What makes a hero?

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

Yoav Shamir  311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Yoav Shamir Films)
Yoav Shamir 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Yoav Shamir Films)
Filmmaker Yoav Shamir’s quest to understand extraordinary human goodness brought him face to face with some very human-like creatures: the bonobo apes, deep in the central African state of Congo.
A primate that shares over 98 percent of its genetic makeup with humans, bonobos have serious physical and social characteristics in common with us, as much as chimpanzees. But unlike chimps, bonobos frequently walk upright, have long legs, pink lips, and are the only other creature aside from human beings that engages in sex for pleasure.
“Bonobos are like the hippy apes,” says Shamir in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post at Beta Café in Tel Aviv, minutes from his home. “If they have a problem, they solve it with sex.”
Shamir, 40, pulls up to the restaurant on his Honda scooter, wearing a helmet, leather jacket and sunglasses. The winner of a laundry list of prestigious awards is instantly friendly and down-to-earth. He eagerly tells me about his bonobo encounters.
Unlike most other animals, in bonobo society, if there is a conflict over food or anything else, these peaceful, love making, vegetarian apes, who are led by the females, solve it through sex and move on: group sex, gay sex, oral sex and more. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are known for being extremely territorial and for dealing with perceived or actual conflicts violently.
For Shamir, these two cousins of ours represent polar ends of a spectrum when it comes to responding to conflict; we can either become more radical or violent or we can make the heroic choice to work toward reconciliation.
“In a way, there’s a primal way of looking at ourselves,” Shamir says of the bonobo-chimpanzee dichotomy. “We have this good side and we have this bad side.”
In his yet-to-be-released documentary 10%, the award-winning filmmaker behind Checkpoint, Defamation and Flipping Out, among others, asks who are the people who when put in an evil place maintain a strong moral compass, and how do they do it? And who comes from one extreme background and flips to peace, from a chimpanzee to a bonobo? Who are these heroes, like Righteous Gentiles, and what motivates them?
Shamir decided to follow the research of Dr. Philip Zimbaro, orchestrator of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment in 1971, which created a simulated prison assigning some students to the role of prison guards and others to be prisoners, and Dr. Rony Berger, a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with people suffering psychologically post-terrorism, after a natural disaster, or other traumatic experience.
Zimbaro’s experiment, which had to be shut down early because it became emotionally damaging to the prisoners’ well being, “created a kind of Greek drama,” Zimbaro says in the documentary. “The issue was what happens when you put good people in an evil place. Does the goodness of the people dominate and transform the evil place or does the power of the evil situation transform and dominate the people.”
Zimbaro showed, similarly to Stanley Milgram’s 1963 experiment, how healthy, normal individuals succumb to social pressures, behaving obediently toward authority when given orders, even if those orders hurt another person.
The majority, around two-thirds, of Milgram’s participants followed orders to administer the maximum in electric shocks to an individual behind a closed door, whose screams could be heard for a time, for not answering questions as instructed. It is the minority of people whose goodness dominated the evil situation that fascinates Berger and Zimbaro.
From his work with trauma survivors, Berger has seen how most people respond to trauma and painful conflict with hate and fear, but he has noticed this same minority that “seeks another way.”
10% examines Berger and Zimbaro’s journey to learn from this minority and think creatively about social programs that can teach the rest of us to behave more like these individuals.
“There were many researchers [who studied] evil, about every type of evil you can imagine, but very few about what makes people good,” Shamir says. “Positive psychology is relatively new. Let’s not look for what is wrong, let’s look for what is right. It’s a philosophical way to look at the world.”
Berger and Zimbaro met extensively, both in focus groups and one-on-one, with Israelis and Palestinians, former gang members in Los Angeles, and others who grew up in extreme conflict, but at some point rejected their inclination to perpetuate conflict and transformed their outlook on life. The researchers looked for psychological commonalities among these individuals to pinpoint what made them transform.
“My conclusion is the highest form of heroism or altruism is being able to have the ability to look out of your own group, for what you call the in-group, and reach [out] to someone in the outgroup, someone that people in your group conceive as the enemy,” Shamir says of Afrikaners raised under Apartheid who switched sides and a Palestinian suicide bomber who failed in her mission and now works for peace – people who participated in the research.
SHAMIR SAYS he set out on a three-year expedition, filming in South Africa, Congo, Greece, Slovenia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, both to follow Berger and Zimbaro’s research, and to take a few detours of his own, such as the bonobo filming.
He is currently editing the feature- length film down from 450 hours, and hopes to release it at the Tribeca Film Festival in May, where he showed Defamation in 2009.
As Shamir films, particularly in Defamation, he seems to move between interviews and scenes according to his own curiosity. One question leads to another, a new thought is introduced and he wants clarification. The viewer feels close to Shamir, and is never quite sure where his quest for answers will lead.
“Sometimes bringing up questions is more important than finding the answers,” Shamir says. “Some people come up with a fixed script before they set out to film. Then it’s just a checklist,” he says. “[The film is] something I want to experience as I’m going.”
When he is captured by a topic, he says “it’s like a drift or free-fall – but then it’s like rock climbing when you’re actually making the film. It’s very hard for me to resist a good idea or a good subject.”
For independent filmmakers, the “rock climbing” tends to involve fundraising, and Shamir is no exception. In his effort to raise $30,000, Shamir has become the first Israeli filmmaker to utilize IndieGoGo, an online platform for artists, writers and social activists to post their idea for others to donate to and make a reality.
“It’s very difficult to ask people for money,” he says. “I’d rather walk for 10 km. than to ask someone for the bus fare or whatever.”
But in this case, he’s decided to take a chance and hope for the best. As of Tuesday, with 57 days left (IndieGoGo gave him 80 days for fundraising), he has raised $6,996 on www.indiegogo.com/10- Percent-Movie. Individuals who give in increments from $10 to $30,000 receive gifts of gratitude, such as copies of Shamir’s other films, tickets to a private screening of 10%, credit in the film’s end titles (for a donation of $2,500), and more.
His total budget is roughly $600,000-700,000, he says.
Shamir isn't solely relying on IndieGoGo, and he says he's grateful to the Reshet Israeli broadcaster, the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television and a few European and Canadian broadcasters for their financial support as well.
Who knows whether the mechanism will work, but the future of documentary film-making, he says, may depend on the public’s ability to believe in and support an idea, not on the big, slow-moving production companies to fund a project. Getting a film’s budget approved can take years, he says, and meanwhile, the film needs to be made.
“For Israel, I’m a pioneer,” he says, adding that he would love for this crowd-sourced fundraising idea to take off and help other artists. “It’s a more democratic way of making art, because art costs money.”
Shamir, a ninth-generation Israeli from Tel Aviv and the son of two elementary school teachers, received his MFA in film and television from Tel Aviv University in 2001. He had intended to become a cinematographer, having professional experience in photography since high school, but he says he somehow found his passion in directing.
For his signature style of discussing topics like anti-Semitism and Israeli brutality in the West Bank in a lighthearted, approachable tone, Shamir has received the highest praise, as well as severe criticism.
For Checkpoint, in which he filmed daily life at West Bank checkpoints, one critic called him the “Israeli Mel Gibson,” referring to the actor who had recently gone on anti-Semitic diatribes. On the other hand, Shamir says Israelis have told him the film changed their lives.
Criticism from Checkpoint led him to his next project, Defamation, to examine what anti-Semitism, real or imagined, means to Jews today. He interviews dueling Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman and Prof. Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, which says the state of Israel uses the memory of the tragedy for political purposes.
“Many people from the radical Left were angry at me,” he says, for they asked why he portrayed Finkelstein as a lunatic. “At the end of Defamation both Finkelstein and Foxman were cross with me. I felt like I did a good job.”
The best compliment he says he received was from one newspaper article that said Defamation was a very Jewish film.
“I think my sort of ambition in the film is really stirring up a discussion,” he says. “I think Judaism is about talking about things and not being afraid to ask questions.”