Cannes Critics’ Choice feature Self Made challenges notions of identity among Israelis and Palestinians

In Shira Geffen's Self Made, which is playing in the Critics' Week sidebar selection in Cannes, an Israeli performance artist and a Palestinian shop worker, swap lives following a clerical error at a checkpoint.

A scene from Shira Geffen's film Self Made. Courtesy Movie Plus Productions
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Working for Women's Watch inspired the Tel Aviv-based filmmaker Shira Geffen to make Self Made, a film playing in the Critics' Week sidebar selection in Cannes.

“Women’s Watch is a group of women,” explains Geffen, “who stand at the checkpoint between Israel and Palestine and they act like witnesses to stop checkpoint guards abusing their position. The moment that the guards know that they are being watched, their behaviour changes and so the influence of the women in controlling their behaviour is really big. I used to stand there and watch and only stopped when I got pregnant.”

Geffen, the acclaimed writer of children's books The Heart-Shaped Leaf and A Moonless Night, has worked as an actor and written several theatre plays. She used her literary skills to note down her experiences watching the checkpoint. Self Made started out as a play featuring two female characters, a Palestinian and an Israeli woman, who each tell their stories until their narratives blend and merge into one. In the film, instead of merging, Michal (the Paris-born Sarah Adler), an Israeli performance artist, and Nadine (the 30 Shakh LeSha'a Arab star Samira Saraya), a Palestinian shop worker, swap lives following a clerical error at a checkpoint.

Despite living on either side of the wall and looking completely different, they slip seamlessly into the other’s life. Nobody even notices the swap. It’s a quirky, beautifully shot, surreal film that challenges notions of identity.

“It’s a psychological film,” says Geffen, talking on a beach in Cannes. “I like stories that are puzzles. They are all stuck. It doesn’t matter if they are Arab or Israeli. The checkpoint is used to show the trapped psychological state of the characters.”

The director continually makes use of metaphors to tell the story, the main one being a mix-up and confusion over the number of screws needed to build flat-pack furniture. “I think screws are a little bit like human beings, in this situation. People are very little and no one can see the difference between you and someone else. You can even marry someone and live with them for a long time and still not be understood by them. Another reason I wanted to use screws is because I love to assemble furniture from Ikea. But each time I get stuck following the instructions and I get nervous and think it must be me, because everyday lots of people are assembling the furniture with no problem.”

Self Made is Geffen's second film; her first was Jellyfish (2007), which she made with her husband, the acclaimed Israeli author Etgar Keret. The film won the prestigious Caméra d'Or prize, the award given to the best first film showing in Cannes. But Geffen says that this film needed a different approach.

“When you work with your husband, then you see them all the time and you need a break. Also, I write female characters better and as a director and a woman my thoughts are wider and definitely go in a different direction to my husband. When we watch a film, my husband always wants to know what’s going to happen next and where is the story going, whereas I want to show an experience.”

She was, however, surprised at the Cannes screening on Friday: “I did not realise I had made a comedy, but the audience was really laughing and in places that I did not even mean it to be funny.”

The film is hilarious, with comedy in the style of the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's 2002 film Divine Intervention.

For all the talk of checkpoints and boundaries, the director says: “I don’t think this film is a question of being Israeli or Palestinian. I just see all the actors as being different sides to my character.”