Partly Private, a documentary by New York-based Israeli director Danae Elon is more commonly referred to as “the circumcision movie" at the Tribeca Film Fest. Elon, who is pregnant when the film opens, doesn’t want to circumcise her child if it’s a boy, but it’s very important to her husband Philip, who comes from a traditional French/Algerian Jewish family. The documentary uses this highly personal conflict to explore the religious, traditional and medical issues surrounding circumcision. Heeb sat down with Elon to discuss the film.
When you started shooting, you didn’t know if you were having a boy or a girl. The film was going to be about circumcision either way?
It was going to be about the argument over circumcision. I wasn’t interested in exploring who was right and who was wrong in the argument, even though I didn’t want it and my husband did. It just made the premise for an interesting way of telling the story. The story was about a family, about our relationship. And through that we examined circumcision. Of course, the fact that I have a boy makes it a story. But if it was a girl, maybe it would have been a relief. Maybe I could have gotten more extreme with my thoughts.
Had you thought about circumcision before you became pregnant?
I was at Hot Docs with Another Road Home and started thinking about all these out-there subjects, and one of them was circumcision. And then you go online and there were some serious films by serious filmmakers and I got all intimidated. But nobody ever made a comedy about it. I wanted to make an educational film masked as a romantic comedy.
Were you looking to explore your own feelings about it?
The idea was yes, I was open to change. I went into it with a premise and a script and all that, but that goes down the drain once you start filming. What changed for me was the acknowledgement that it was a far deeper issue than I had ever imagined. It wasn’t so simple as saying I really think it’s barbaric and I’m against it and all that. There was a lot imbedded in me that made that statement not so simplistic. That was interesting to discover, even though I took the standpoint of someone who didn’t feel it was necessary to be culturally Jewish and circumcised.
But obviously it was very different for Philip. How did he feel about being on film, since that sort of conversation is generally so private?
He hated it. And yet he was amused by it. We had to have the camera there at certain points where it interrupted the intimacy of that moment, which was a little difficult. But looking back, we have the experience of our pregnancy on camera, and it’s always going to be there for our children to see. [Laughing.] Even though our children might sue us as a consequence.
As you traveled around the world to all these different places, did you always find what you were expecting?
We went to England not really knowing what to expect. We just knew there was this man in Salisbury who manufactured foreskins. But it was super serious. It was really well put together and the man had put in so much effort and thought. It was like a little factory. That was incredible….Another one was when we went to Turkey to the Circumcision Palace. There was this phenomenal statue of Kemal Ozkan with his two sons.
Do you find a difference between how women and men react to circumcision?
Women I think are really interested in it. Men shy away. Men just don’t want to talk about it. They squirm. Circumcised men might feel like, ‘Am I missing out or am I not?’ And no man will ever admit that they are missing out. A lot of women I came across did prefer circumcised men because it was cleaner in their mind, but when it came to the choice of circumcising their baby boys, if they weren’t Jewish, I don’t think they would.
Do you hear crazy bris stories when you tell people about this?
There was this big controversy in Brooklyn about the mohel that gave two babies herpes [while performing the ritual of sucking the wound]. That was a huge story. They made it out to be some cult experience, which it’s totally not. It’s totally mainstream in Jewish Orthodoxy. I didn’t know how to tackle this, because I was making a comedy. Nobody in the Orthodox world would talk to me about it. And then I found it funny that everybody hushed up the story….There’s one mohel in Brooklyn on a mission to circumcise every Jew that has not been circumcised. He’s really, really proud of what he does. I thought this man was going to be a really good character because, first of all, it was really important to me to have a good-looking mohel to diminish any anti-Semitic sentiments. I was afraid to ask him about this custom, but he showed me this closet that had about 300 bottles of Listerine. He said, ‘Use this, and you’ll never give a baby herpes.’
What’s the reaction when people find out that you made a film about circumcision?
It depends. If the argument has come up in the family, they all say, ‘Oh my God, that’s so interesting. My husband and I had the same argument.’ That has come up a lot. This discussion is very common in having a child. Maybe not in a family where two Conservative Jews marry and everyone knows they’re on the same track….Another reaction is, ‘What’s so funny about that?’ I think once you’re in the theater, you realize it can be very funny. It was very challenging to try to make a documentary that has humor to it, because you need to actually shape it into that. It was great to see people really laugh at the premiere.
What was the importance of making it a comedy for you?
You’re going to kill your film if you’re going to keep the subject serious. And it was like walking on a mine field. Even if it’s a non-issue for you, it’s also a very deep part of you. And those two things juxtaposed is very interesting. It talks to a lot more people than what the ordinary subject of circumcision would. It talks about relationships and compromises and commitment, and what you need to do to be committed to a partner.
What’s the current state of Israeli cinema?
It’s been growing in representation and volume. There’s a lot of auteur cinema coming out of Israel with a reality that has so many contradictions to it, and so many very loaded questions. It’s very important to allow these films to be a part of the world for those of us who don’t necessarily agree with how Israel is behaving, or what it’s international images are about. A lot of filmmakers can express a voice and a point of view that’s different from mainstream Jewish-Israeli culture…. I think it’s extremely important that the American Jewish community realize that Israelis don’t feel the same as they do about Israel, and not being able to talk about a two-state solution. When you bring a film here to a New York audience, you feel like you’re stuck back in the â€˜80s. The reaction is very conservative. It’s just a very different audience here that should get the perspective from over there, where things really are happening.
And finally, how did making the Heeb 100 change your life?
It’s the only magazine that ever published a really nice picture of me in color. And it was big.