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Israeli director wins prestigious British film prize

Iris Zaki honoured for revealing documentary on Arab hair salon in Haifa

    Iris Zaki
    Iris Zaki

    An Israeli film-maker has scooped a prestigious British prize for a documentary she filmed while working at an Arab hair salon in Haifa.

    The Shampoo Summit, directed by Iris Zaki, won the Innovation Award at the Arts and Humanities Research in Film Awards 2017, held at BAFTA’s headquarters in London on Thursday.

    Ms Zaki, who has been studying for a PhD at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College, spent a month washing hair at Fifi’s hair salon, which is run by Christian Arabs. While there, she set up an unmanned camera above the sink which recorded the frank and open exchanges she had while washing customers’ hair.

    The footage led to a documentary called Women in Sink, which has been shown at 120 international film festivals and received numerous awards. Ms Zaki was then approached by the New York Times to produce a shorter version which led to the creation of a seven-minute documentary entitled The Shampoo Summit.

    Ms Zaki said: “The decision to film in Haifa was a natural choice for me, since it’s my hometown - where my identity begins, with a father who came from Egypt and a mother whose parents, Holocaust survivors, came from Poland.

    “I moved between the desire to get to know Arab citizens in person and a passion to explore my own identity through these encounters; and between my instinctive fear when I hear Arabic, which is the result of growing up in Israel, and the guilt I carry towards a community which I believe was, and still is, treated unequally.”

    Contrary to her expectations, Ms Zaki was received with open arms – and plenty of food. As she soon found out, the salon was something of an institution, popular with both Jewish and Arab women.

    “I went to Haifa to make a film about Arab women, expecting to hear about their difficulties in Israel,” she said. “I ended up with a different film: within a complex reality, I’ve found a story of friendship, acceptance and respect between Arab and Jewish women. A little island of sanity.”

    Both films were submitted as part of Ms Zaki’s PhD, which she used to explore her technique of unmanned filming. This followed an earlier project which came about almost by accident.

    “When I first came to Britain eight years ago I worked as a receptionist in an ultra-Orthodox hotel in north London,” the 39-year-old told the JC.

    “I had the first chance in my life to speak with ultra-Orthodox men and women and I was fascinated by it, so I decided to make a documentary about my conversations with the guests.

    “I didn’t want to use a film crew or change the dynamics so I left a camera on a tripod and went back to my position. Both of us forgot about the camera and it was a very organic conversation that evolved,” she said. The resulting film, My Kosher Shifts, also received critical acclaim.

    Her success fuelled her enthusiasm for the method and so in 2014 she stumbled across Fifi’s salon. Washing hair proved “the toughest part of this project”, but the owners and loyal clientele were “warm and welcoming”.

    “I was really moved by the story of the place, a space that doesn’t have politics within its four walls,” she said.

    “Women from all over Haifa have been going there for years. They eat and they gossip and the result was a film that is very hopeful.”

    Ms Zaki, who will soon return to Israel, is currently working on two other films. She is editing footage taken during two months she spent on a Jewish settlement and is researching her most personal project to date, a film exploring her unusual family history.

    “My grandmother was a singer and actress in Egypt,” she said. “She fell in love with and married my grandfather whose name was Muhammad and who was a Muslim. They eventually divorced and she made aliyah with my father – but after 35 years they remarried and he came to live in Israel.”

    She has already secured some funding and mentoring that will enable her to travel to Egypt and beyond to research her family history.

    “It’s a Muslim-Jewish love story. It’s been in my head for a long time but I wanted to be mature enough cinematically to do it.”

    Watch The Shampoo Summit here:

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