Young Muslim-Chechen player Dzhabrail Kadiev sits with his mom, in moment from Forever Pure
Filmmaker Q&A

Maya Zinshtein Explores How Soccer and Racism Intersected in Israel

May 11, 2017 by Craig Phillips in Interviews

Israeli journalist-filmmaker Maya Zinshtein is in many ways the perfect person to make a film about the combustible story of Beitar Jerusalem FC, the Israeli soccer club which imploded when bringing in two foreign Muslim players led to boycotts and threats from the anti-Muslim, rabidly racist fan group La Familia. Zinshtein is herself an “outsider” in a way, having been born in Russia, and as an investigative journalist always in search of the truth, even if it comes with risks and makes some uncomfortable. Her film Forever Pure [premiering on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, May 15 at 10 pm; check local listings] made La Familia so uncomfortable in fact, that they begin targeted harassment of Zinshtein (and her mother), including death threats.

But Zinshtein knew this tense story was one that needed to be told, and she captures the complexity and even poignancy of it all.

“When politics, religion and nationalism also become part of the mix, tribalism can become a very dangerous thing, as the terrific documentary Forever Pure shows in no uncertain terms… rookie director Maya Zinshtein explores not just a difficult year for a sports team but nothing less than an ugly part of Israeli society in which racism and racial purity are celebrated as virtues.” Boyd van Hoeij, Hollywood Reporter

Maya talked to us about the many challenges of making this film, including the reaction to the film in Israel (and the aftermath), and what it was like being a woman covering a male-dominated world.

What led you to want to make Forever Pure?

As part of my work as a journalist, I’d been asked to follow the arrival of the two Chechen players into the soccer club Beitar Jerusalem. I was the first person they met when they landed in Israel. I spent those first four days with them and I was shocked. Even though I knew it would be a struggle for the Beitar fans to accept them, I still couldn’t understand why they hated them so much. After four days the story was being reported on television but I knew that the real story had just begun. I knew that they would stay until the end of the season and that it would not be easy, so I decided to continue with the story, but I thought I was going to make a film with a happy ending.

As an immigrant myself, who came to Israel from Russia, the issue of being a stranger and being accepted in a new place has been part of my life for a long time. So I guess by making this film, for me it was also a way to go again through this process from being a stranger to be a part of a group.

Forever Pure filmmaker Maya Zinshtein

Did you have interest in football/soccer growing up, and today?

I’ve always loved football, since I was a child. I’ve spent long evenings watching this amazing game with my dad. Of course today, I follow much closer. Yes, I know exactly what is going on, especially with Beitar Jerusalem. This club became part of my life, and now after Forever Pure has been released in Israel with such a great resonance, I think the film became a part of the life of Beitar.

Along those lines, can you talk about the reaction to Forever Pure in Israel so far? Has it opened up any conversations about racism in sport?

Forever Pure was released in Israel two months ago and with huge interest. Beitar has the biggest fanbase in the country and it’s considered the most controversial football club here, so the press coverage was very wide. It took all the discourse about the club out of [just] the sports outlets and brought it to the mainstream media and a public discourse started. Following the wide publicity of the disturbing picture that comes out of Forever Pure, the current owner of the club announced that the song “here we come the most racist team in the country,” that was shouted proudly by the fans in the film (and was an integral part of the repertoire in Teddy Stadium for the last two decades) is not allowed anymore.

La Familia tried to oppose the decision but not with a great success.  For the last few weeks, this song has not been heard at the stadium. At the same time, a new organization has been established within the fans. They call themselves “The Western Wall” and are trying to bring a new anti-racist approach to the stands of Teddy Stadium.

[Read more updates on the key players in Forever Pure]

There must have been a lot of challenges in making this film — what was the biggest?

I guess my biggest challenge was gaining access to all the characters in the story, and into the football club itself. Even though I had a preliminary guarantee from the chairman to film in the club, it was a long process with the characters to actually bring them to speak honestly with me. I was coming back again and again till I showed them that I’m there to stay. It was also very important for me that all the elements that were involved in this complicated story will speak for themselves, and I’m very proud that we succeeded in bringing them to take part in the film and speak openly. I think Forever Pure  is very much a film of our times. And although it tells a story of one football team in Israel, it tells a much wider story of how the extreme margins can take over the silent majority.

And how did you gain their trust, to let you into the locker room and onto the field, so to speak?

When I work as a journalist or a filmmaker, I usually find myself in places or situations where I’m a stranger. In this situation, it’s always important for me to find the person that “will take” me into this new world. During the making of Forever Pure, I understood that this person was the coach Eli Cohen. I spent a long time with him during the first period of my filming. When I’m looking back, I think it was the right choice. He had the respect from the players and other members of the team, and when they saw that I’m getting the cooperation from him, it helped me to reach them and get their trust.

Were there other things you wanted to explore or include in your film but just didn’t have space?

It was very clear to me that Forever Pure was going to be a story driven by multiple characters. I knew that [was] going to be its strength but also the biggest challenge. The story had so many layers that I went very deep into all of them. I guess as part of my innate character as an investigative journalist it is always important for me to understand and uncover the depth of every story. Down the road in the editing process, it was clear that we needed to give up on some of the directions, even though they were fascinating. One of these directions was the part of Chechnya and the reasons for the involvement of the Chechen government in the story of the arrival of the two players to Israel. I understood that I have to stay within the borders of the team to be able to tell a compelling story. But I still think that the parts that I took out should be the first scenes of my next film.

Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?

Maybe my answer will be surprising but it’s not one of the “big” scenes of Forever Pure. It’s a scene after the match when Zaur, the Chechen player, scores a goal and the fans are leaving the stadium. The players are back at the hotel, attending the Shabbat dinner. While all the players are standing together, during the Jewish ceremony, Zaur stands alone, aside. I remember when we filmed it, I couldn’t believe that it’s actually happening in front of my eyes. This small moment tells the huge story, of being a stranger, of the gaps that even what I considered to be the biggest “religion” in the world — soccer — can not win.

What’s a question you’re always asked about Forever Pure?

On every Q&A comes the question: how it was to be a woman in such a male-dominated place as a soccer team. I can understand this question, even though it always gives me an odd feeling. I never saw myself as a woman that [covers] a soccer team. When I’m working on my films, I’m a filmmaker, a director. I know that I’m a woman and to be honest I really like [being a] woman, but it never crossed my mind — “can I or can’t I do this kind of film” — because of the fact that I’m a woman. I guess sometimes it helped me, to be a total stranger and sometimes it was hard, being surrounded by 40 men when every one of them thought that he can tell me what to do. I was listening to them and [able to do] what I want.

And no, I never entered the locker room — it was always my amazing DP Sergei Freedman.

What sort of conversations would you like American audiences to have after viewing the film?

I think Forever Pure is very much a film of our times. And although it tells a story of one football team in Israel, it tells a much wider story of how the extreme margins can take over the silent majority. I’ve traveled with Forever Pure across the world and I saw how people from different countries knew how to translate the story and its metaphors to their own country. I hope that American audiences will do the same.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

  • Harlan County U.S.A, by Barbara Kopple, that documents a coal miners’ strike in the ’70s. It’s a brilliant piece of vérité filmmaking and the way the Kopple immerses herself in this community and tells their story is amazing. I’m a huge fan of vérité, for me the idea of coming into a dramatic situation and tracking it for a period without knowing where it’s going to take you — it’s the best documentary filmmaking has to offer. When a dramatic situation tells a much bigger and complicated story about some of the illnesses of society, that’s where great films are born. Kopple was one of the pioneers of female documentary filmmaking; I always feel that she created a path for us.
  • Chinatown by Roman Polanski: a brilliant tragedy.
  • Spotlight by Tom McCarthy: I love fiction that’s based on a true story as there are so many amazing stories that are just impossible to make a documentary about. On [a future] project, I would love to find an untold true story and use my skills as an investigative journalist to tell them as fiction.

Speaking of which, what film/project(s) are you working on next?

There are ideas that me and my producer Geoff Arbourne are developing, but I guess it would be too early to speak of them now. But I know that I’ll stay in this area of power and money and how it affects the lives of people.

Do you have any updates on the main characters in your film you can share with our audience?

The film ends up with an update — what happened to each character during the last three years since I finished filming. It always amazes me how the story keeps rolling and also shows how complicated this one season was. The most updated story about La Familia is the arrest of 50 members of the organization after the film was [finished]. It became a huge story in Israel and brought a lot attention towards the film. Today the police are charging 20 of them on different accusations and the trials are happening as we speak.

More with Maya Zinshtein:

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.