After interviewing racists, lunatics and other eccentrics, leading documentary filmmaker comes to Israel • “I don’t think that Israel is the only bad kid in this story,” he says, adding that "Israel is a documentary filmmaker’s paradise."
Two weeks ago, Louis Theroux celebrated his 41st birthday. This British-American journalist and television presenter is familiar to Israelis from his unusual program, “Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends,” which is shown on Channel 8. Theroux is a protege of the documentary filmmaker and activist Michael Moore, but unlike his mentor, he prefers to visit crime-ridden neighborhoods in South Africa, examine the porn industry on the West Coast of the United States and generally show interest in the darker, more esoteric corners of America and the world.
This coming Wednesday, we, too, will earn a spot on Theroux's map, when his show, “My Time Among the Ultra-Zionists," airs at 10 p.m. on Channel 8. When the episode was broadcast in Great Britain several months ago, Theroux was pretty upset: He felt that Israel was facing a third intifada. While he hasn't grown more optimistic in the meantime, he at least appears to be a bit more placated. Still, the episode itself is quite fascinating, and as far as we are concerned, that is a good enough reason to sit down for a conversation with him.
Before we start talking about Israel, can you tell us what sort of child you were and how you came to be in this profession.
“I wasn’t tormented much in school even though I had – and it seems that I still have – nerdy characteristics. I wasn’t considered a real social loser because I had a cynical sense of humor that stood me in good stead most of the time. Maybe I was a bit of an outsider because I didn’t fall naturally into any of the usual groups. At least during the first years of school I was lonely, but afterward I found a group to belong to. I think that the fact that I was outside the circle for a long time gave me the ability to look closely at things, and from a different angle.”
It appears that you’re addicted to danger, that this is what turns you on.
“I’m not a fan of danger, nor am I attracted to it. The truth is that I’m a bit of a coward. I deal with extreme people, and look at where the real stories are. I want to tell their story. When I go into the jail cell of a person who killed three people, I’m not really afraid that he’s going to attack me. He also has no particular reason to do that. I would be more afraid to bump into him on the street than as an interviewee in one of my films. But sometimes there’s a feeling of danger, and I guess it’s possible that someone might attack me."
“I’ve already had run-ins with the leader of the Boers [the white, Afrikaans-speaking population] in South Africa and with hunters who were so annoyed with me that they started to lose it in front of the camera and make threats, but most of the time it ends peacefully. There was also danger in the episode that was filmed in Israel. There was rioting in the West Bank near Nabi Saleh. Stones were thrown at us, and I encountered tear gas being fired by the IDF. It was dangerous and certainly unexpected, but I’m not a big hero. I would rather avoid that, but it’s part of the job. Regarding my provocative questions – that’s something that I’m aware of. Sometimes I have to ask a certain question in a certain way because the goal is to create drama, a show, and it also brings people to a certain edge. If they’d been trying to play a game, then after my sometimes annoying questions, they can’t pretend anymore.”
What is objectivity?
The picture that forms in the episode about Israel is not all that surprising. On the one hand are religious extremists, on the other hand the Palestinians, and in the middle are the IDF troops, who are just trying to do their jobs and separate the combatants. In Israel, too, as in everywhere else in the world, Theroux looked for the most extreme people in order to create the drama and the provocation that he likes so much. Even if the episode itself does not sit well with Israelis, it includes courageous moments of television – the kind that have made Theroux a television success. The episode ends with a statement by one of the settler leaders in Hebron who tells Theroux to his face, “All the Arabs and all the world can’t do a thing about it. We’re staying here whether they like it or not.” A startled Theroux faces the speaker with his familiar expression of helplessness.
You must be aware of the fact that you chose people who do not exactly represent the general population in Israel.
“I agree with the statement that I always choose those people. It’s true that I didn’t go to the more moderate people in Ariel or in Gush Etzion, but these fringe groups represent what many Israelis are feeling. It’s obvious to me that they also have many opponents, and they’re split even among themselves. But we have to remember that we can’t show everything in an hour-long program, so I always try to go to the people with whom I have no common ideological background or beliefs in common. I try to show the nucleus of the conflict, and for me, that’s also what is most interesting.”
When the cameras stopped rolling, what did you see with your own eyes that didn’t make it into the episode itself?
“I saw religious extremism combined with extreme nationalism, and in such cases it seems to me impossible to reach a solution. In the program itself, of course I didn’t pretend to try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has gone on for so many years, and after having visited the West Bank and the settlements, I also understand that the solution can’t come from the people who live there. But again, I knowingly went to the farthest fringes, to Israelis who live in Hebron, to the hilltop youth and to Silwan. As I see it, in their ultra-extremism they represent things that are also found in the centrist segment. It’s just that there’s a higher intensity on the fringes.”
Nevertheless, films like these add nothing to Israel’s media standing in the world.
|Meeting the ultra-Zionists|
“Israel’s job, like that of any other country, is to moderate its extremists. In a long study that we did, we discovered that among Israelis, there’s an agreement that the world doesn’t understand you. But the way I see it, Israel is judged precisely because of the many things that it has as opposed to its neighboring countries – and because of that, you are judged more severely. People use different criteria when they look at you. Look at what’s happening in Syria, for example – people are being massacred in the streets there. Nobody imagines that such a thing will happen in Israel because they know that you are a progressive Western country, so there is an expectation that things will be done differently. Some of the things I saw, and that happen in the West Bank, are a problem that needs to be solved. I’m not talking about the humanitarian aspect, even though there are also problems like that, but about matters that have to do with human dignity and equality. I don’t think that Israel is the only bad kid in this story, but that the situation has simply deteriorated and gotten stuck at a point where neither side is willing to go back and think about what’s happening there.”
Do you think that you are objective in the way that you present your news reports?
“I feel that the words ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ aren’t appropriate here. The main word should be ‘truth,’ and the goal should be to tell the story in a true way. The ultra-Zionists are a real thing, but it’s obvious that I chose whom to interview and how to arrange the story. Most of the time, you know when you’re doing it right and how you frame your story. As long as you’re inside the frame, you’re all right.”
Infiltrating Scientology and the Haredim
During the conversation, Theroux shows a great deal of expertise about everything that is going on in Israel. He has friends here, and as a person whose hunger is insatiable, he claims that his greatest adventures are yet to come. He has been in this field for 15 years, and like everyone, he feels that he learns something new every day.
Which of your episodes did you like working on the most?
“I enjoy working on all the episodes, and the work is divided between the filming itself and the editing afterward. Sometimes I get to the editing room a long time after filming, and only then do I realize what I did and where I was. One of the episodes that I liked best was actually the first one from 1996. I went to a group of people in Idaho and in Montana in the U.S. who believed that Judgment Day was coming and that they needed to prepare for the end of the world. They armed themselves and spoke with an enthusiasm and confidence that charmed me. In that same episode, I also met people who belonged to the Aryan Brotherhood. That was the first film, really, with all the fears of whether it would work or not, and because of that, I remember it the best. A newer one is the episode that I filmed in a hospital for pedophiles, where they try to give them a therapeutic environment. I spoke there with people who are really weird; it's a terrible thing that is just hard to understand. Also the Phelpses, the most hated family in America [whose members demonstrate vocally against non-conformity and regularly desecrate the American flag], captivates me. The truth is that every story contains something that I love, as do the people whom I film.”
How does one maintain objectivity when meeting murderers and pedophiles? Don’t you feel like losing your temper around them?
“Most of the people about whom I make films believe in terrible things that have to do with injustice, cruelty, racism and hatred. These people talk about power when actually, they themselves have no real power, their big talk notwithstanding. They want to have it, but that’s not happening. They certainly are strange people. Sometimes I believe that they’re performing for the camera and the moment that it’s turned off, they’ll act differently, but to my surprise, they stay the same. What’s amazing is that the American mother who turned her two daughters into singers who sing Nazi songs – at the end of the day, you can talk to her about the Beatles and about Harry Potter. You think for a moment that she’s just like you, but then the weirdness comes up again. The strangest thing about weird people is that they’re ordinary. Otherwise, they would have been institutionalized a long time ago.”
Are there subjects that you haven’t dealt with yet that you’d like to deal with?
“I’d love to do an episode on Scientology. There’s something fascinating about it. People say that it’s the fastest-growing religion in the last century. I’m very attracted to the combination of religion, a science-fiction author and Hollywood stars. We did a long investigation of the subject and spoke with some of the members, but something always went wrong at the last moment. I don’t know whether we’ll be able to air a story like that, but I don’t intend to give up.”
You have quite a fan club in Israel. Do you have any pointers for the documentary filmmakers among them?
“I suggest talking with people whom you don’t know and with whom you have nothing in common because there’s nothing more boring than films that people make about people they know or subjects they know. True, there are a lot of films about the environment and about all kinds of subjects that are within the consensus, but in my opinion, a documentary film needs conflict, some element of surprise that will reveal something to you that you didn’t know or that will completely change the way you think as a creative artist. Of course, I suggest approaching things that are problematic and weird.”
Is there a chance that we’ll see more episodes about Israel from you?
“Definitely. I want to go into the Haredi world. That whole area interests me. There’s a feeling that the Haredim are divided into subgroups and that there’s a great deal of animosity between the groups. Some of them even hate Israel even though they live there. That’s fascinating. The Haredim have some ideas that I consider very weird. The hasidim of Breslev and Chabad interest me. Israel is a documentary filmmaker’s paradise. It’s a place that concentrates all the religious conflicts, and actually, history has written itself there from the beginning of the world to this moment. Indeed, it’s a very fertile environment. I hope to come back to you and look at phenomena like these.”