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Women in the Sink: Iris Zaki on Her “Abandoned Camera” Filmmaking

With the camera mounted over her sink at Fifi’s hair salon, director Iris Zaki filmed Arab and Jewish Israeli women as she shampooed their hair in “Women in Sink.”

With the camera mounted over her sink at Fifi’s hair salon, director Iris Zaki filmed Arab and Jewish Israeli women as she shampooed their hair in “Women in Sink.”

A new half-hour documentary by Israeli filmmaker Iris Zaki takes on a humble subject: women’s conversations at a hair salon. Zaki went to work in an Israeli Arab beauty shop in Haifa to film the Arab and Jewish clients in conversation with her as she washed their hair—not your usual technique for a film.

The film’s punning title cuts to the outcome: Women in Sink. (And its Hebrew title translates as “hair wash” and “overlap.”)

I spoke with 37-year-old Iris Zaki in New York the morning after “Women in Sink,” her second short documentary, screened at the 9th Annual Other Israel Film Festival in November. Organized by JCC Manhattan, the festival showcases films by and about Israel’s minority communities (women being a minority when it comes to equality). 

Why an Arab hair salon in Haifa?

I wanted to meet a community that I had lived next to but never had a chance to communicate with, unless I went to eat hummus or to a gas station. I wanted to get close to Arab women and hear about their difficulties living as a minority in a Jewish country. I ended up hearing different voices, of Arab women who are actually happy to live in Haifa among Jews.

Say more about what you found.

I wanted only Arab women, but both Jews and Christian Arabs come to Fifi’s. I found co-existence in the hair salon. It’s a 100 percent women’s environment. Very intimate. I got 100 percent love from these women. Everyone was eating pita with zaatar and chocolate. There is always food and coffee, and the clients discuss women’s issues. Nothing about politics. They didn’t like me bringing politics into the place. When I went back to London, where I’m doing a Media Arts Ph.D.-by-Practice, the Gaza War started and I had a crisis in editing, showing a film about co-existence. So I edited the film showing that the salon is a bubble. It doesn’t represent the reality of Arabs’ and Jews’ relationship in the country.

How did you get inside the bubble?

I spent over a month at Fifi’s as a hair washer. At first, I was terrible at washing hair, but I got better. I mounted a camera directly over the shampoo sink, over the faces of the women. I call it the “abandoned camera.” I’m a character in my own film, with my hands washing the women’s hair and my voice asking questions. My real strength is not the filmmaking per se, but my skills communicating with people, and this is what I did in the salon. I was there every day cleaning the floor, the toilets. I wanted to be part of it.

One of the best parts of “Women in Sink” is the Arabic music.

It’s my grandmother’s voice. She was a well-known actress and singer in Cairo. She was Jewish and fell in love with an Arab musician — Mohammed, a Muslim. After 1948, with the establishment of Israel, it was problematic for her to remain in Egypt. She left for Israel with their five-year-old son, my father. Mohammed went to New York — the Upper West Side — and remarried. My grandmother went from being famous to cleaning houses. My last name is Arabic and I was always embarrassed to say my name. My mother’s parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland. I never explored my Arabness. At Fifi’s I connected to this Arab community, hugging, kissing.

Did you feel frustrated not interviewing any Muslim women?

It is a Christian Arab hair salon, and it represents the people that I met. Because I have my left-wing agenda, sometimes I speak for people who I feel are victims of the situation. It’s important to listen to people, even if they say things opposite from your agenda. If people say what you expect them to say, why make films?

What about sexism in the film industry — world over?

How can we even have a conversation about whether it exists or not? Once salaries are equal for men and women we can talk about it. It’s a man’s world. Men are so used to being in charge. When you’re privileged, you don’t see it. It’s just like racism in Israel. Officially the law is no different for Arabs and Jews, but then there’s the reality.

What next?

I want to find a job for a month and a family to adopt me in a settlement in the occupied territories and make a film about that.

© 2011 Lilith Magazine