Zeek Reviews City of Borders; Director Yun Suh Responds

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December 2, 2009

Yun Suh’s 2009 documentary City of Borders raises disturbing questions about the conflation of sexual and national politics in Israel. The problem lies in that Suh’s film does so inadvertently, and that these questions belie, in effect, the narrative of her film.

City of Borders seeks to portray Shushan 4, Jerusalem’s only gay bar and one of the most popular meeting places for the local LGBT community, between 2005 and 2007, the year in which the bar was shut down. Shushan 4—so the film suggests—provided a safe haven that brought together people of divergent political convictions and national identifications, united by their sexual orientations and, more than that, by their joint struggle to hold to their lifestyle of choice free of fear of harassment, persecution, and even bodily injury.

The film portrays the amicable and supportive interaction between those attending the bar extraordinary by bringing into focus the tumultuous politics that shaped gay life in the city at that time. On the one hand, Israel was making fast progress in completing the construction of the Separation Wall that cuts off Jerusalem in the north, east and south, and prevents the free access (or, in many cases, altogether) of Palestinian residents of neighborhoods, villages, and towns in areas beyond the wall to the city. On the other hand, following the violence that accompanied the 2005 Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and Israel’s involvement in the Second Lebanon War, the planned 2006 parade in the city was put into question. But are the two—the national and the sexual—in the same realm?

Like many other films that depict the LGBT community in Israel, City of Borders suggests that LGBT politics could be conflated with national politics, and that the struggle for gay rights is somehow translated into a radical politics vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. LGBT sex and the resolution of that conflict are thus equivalents. Eitan Fox’s films Walk on Water and The Bubble are perhaps the best-known cinematic examples of this trend.

City of Borders is eager to push forward this paradigm. Though it gestures towards its limits, Yun Suh fails to challenge this way of thinking about Israeli queerness, instead treating the ideological conventions associated with it as though they were a given. Indeed, some of the interviews in the film point out how reductive and unsatisfying this paradigm actually is. Yet the the director fails to work with such obvious openings, missing the opportunity to produce a level of nuance and complexity only a handful of films on the subject have thus far achieved.

At the center of the City of Borders are five Israelis and Palestinians whose lives purportedly intersect at Shushan 4. Sa’ar Nethanel, the owner, is an activist who at the time served as the first openly gay member of Jerusalem’s city council. The film follows him in his effort to make sure that the 2006 Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem is not cancelled, focusing on his ruminations on his status as a gay activist member of a city council controlled by an Ultra-Orthodox coalition. Outspoken and articulate, Nethanel delivers the “official” word of the LGBT community in Jerusalem. Notwithstanding how sympathetic we are to that word, a good documentary should seek to test it and ascertain the stakes of such sexual politics as those of Nethanel. City of Borders, on the other hand, prefers not to do so, turning itself into a mouthpiece of that politics.

The other characters the film presents are even more troubling in terms of the politics the film pursues. Boody is a Palestinian who resides in Ramallah and is a devout Muslim. Due to the lack of a public place where he and his gay friend could gather in his hometown, he regularly risks himself and crosses the Separation Wall to get to Shushan. Time and again Boody declares his love for his hometown, but he is forced to leave it for the US when threats on his life mount. The film also features Adam Russo, resident of a settlement in the north of Jerusalem. The media spokesman for gay pride, he was stubbed by an ultra-orthodox protester during the 2005 parade. He is also committed to the settlement where he resides with his partner.

Through the characters of Boody and Adam, City of Borders suggests that sexual orientation complicates national identification and challenges it. But awkwardly enough, it fails to press the question further and to ask Boody and Adam themselves how they reconcile the two. Indeed, whereas Suh suggests that Shushan provides a space were both can, and actually do meet and embrace each other—literally and metaphorically—as members of the local LGBT community, City of Borders falls short of explicitly confronting Palestinians and Israeli with the national politics of the other. In other words, it doesn’t ask them how they reconcile their presumably joint shared politics with their diverging nationalist politics.

Most awkward is the director’s inclusion of the Palestinian Samira and her Jewish partner, Ravit. Samira and Ravit reside in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem, and don’t regularly frequent Shushan 4. Their only contact with the other characters of City of Borders is when they make it to the 2006 Jerusalem pride parade to express their solidarity with the LGBT community in Jerusalem. Thus, they are included in the film, or so it seems, just because they are a mixed couple who take the sexual-national argument to its logical conclusion: LGBT love will surmount all political obstacles. Therein lies our hope for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

City of Borders misses the opportunity to address the nuances of LGBT politics in such a complex place as Jerusalem. It prefers to draw an idyllic portrait of a queer space, where people can convene and rally together without regards to their sexual and nationalist orientation rather than ask whether members of the LGBT community are sincerely more open minded than the rest of the city’s population. Indeed, whether, because of their sexual liberalism, Jerusalem’s queers are more willing to embrace the Other. As Yun Suh suggests, in spite of herself, it seems, the answer to this question is not necessarily affirmative.


Dear Editor,

I just read Shai Ginsburg’s review of my documentary City of Borders.

I always appreciate an intelligent, thorough analysis of a film that is careful to provide evidence from the actual work to back up an argument proposed by the author. That is why I was looking forward to reading an analysis from a Duke University scholar. However, I am surprised and troubled to read that this review is more interested in propagating Ginsburg’s own theoretical argument rather than understanding the actual work for itself, fails to provide sufficient evidence for his argument from the actual film, and includes several blatant errors when referencing to the film. Below are my specific responses to this very broad, and at times erroneous, analysis/criticisms:

1) “Take the sexual-national argument to its logical conclusion: LGBT love will surmount all political obstacles”

The naive and idyllic message that “LGBT love will surmount all political obstacles” is certainly not my message as Ginsburg argues. He neglected to realize that I intentionally begin with the utopian vision of the bar owner Sa’ar Netanel by showing Shushan as an inclusive and diverse space, but end with the closing of the bar due to the violent and hateful political environment that surrounds them. As the film progresses, I reveal the contradictions, complexities and challenges to upholding Sa’ar’s utopian vision, as evidenced in several scenes such as the 2006 World Pride Rally where Adam & Sa’ar argue about the divergent positions of the queer movement (particularly as anarchists in the background hold signs that say “No Pride in Occupation”), the lesbian shabbat dinner with Samira & Ravit where they discuss “Arab” Israeli identity, and the disagreements between the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem queer communities on gay visibility.

My main focus is human rights, which he completely neglected to address and the overwhelming existence of physical, psychological, political, religious and cultural borders designed to separate, limit and deny our basic rights.

2) “…missing the opportunity to produce a level of nuance and complexity only a handful of films on the subject have thus far achieved.”

We agree that the politics of Jerusalem are complexed and nuanced, as in most cities aroudn the world. Please specify the “nuance and complexity” that I fail to address in my documentary. Please specifiy the other films on the subject that have manage to achieve the complexity and nuance Ginsburg wishes to see portrayed. Without specification, I, and I imagine other readers, cannot clearly follow this argument and line of thought. This comment perplexes me because audiences around the world have complimented me for the complexity and nuance of the storytelling in this film.

3) “City of Borders falls short of explicitly confronting the Palestinians and Israeli with the national politics of the other.”

I suppose Ginsburg skipped over the scenes between Samira & Ravit, particularly the one where Samira talks about freedom of speech in Israel and Ravit’s discussion of the Arab Israeli identity. I also suppose he skipped Adam’s justification for building a home in a settlement.

4) “…fails to press the question further and to ask Boody and Adam themselves how they reconcile the two (sexual orientation and national identification).”

Obviously there is no reconciliation of the two, which is why the politics is Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine at large currently exists as they do. Those two identities are separated in their minds, as expressed in two critical scenes involving Boody and Adam.

5) “Samira & Ravit reside in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem, and don’t regularly frequent Shushan 4. Their only contact with the other characters of City of Borders is when they make it to the 2006 Jerusalem Pride Parade.”

Samira and Ravit actually attend the 2007 Jerusalem Pride Parade, the date is stamped on that scene. Ginsburg clearly skipped over the scene where Samira attends the farewell party for Boody where he hugs and cries to her to take care of the boys in Ramallah and don’t let the same thing happen to them. He also skipped the scenes where Samira affectionately talks about Boody as his family and their drive through Palestine where they are met with road closures and construction of the separation wall.

6) …”they are included in the film, or so it seems, just because they are a mixed couple…”

Samira is the head coordinator and co-founder of Aswat, the only organization that caters to primarily Palestinian lesbians. She is one of very few Palestinian lesbians who are willing to openly and confidently talk about her sexuality and life, which is an important perspective to have when discussing the queer community in Israel, don’t you think? I approached Samira first because of her outspokenness and later discovered she was in a relationship with an Israeli woman. I would’ve included Samira in my doc regardless of whether she was in a relationship with an Israeli woman or not. It’s very rare to see a Palestinian woman be depicted in the media as smart, sexy, sassy, funny and confident, which Samira clearly is. It’s unfortunate that Ginsburg couldn’t appreciate Samira for who she is, which most of the audience around the world seem to have gotten.

My aim overall was to allow the scenes to speak for themselves and leave them more open-ended for the audience to decide for him/herself rather than arrogantly tell the audience what to think about the politics as that would be too presumptuous, especially since there has been no reconciliation or resolution to the conflicts and there won’t be ONE answer to these very complicated struggles.

Regards, Yun Suh

Editor’s Note: Zeek has been having technical difficulties getting our commenting going. If you want to join this comment stream, join Zeek’s facebook page or send an email to joellen at zeek dot net

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