What makes a hero?

Yoav Shamir searches far and wide for the ‘10%’ in his new documentary.

October 19, 2013 21:15
4 minute read.
Yoav Shamir

Yoav Shamir. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Most of us wonder whether we would ever act heroically, but director Yoav Shamir has actually made a documentary on the subject. His latest film, 10% – What Makes a Hero?, which opens this week at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, is a funny but often provocative look at the nature of heroism, as well as a chronicle of the director’s changing reactions to his own research.

The 10 percent mentioned in the title refers to a famous experiment done by a US researcher in the Sixties in which volunteers were told to administer electric shocks to subjects who answered questions incorrectly.

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Even though the volunteers were told they were administering incredibly painful and even life-threatening voltages, 90 percent of them did as they were told.

Only 10% refused to cooperate and would not harm the subjects (who knew what the experiment was really about and did not actually receive any electric shocks).

Shamir began looking into this research (rare footage of which is included in his documentary) after he saw a photo on Facebook of one man in a crowd at a Nazi rally who refused to give the Nazi salute.

Becoming obsessed with this man, “I tried to track him down. But so many people said, ‘This is my grandfather,’ or ‘I knew this person’ that we had to give up any hope of finding that man.”

Still, “this image brought together the question of heroism for me, of how I would act, if I would be a hero.”

While scientists in Israel cautioned him that there was no way to predict how he would behave in any given situation (although they did confirm that he has a gene associated with altruism), he continued to research the subject.

The film records his journey and observations as he interviews researchers who work with different types of monkeys (one kind that kills intruders and another that never fights); a New York City “subway hero” who rescued a man who fell onto the subway tracks after having a seizure; a gentile woman who risked her life by hiding Jews during the Holocaust; his grandmother, the widow of two men who died heroically; a neurological researcher who amassed a fortune and gave away almost all his money; a representative of the Ayn Rand foundation, which advocates “rational self-interest”; Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli peace activist; and others.

“It was one of the hardest movies I’ve ever done,” says Shamir, who recently returned from screening the film in Germany and Poland. He has made several acclaimed documentaries that have been shown widely around the world, including Checkpoint (2003) and Defamation (2009).

Although he served in an anti-terror unit in the IDF, he says “I didn’t feel I had the opportunity to be a hero in the army.” But it was a subject that fascinated him, and after seeing the Facebook photo of the Nazi rally, he got started.

“I like to be ready when I start my films, but not overly ready,” he explains, so that he is open to ideas and approaches he encounters while filming.

While getting started was easy, “Defining what is a hero is an endless subject,” he says, and it was difficult to know when to stop.

“It’s like The Wizard of Oz; every step gives you a clearer picture of what is it you are looking for. And for me, with this subject, you just start investigating it and it influences you to look at life differently.”

ALTHOU GH THERE are many comic moments in the film, Shamir takes it seriously, saying, “I looked at very different cultures, and there is something universal about wanting to do good.”

In one of the film’s most challenging scenes, a representative of the Ayn Rand Institute questions whether doing good makes us feel good, as others in the film suggest.

He posits that we feel good when we do what we have been conditioned to believe is good, and suggests that Nazis killing Jews may have felt a warm glow in the pleasure centers in their brain that a neuroscientist claims are affected when we perform an altruistic action.

Shamir lets the Ayn Rand devotee have his say. “Many people believe this,” he points out. “In America, many Republicans say this.

My seven-year-old daughter believes if I give you something, you will have more, I’ll have less, I’ll be weaker. It is sensible.”

In the end, though, even after Shamir is injured in a peace demonstration, he retains his belief in heroism and altruism as a way of life.

“I’m an atheist; you have to believe in something,” he says, explaining why he included a meeting with a cult that believes in free love and aliens in the film.

But he admits that he has not answered the questions that drove him to make the film, although he has learned a lot about himself and the world.

The closest he can get to a conclusion is this: “When we were coming up with a quote for the T-shirts for the movie, we found this saying by Bertolt Brecht: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’”

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