yedaya, 32, explored the subject of prostitution in earlier short films. Much of her activism has also been in aid of prostitutes, and she used the prize money from Cannes to fund a halfway house for women trying to escape prostitution. However, Yedaya approaches film as an artist, not activist. “You don’t make a film from a particular political or feminist point of view,” she says. “Or is a very political film, but the politics are inside, and dealt with in a gentle way.”
For Yedaya, in the politically charged Middle East, it may be impossible to separate ideology from art, but she diffuses these views through a natural style that echoes the neo-realism of Ken Loach. The cinematography characterizes the film less by graphic sex scenes of prostitution, and more by the feminine intimacy shared by the two women in their tiny apartment. American audiences in particular may be put off by this intimacy, such as a scene in which Or cleans the blood between her mother’s legs after a rough night on the streets. But Yedaya strives for this unfiltered realism, and hopes Or will debunk any romantic ideas that Hollywood may have given audiences about prostitution.
“A movie like Pretty Woman is a crime, I think,” she says. “It just doesn’t exist. A woman who fucks ten guys a day does not come out looking like Julia Roberts.”
It is through this ugly realism that Yedaya makes her most powerful political statements. She says that when she first considered the actress who played Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz) Yedaya felt she was too pretty. In order to get the part, Elkabetz started chain-smoking, did not exercise and stopped attending to her personal and dental hygiene for a year. The result in the film is a woman once beautiful, but with pockmarked, jaundice skin, cellulite on her thighs, and greasy hair. Yedaya focuses the camera on Elkabetz’s body throughout the film, as Ruthie walks around the apartment in her underwear. “It’s important that my audience is not tricked by the camera or the editing,” she says. “I love films that aren’t afraid to show what we consider ugly.”
Though the outcome of Or may feel hopeless, she feels there is an inherent optimism that comes with depicting bare reality. “I trust my audience. If the public sees what is really happening to Or and Ruthie, they will be more likely to do something in reality to help women like them.”
It is this kind of political resonance through artistic complexity, rather than moralizing, that Yedaya seeks in her next feature, which she says will be about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It will be a love story, Romeo and Juliet, war and peace, in Jaffa.” Yedaya wants to make the film because she says this generation of Israelis and Palestinians, the third after the Holocaust and ’48 war, is ready for peace more than any before. No longer the children of Holocaust victims, she feels Israelis can ask the critical questions those before could not.
“You can see a movement happening,” she says. “I think peace is in everyone’s subconscious, which is what I hope the film will bring out.”