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Saturday

WELCOME . . .







To the website of freelance journalist, author and member of the Critics' Circle, London Stephen Applebaum (@grubstreetsteve).

I started out as a humble staff writer on VNU Business Publications' What Micro? magazine. After four years of working on different titles in the publisher's stable, I decided to go freelance. I branched out into writing about film and politics, and today am able to tackle pretty much anything thrown at me.

I am an experienced interviewer and have shot the breeze with everyone from Beyonce to Al Gore, Michael Moore, George Clooney, Bill Murray, Terry Gilliam, Vidal Sassoon and Jesse Eisenberg.

My work has appeared in a wide variety of publications and different media internationally, including the Guardian, The Independent, Time Out, The Scotsman, The Times, the Sunday Times Culture, Vogue Australia, What's On in Dubai, The Jewish Chronicle, The Big Issue, The Herald, Rolling Stone, The Australian, the Sunday Times Perth, The West Australian, BBC Online, The Listener, Filmfour.com, Total Film, Dazed & Confused, and Metro.

I have also been reprinted in several books, including Secrets of 24: The Unauthorized Guide to the Political and Moral Issues Behind TV's Most Riveting Drama, The UK Film Finance Handbook 2005/06, and The Film Finance Handbook - Global Edition. 

In 2008 I was nominated for an Australian OPSO award for a newspaper story about the film director Tamara Jenkins. 

In 2012, a newspaper story I wrote for The Scotsman about Robert Rodriguez supplied the concluding interview in the book, Robert Rodriguez: Interviews, edited by Zachary Ingle. 

I am the author of The Wicker Man: Conversations with Robin Hardy, Anthony Shaffer & Edward Woodward, which is available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Wicker-Man-Conversations-Woodward-ebook/dp/B008COOH2S  

I attend the Berlin (February), Cannes (May), Venice (September),  and London (November) film festivals every year, and I am available for coverage of those events. 

If you would like to commission me, or reproduce features/interviews posted on this site, please email me in the first instance to discuss a project/rates, or contact me via Twitter: @grubstreetsteve. 

I am available for: 

Writing/Editing shifts
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Research 

Visit the sidebar on right for links to some of my published work, and blog archives.

Regards, Stephen Applebaum 


Going Undercover With Sylvia: Tracing Blood

Saxon Logan at the world premiere in Israel
How did Sylvia Raphael, a beautiful middle-class South African with a Jewish father and Christian mother, become one of Mossad's most successful spies? 

What motivated her to put her life on the line for Israel, and how did she earn the trust of some of the most dangerous people in the Arab world at a time when Palestinian terrorism was expanding across the Middle East and into Europe? 

And why did an attempt to assassinate Ali Hassan Salameh - chief of operations for Black September and mastermind behind the terrorist action at the 1972 Munich Olympics that left 11 Israeli athletes dead - in Lillehammer, Norway, instead result in the murder of Ahmed Bouchikhi, the older brother of Gipsy Kings co-founder Chico Bouchikhi, leading to Sylvia's arrest, exposure and imprisonment?

A fascinating and visually arresting new documentary, Sylvia: Tracing Blood,  explores these questions by attempting to get under the skin and inside the life of Sylvia through some of the people who knew her – in some cases, like a former lover, thought they did – and weaving a thematically rich course through her world and times, haunted by the Holocaust and informed by the historic struggle of Jews to achieve safety and security.

Understanding someone who made deception her modus operandi was never going to be easy. Fortunately for the film's South African director, Saxon Logan, he was able to enlist the help of Sylvia's Norwegian widower and former lawyer, Annaeus Schjodt, who died shortly after filming, and charismatic brother David, affectionately known as Bunty, whom Logan calls her “memories keeper”. He was “so forthcoming”, the film-maker tells me on the phone from Cape Town. “And even though he admitted to a certain degree of ignorance, or lack of curiosity, he was able to really tell us the majority of the story.” 

Filming in South Africa, the UK, Norway and Israel, Logan was able to put as many of the pieces of the puzzle together as his budget and time would allow. Not that unlimited resources would've enabled him to uncover everything about Sylvia.

She did not open up to anybody unreservedly,” he says. “She was true to her cause to the bitter end.” 

When Sylvia succumbed to leukaemia in 2005, she took her secrets to the grave. Today it's likely that only Mossad knows everything, and they're not telling. The agency helped Logan, but within limits.

“Mossad feel a huge debt of gratitude [to Sylvia], and I think that's why they cooperated in the way they did. But I was left in no uncertain terms that there would be certain stuff held back. Because, even today, other agencies can extrapolate from things she did and, perhaps, detect what they're up to in contemporary times.”

Logan is in no doubt, though, that Sylvia was exceptional in her field and devastating in her impact. “There are things that we'll never know, but it's true that she was responsible for near-enough eliminating the entire European Palestinian wing that were behind not just Munich, but many other outrages that took place.”

According to Eitan Haber, who served as Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin's media advisor at the time of what became known as the Lillehammer Affair, in the film, if people knew what Sylvia had done for them and future generations, they would “visit her grave and place flowers on it until they reach the sky.” This so moved some of those at the documentary's world premiere in Israel, that they travelled to kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, where Sylvia's ashes are interred, to pay their respects. “It was a significant act on their part,” says Logan. “And I am sure others will visit her grave when the film is widely shown.” 

Although Sylvia was already known to Israelis, Logan is quietly critical of the way that her story has been embellished by the likes of her Mossad recruiter, Moti Kfir, and journalist Ram Oren, in their 2014 book, Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy. The documentary “sets certain points straight”, he says, including an anecdote about a supposedly influential visit Sylvia's family received from a paternal uncle who said he'd seen family members murdered by the SS. Despite the story being widely repeated, Bunty confirms that it is, in fact, untrue. 

Logan has some sympathy for Kfir. “I think being a former Mossad operative, he felt duty bound to be circumspect in telling her story, and then felt, or had been misled into thinking, that certain things happened that simply didn't happen.”

He suggests that Sylvia herself may have sometimes been the source. “She was a top bullshitter. She was very theatrical. We bumped into fellow scholars from her boarding school in South Africa and they remember her literally prancing down the corridors, spouting Shakespeare. She wanted to be an actress, and I think that also is key to how she was able to do what she did.”

Sylvia was born on April Fool's Day, 1937, and raised in Graaf-Reinet, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, in her mother's religion. Her entrepreneur Jewish father was an atheist, and apparently so assimilated that he was the only Jew allowed in the Graaf-Reinet Club.

The Afrikaners were largely antisemitic,” says Logan, “and to some of their leaders' disgrace, sympathised with the Nazis.” 

One day, Sylvia witnessed some local boys pushing a Jewish girl in a wheelbarrow and chanting, “We're going to take you to Hitler.” She was so distressed that her family sent her away to a private girls' school.

I suggest to Logan that her father's ability to thrive may have provided the future undercover spy with an early example of how to survive in a potentially hostile environment.

Exactly that,” he agrees. “How to cope. How to get on. How to get under that little gap that's presented.” 

Sylvia moved to a kibbutz after breaking off her engagement to a South African when his drinking became a concern, following a move to London. She was a passionate believer in Israel's right to exist, and enthusiastically joined Mossad when approached.

They gave her a new identity, “Patricia Roxborough”, using a passport that its Canadian owner had unwittingly promised to an agent as they'd drifted through a Tunnel of Love, and trained her as a photojournalist. She moved to Vancouver to learn to speak French with a Canadian accent and create a plausible cover story as a freelance photographer, and then relocated to Paris, the centre of Mossad's operations in Europe.

Bunty recalls Sylvia talking about embassy parties in Switzerland where she'd pretend to be antisemitic, allowing her to get close to Arab-based anti-Zionist movements. And she was constantly dicing with death: when top Mossad spy Eli Cohen was publicly hanged after the discovery of his high-level infiltration of the Syrian regime, Sylvia took over. “In those days the Syrians would never have guessed Mossad would use a woman,” says Logan. She also became one of the first agents to penetrate the bases of the PLO in Jordan and Lebanon when Arafat was beginning his terrorist attacks.

Following the Munich massacre, Sylvia became part of the Wrath of God operation to hunt and kill members of Black September and the PLO, and is believed to have been involved in a number of assassinations. However, success turned to failure when Salameh set a trap for Mossad in Lillehammer, designed to damage the organisation's reputation for infallibility. 

Sylvia had studied Salameh closely and knew they'd been led to the wrong man. She admonished her commander to abort the mission but he sent in the “wet-workers” - Mossad's name for their hit-men – anyway, and Ahmed Bouchikhi was shot dead, in front of his pregnant wife. When Salameh heard about the murder, says Logan, “he just laughed and said, 'To think Mossad shot a pool attendant.' 

In the film, Chico Bouchikhi describes the devastating effect of the murder on his family and how he'd hoped in vain that Israel would apologise during his mother's lifetime. Today, he promotes a message of peace and talks about forgiveness as a step towards healing. 

By contrast, Yaakov Armidror, a former major general and National Security Advisor, explains how the size, position and Jewish character of Israel mean that she can never afford to be complacent. If Israel were ever to lose one war, he says, it would be the end of the Jewish State. 

They know that they will never be accepted within the Security Council,” says Logan, who while not Jewish is an ardent Zionist. “They know that they are up against billions of people that wouldn't really blink an eyelid if you told them that Israel had fallen, and they're surrounded by many millions that want to do just that, and they are determined that that will never happen.” 

Sylvia knew this and one of the most affecting aspects of making the film, says Logan, was seeing it dawn on Bunty that what she was really committed to was preventing a repeat of history. 

I'm sure there were all kinds of different appendages to that particular motive,” he says, “but I think her principle motive was to ensure that what occurred in Europe would never, ever happen again.” 

Balanced, thoughtful and haunting, Sylvia: Tracing Blood is thus not only a powerful testament to the courage and skill of its mysterious heroine, but also to the strength of the Jewish people and their will to endure.

 The UK premiere of Sylvia: Tracing Blood, including a Q & A with Saxon Logan, will take place at JW3, on Sunday 7th May, in aid of the charity Habaid. For more information go to http://www.habaid.org/sylvia-tracing-blood

Sunday

Saar Maoz: Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

Saar Maoz, subject of the documentary Who's Gonna Love Me Now?, talks about coming out in an Orthodox Jewish family, and finding peace. 

Speaking from Tel Aviv, Saar Maoz sounds like a man who's had a weight lifted from his shoulders. The subject of Tomer and Barak Heymann's documentary, Who's Gonna Love Me Now?, the affable gay Israeli lives with HIV, but no longer worries about what his family and the Orthodox community he grew up in think about his sexuality and condition.

It was different when Maoz, 44, was 14, and realised he wasn't attracted to girls. The eldest of seven siblings living on a religious kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu, in northern Israel, he was terrified of coming out.

“My big fear was my family would kick me out, or the kibbutz would kick me out, and I wouldn't be able to stay around my friends, my family. It was a very scary thought. So how I dealt with it was to hide it.” He kept his secret for five years, “and gradually got more depressed. To everybody I was a very friendly teenager. But I spent a lot of time in my room, crying.”

Since the Torah decrees homosexual intercourse punishable by death, religion offered no comfort. In any case, it had started to feel restrictive to Maoz “from a very early age”. “There is an age where it's all like Seder nights and candles and nice songs, and then at some point it starts to limit you. That's how I experienced it.”

His family, moreover, weren't living in the city, where people “can go with the flow of what occurs in their life”. The kibbutz (“Imagine a small country with a fence around it”) demanded conformity (to democratically agreed rules), and being different could lead to problems.

“If your path is on the middle of the road, then you are fine. But if your way is on the side of the road, then you have a bumpy ride.”

Maoz was eventually expelled, although not because of his sexuality - “I was kicked out because I did not keep Shabbat. You are not meant to go out driving, drinking or smoking.”

While he was still at the kibbutz, his pious mother discovered he was gay. In the film, she describes it as “a crisis . . . There were elements of grief, one of which was anger . . . In a religious society it's totally unacceptable.”

She was “disgusted by the thought of what two men do together”, and saddened by the idea that her son wouldn't have children. “Part of the big argument,” Maoz tells me, “[also] was that I kept it from her for five years.” His father, a patriotic officer in the army, laughed and told him: “Take two pills and it will pass.” At the time, the Israeli ideal of manhood was someone who was there “to work the land and make sure we had a country”, says Maoz. “There was a lot of homophobia.”

Inevitably, he asked himself many questions throughout his late teens/early 20s, “because when you find you're gay, it's part of the fabric of this identity crisis”, he says. “Who am I? Why am I not like everybody else? How can I design my own identity in a way that I am proud of myself?” He laughs. “Also, I think it's quite Jewish to examine [things]. It's a nice Jewish trait, not to just accept things as they are.”

Still unreconciled with his parents, he took a trip to London after doing service as a paratrooper, and was “charmed” by what he found. “I just wanted to be free . . . And suddenly arriving in London, living by Hampstead Heath, nobody seemed to care.”

He found love with a man, which he thought would last forever. But when the relationship ended after three years, Maoz fell in with someone else and spiralled down into a reckless life of unsafe sex and drugs, that ended with them both contracting HIV. The virus added a further complication to his relationship with his family, though it also began to break the near-silence between him and his father. “[We] always talked," he says. "But mostly it was like a 'Hi Dad. Is Mum there? Can you pass her the phone?' kind of relationship. I don't think we had a meaningful conversation from the 90s till 2003, when I was diagnosed.”

For years, Tomer Heymann had wanted to make a film about Maoz – whose openness about his HIV status (unusual for an Israeli at the time) had stunned the filmmaker in 2004 – but he'd always refused. By 2011, though, Maoz had built a secure network of friends in London, acquired an alternative family as a member of the London Gay Men's Chorus, and resolved most of the issues he had with himself; he finally felt the time was right. The result is a compassionate study of a family striving to overcome their prejudice, fear, and hurt, in encounters that are raw and painfully honest, but always underscored by love.

"I think we were all at the point where we were ready to say the things that there was to say,” Maoz suggests. “But I also think if we'd had any idea what it'd bring out, then maybe we wouldn't have done it. At times it was really heavy.

"For me, on a personal level, it shows what happens when you dare to scratch the surface and have the courage to actually say what you want to say, and have the courage to listen to what the other person has to say, because I think listening needs a lot more courage than talking.”

To the film-makers' surprise, Maoz decided to move back to Israel, giving them an ending they never expected. He wanted to be close to his nephew and nieces (his hope for kids of his own was thwarted when he contracted HIV), and to do something meaningful with his life.

Joining the Israel AIDS Task Force allowed him to return on his own terms, and gave him a “massive boost” because of their work's social significance. This doesn't mean going back has been easy.

“But I had been in England for 18 years, watching things in Israel, and saying, 'This is good, this is not good,' and passing comment. And I thought, 'If you want to change your country, then you have to be in your country.'"

Who's Gonna Love Me Now opens April 7
An edited version off this story appeared in The Jewish Chronicle 


Friday

Saar Maoz, Subject Of The Documentary Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

Saar Maoz
Saar Maoz, 44, grew up on a religious kibbutz in northern Israel. Today, he lives in Tel Aviv and works for the Israel AIDS Task Force. He is the subject of Tomer and Barak Heymann's new documentary, Who's Gonna Love Me Now?, which tells the story of Maoz's attempt to reconcile with his Orthodox family after coming out as gay, and then contracting HIV. He talks about the documentary and his life.

How did you meet Tomer Heymann for the first time? 

"I first met Tomer Heymann in 1995 or '94, about six months before I left to go to England. We met as young people, in a club in Tel Aviv. We had a “discussion” throughout the night, and then the next morning I got up, and I put a kippah on, and I said I'm going to visit my family in the kibbutz and things are not resolved there. That kind of put a red light in his head.” 

Then what happened? 

We stayed in touch, and around 2004 I was in Israel for a visit, and during that visit I bumped into him in the street, and he said to me, 'Hey, I'm shooting this documentary about my own family and would you mind coming and answering some questions?' So I did that and during that interview I told him I was HIV+. For him that was a big deal because he said nobody ever said that to him in that way before."

Was it something that wasn't discussed very much in Israel?

 "No, not at all. Up to now it's not in the news very much or there is not that many people out there talking about it. So, you know, definitely not then. The next morning I said, 'Hey, you can't put it out because I don't want my family to have to deal with that and all the publicity. I'm not ready. They're not ready. And I don't want it.' Ever since then, like every six months, I'd get a phone call from him saying, 'Are you ready to go with your story now?'” 

So what changed? 

"In 2011, Tomer Heymann came to England to receive a Human Rights in Cinema award for his movie Paper Dolls, and we met for coffee. Basically, he told me about his family and I told him about mine, and the Gay Men's Chorus and how amazing it was to be with so many gay men in one room and nobody killing one another [laughs]. And then he said, 'Well maybe it's time.' I said that I was ready, I'd had enough." 

When you first met in the 90s, where were you at in your own life? 

"I was still a soldier, I was just finishing in the army. I was in Tel Aviv for a few months and then I left to London, basically." 

Why London rather than Tel Aviv? 

"[Laughs] I finished the army, and in Israel it's pretty normal that after the army you go around the world or you go to the Far East, or South America. Now I didn't have any desire to go and look for myself on some mountain, but I had a couple of friends who said they were off to London for a couple of weeks before going to South America, and I said, 'Oh, London sounds like a place with a shower.' It seemed more appealing to me. So I went to London, and I got to London in the 90s, and I completely fell in love with the city, from the freedom to be out and everything that London has, the sites, and I felt very, very free in a way that I hadn't felt before." 

It gave you room to breathe, given you'd come from? 

"I grew up in a kibbutz. Imagine it's a small country with a fence around it. That's the physical sense. And then you have religion, so it's another kind of fence. And then you have parents, and I think everybody that age have their parents on their head. And then the army, which is a whole other fence in your life. So it was a point where I just wanted to be me. I just wanted to be free." 

And you couldn't be in Israel? 

There was a lot of homophobia at that time in Israel. It was way before the gay revolution that happened in Tel Aviv. And suddenly arriving in London, living by Hampstead Heath, and having huge wide parks and places to be, nobody seemed to care." 

How much were your family's views about sexuality shaped and defined by religion? 

"I think it's a mixture. I think there is a big mixture between religion and also being Israeli. Or what was then Israel, which was very like men should be a certain way. We should be here to work the land and to make sure that we have a country. My dad was this big General in the army, very patriotic, and, you know, this kind of mixture between one and the other was a lot to take on. So they were influenced by all off that, I think."

Your father in the film seems to embody the patriotic values that Israel is founded on. Did his rejection of you ever cause you to question your own identity as an Israeli, or what it means to be Israeli? 

"As an Israeli? I don't know. But in my High School and then teenage years, and then my 20s, I kind of did a lot of thinking about my identity. Because I think when you find you're gay, it's part of the fabric of this identity crisis. Who am I? Why am I not like everybody else? What does it mean for me? How can I design, so to speak, my own identity in a way that I am proud of myself? That I am at peace with myself? And also I think it's quite Jewish, to examine. I'm saying in a good way. It's a nice Jewish trait not to accept things just because they are. That's the kind of Judaism that's been around my home, anyway." 

On the kibbutz, did the religious aspect of life ever feel constricting? I mean as you got older? 

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was constrained by it from a very young age. I mean there is an age where it's all like Seder nights and candles and nice songs, and then at some point it starts to limit you. At that time it was limiting my freedom. There were things that I wanted to do. So I started to look at it a bit like that. And then, you know, this is not like a family in the city that makes its own rules and goes with the flow of what occurs in their life. This is even more constrained by community rules. In a kibbutz the basic agreement of people is that everybody is equal and everybody is doing the same, and the rules are being voted on in a democratic way. But once they're made, that is how one should act and what one should follow. So if your path is on the middle of the road, then you are fine. But if your way is on the side of the road, then you have a bumpy ride."

So how much more complicated did that make it for you when you were 14 and you realised that you were gay? Did that create a bigger internal struggle than if you weren't in such a community? 

"Absolutely. I didn't say anything for many years, and I think my mum got upset with that. So, from 14 to 19, almost 20, I didn't say anything, because I didn't feel like I could. And the very thing, at the end, I was kicked out of the kibbutz on the grounds of not being religious ... To everybody I was a very friendly teenager and kind of with the group. But I spent a lot of time in my room crying, or writing, or doing things that were giving me some kind of way to express what I feel." 

It is often said you were thrown out of the kibbutz because of your sexuality. It doesn't sound like that was the case. 

No, I was kicked out because I did not keep Shabbat. You are not meant to go out driving, drinking or smoking.”

Was there anybody to confide in as you were struggling with your feelings? 

"Not really. Towards the end, when I got to 18-19 I told a couple of people. But no, I didn't have anybody. I didn't tell anybody, really, until I was 19. It's around that time, because I was kicked out of the kibbutz, I arrived in Tel Aviv, and I started making connections there and started talking to other people who were gay and seeing how they did it with their family, and drew inspiration from that.” 

Were there any other people that you knew about who'd come out on your kibbutz before you, and you'd seen what had happened to them? 

"I personally haven't. I'm absolutely certain there must be some . . . like I know one other guy that's gay, from my kibbutz. He was two years older than me and we've kind of found out about it at a later time, when we're adults. I was away, I wasn't really around, but I'm sure there are others, absolutely." 

Has the situation changed in the 30 years or so since you came out? 

"Things have changed for gay people in Israel. Even in kind of religious environments, I think things have changed, although I don't know if they've got to the point where Orthodox Jews are pro gay people. I think the major thing that changed in the kibbutz is that their attitude towards people that are different in general is completely changed. How I can see it is because people in the kibbutz saw the film and they've been really good and positive about it. My mum and my brother still live there, have good friends there, and nobody has ever said anything bad as a result of this film. I feel absolutely welcome on the kibbutz when I go to visit. So I think things have changed there, for the better." 

The honesty and frankness of everyone in the film is bracing. Was everyone at a point where they were ready to talk? 

"Yes, but it was really, really heavy at times. I think we all came to the project thinking that we are fine. And I think, for me, that's kind of the message of the story. We all have these kinds of relationships with our family where we are fine. We really are fine. We go into Christmas or Passover and we sit around the table and we don't touch the subjects that we think are going to be explosive, and we kind of muddle through this thing, or sail through this thing, and then we go home and then we deal with our lives by ourselves and that's it.

"I think what this film, and this project, for me, on a personal level shows you, is what happens when you dare to scratch the surface, and actually have the courage to say what we want to say. And have the courage to listen to what the other person has to say, because I think listening needs a lot more courage than talking. I think in many parts of the film, this is what it's about. It's about daring to talk. Daring to listen.” 

It feels like part of the progress for you in the film as well is learning to love yourself, because you are very hard on yourself at times. When you talk about having contracted HIV, you talk about karma. That seems very hard. 

"First of all, spot on. I'm very good at being hard on myself. That is correct and true. I'm working on it, what can I say? I think especially the last year since the film came out I have definitely learned to enjoy myself and be a bit more proud of myself. The thing with the karma thing people don't really get what I'm saying. I'm not saying I deserved what I got. I think what I'm saying is more from a spiritual point of view that, generally, if you are going to be dealing with bad people, do bad actions, and not have integrity with yourself about how you want to live your life and who you are in the world, then probably - not because you deserve it - just probably when bad things are happening, more bad things happen. I think that's how I'm saying it. I absolutely don't think that anybody who contracted HIV, in any way, [deserved it].” 

You are very frank in the film about your lifestyle at the time you contracted HIV. Were you that open about it with your family? 

"Yeah, most of what they saw about me in the movie, they knew before the movie. I had told them. It took me many years to tell them the story, or what happened. And you know what? It's exactly the point that I really do have a very special and unique family - I often say that they are the best family in the world - because my mum and my dad could quite easily say to me, 'You shouldn't do this' or whatever. I don't feel that, especially not since I came out with HIV, because I've never heard them say that. There's a lot of compassion there in our conversation, and a lot of space to tell the truth - now. Now that we are telling each other the truth, there is a lot of space for it." 

And was that the journey of the film, it created that space? 

"Absolutely. I think the journey of my contracting HIV, the journey of me being gay, and the journey of making this film, that, for me, it kind of took the last bit of, call it poison, and just made sure that it's out of the way." 

Your relationship with your father seems to have been especially strained, especially after the letter he sent you on your 23rd birthday, in which he said you should come home because there was no place for you. Did you talk much after you came out? 

We always talked. Mostly it was like a 'Hi, Dad. Is Mum there? Can you pass her the phone?' kind of relationship. I don't think we had a meaningful conversation from the 90s till 2003, when I was diagnosed."

 When did you tell your dad about your diagnosis?

I told him about 4 months after [receiving it], and it made a massive difference to our relationship. I think that this was really a turning point. From there on, we started to bridge the gap of the years that were lost."

You moved back to Israel after living in the UK for 18 years. It does feel at points in the film like you torn between London and your old home.  

"There is something interesting, and I have been thinking recently about immigration, and I think being an immigrant of any kind is kind of like a life sentence, because you have home, where you grew up, and then you go to another country and you try to make it your home, and the first few years it is almost impossible, it feels like an impossible task. And then 18 years later this is your home. I lived in the UK more than I lived in Israel altogether. Or now it's like half and half. So which one is home?  Like I'm going to London soon and it feels like I am going to go back home. So I think I'm screwed, basically, because I'm always going to have half a heart in a place, and that's okay. 

At one point I just decided I wanted to make a big change in my life, and I wanted to be around my nephew and nieces as the grow up, and I wanted to do something that has meaning, and that's what I decided to do. At the end of the day, you have to choose."

What is your relationship with Judaism today? You're taken into a mitvah van and you put on tefillin for the first time since you were 14. How did that feel? 

"First of all I live in Israel and Judaism isn't a choice. You're kind of soaked up with Judaism wherever you go. So I'm very proud of being Jewish. I'm very proud of our long-lasting and incredible traditions, and ways of thinking and our understanding of what it is to be human. I'm an atheist, and I don't believe in God or that kind of thing. But I would say, though, that in my last two or three years I was in the UK, I was welcomed by one of my best friend's family's to the West London Synagogue, a Reformed community, and I just found something really, really beautiful over there. Apart from them being really, really welcoming, I also found this kind of like stream of our faith that is accepting, preaching diversity, equality, and pride in our thoughts and human feelings, and I felt very connected to it. So I don't know what that means.”

Who's Gonna Love Me Now? opens today


Thursday

Saxon Logan On Documentary Sylvia: Tracing Blood

Saxon Logan at the World Premiere of Sylvia: Tracing Blood in Israel

Saxon Logan's magnificent documentary, Sylvia: Tracing Blood, attempts to wrestle with the truth and lies surrounding Sylvia Raphael: a young South African woman who became Mossad's top spy. Her cover was blown in 1973 when a mission to kill Ali Hassan Salameh - the mastermind behind the Black September group's massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics - in Lillehammer, resulted instead in the murder of Ahmed Bouchickhi (brother of the Gipsy Kings' Chico Bouchikhi). Here, Logan talks about Sylvia Raphael and his thought-provoking film. 

 Israel's Permanent Representative to the UN, Danny Danon, said last year that the Munich massacre was the foundation for the terrorism we see in Israel, and elsewhere, today. Do you regard it as that pivotal? 

 "I don't think that anything can be attributed to Munich other than the fact that it was a disgraceful and wicked attempt to skew world politics in the perpetrators' favour. The response, I think, was commensurate. What took place afterwards was kind of if you give out, you've got to expect to receive retribution. And that's exactly what took place." 

Was what happened in Lillehammer revealing? 

"What Munich threw up was the fact that Mossad were not the superior force that the world had come to accept them as. I'm not Jewish but I remember living in that time and thinking Mossad were virtually at a level of Marvel comics. And then, unfortunately, Lillehammer occurred, and they were deemed to be vulnerable, and obviously were deeply humiliated by that incident. And so the terror went on." 

You are a supporter of Israel but you haven't allowed that to unbalance your film. Was balance important? 

"Yes, I think there was a real need for it. It's not a Zionist tract, although I would call myself a Zionist. And there's no real contradiction in that, because I think Zionists can be equally balanced in their view, in their outlook on life and emotions, and so on, and ultimately be deeply humane. This whole notion that if you are a Zionist you are somehow vociferously opposed to anything but a particular ideal is, in my view, ridiculous. It comes down to a very sort of moot point, as I say in the film: do you want to live in a world with Israel or without it? Heaven knows what this world would be like without Israel." 

I was surprised when you raised the question in the film. 

"Well, it could seriously not exist. And as I say, the one thing I got from making this film was that even those people that you thought would really have or feel an animus towards Sylvia, didn't. They actually respected her. They understood her. And in some cases, bizarrely, had an affection for her. Even Chico Bouchikhi said: 'If I was going to be shot by somebody, I'd be shot by somebody as good looking as that.' And Chico Bouchikhi, to give him his due, is enormously supportive of a peaceful Middle East with Israel firmly established. He performs there in spite of the creative embargo that has been tacitly placed on Israel. He sees it for what it is." 

Throughout the film people say Sylvia wasn't Jewish. However, her father was, and her brother David, known as Bunty, observes that they'd have been killed by the Nazis. 

"Absolutely. And I think that what was very affecting in the film was it suddenly dawned on Bunty that that's what she was really committed to preventing happening again. I'm sure there were all kinds of different appendages to that particular motive, but I think that was her principle motive: to ensure that what occurred in Europe would never, ever happen again." 

The film is about Sylvia but it also becomes a film about the Israeli psyche, and the geographical and demographic predicament of Israel; it's about forgiveness and revenge, the unhealed wound of the Holocaust, etc. Did you plan to cover those themes or did they emerge as you went along? 

"Obviously I was absolutely taken in by the idea that here was a woman who became Mossad's top combatant, spy and assassin, whatever you want to call her, and that she was technically and genetically, theoretically, a non Jew. That was fascinating. But I really did not expect it to have the layers that you've aptly described, solely because as a filmmaker I tend to approach things with an organic impetus." 

 When you look at Israel in the film, you bring in Masada and the iconic story of Jewish resistance. It feels like it's a meaningful story for you. 

 "Masada was very important to me. The ultimate resistance to a greater force prevailing on you is to ultimately jointly agree that you'd rather be dead than alive. And in many respects there is a kind of resonance because, as that famous Spanish revolutionary [Emiliano Zapata] said, 'It's better to die standing than live on your knees.' I think that's why Masada was so poignant to me: it counterbalances the idea that somehow Jews went to their fate ignorant, supine and malleable [in the Holocaust]. There was constant resistance to it all, but equally there was this stupid trust that something as awful as this could never take place in a culture such as this." 

Sylvia's job was not to be known. People knew her as photographer Patricia Roxborough. How much of a challenge does that present for someone who wants to understand the real woman? She still remains something of a mystery in the film. 

"And will always. Obviously, budgetry-wise and time-wise there was a limit to how much I could go on scratching below the surface. We were very fortunate to have her widower take part, and extremely fortunate to have her brother, who is essentially her memories keeper, very much involved in the film, so that we could cross-check things. But you see it when we go to Mossad's centre, she is still, and will always remain, a secret. Israelis have a very high opinion of her but it's an opinion, in my view, that's based on unnecessary propaganda, that her story is told in a way that is intended to inspire, whereas in actual fact the truth is more inspirational." 

Addressing the propaganda point, was there a certain amount of debunking involved in your approach? 

"There is a book by Moti Kfir [Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy] and I think, being a senior Mossad operative, he felt duty-bound to be circumspect in telling her story, and then felt, or had been mislead into thinking, that certain things happened that simply didn't. My film sets certain points straight on that. In terms of propaganda, I suppose it's too loaded a word to use, but it was such a pro Sylvia book that, in a sense, there's kind of no shading at all." 

So what do we know for sure about Sylvia? 

"There are things that we will never know that Sylvia got up to. But it is true that she was responsible for, near enough, eliminating the entire European Palestinian wing that were behind not just Munich but many other outrages that took place. Mossad feel a huge debt of gratitude, and I think that's why they cooperated in the way they did. But I was made aware that there would be certain stuff held back because, even today, other agencies can extrapolate from things she did and, perhaps, detect what they're up to in contemporary times." 

Sylvia's father was an assimilated Jew who succeeded in an antisemitic environment. Could he have been an early example for her of how to disappear, survive and thrive in a potentially hostile environment? 

"Exactly that. How to cope. How to get on. How to get under that little gap that's presented. I think she actually just wanted to be an actress, and I think that also is key to how she was able to do what she did. But to suggest that it didn't take a toll on her is crazy, because it obviously did eat her up. No question that it triggered off what ultimately was diagnosed as [terminal] leukaemia." 

Sylvia's family lived in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Did she spend her entire childhood there? 

"All of her childhood and adolescence was spent in Graaff-Reinet. I should say most because she was then sent to boarding school after she witnessed, and was distressed by, some boys in GR pushing a little Jewish girl in a wheel barrow and chanting, 'We're going to take you to Hitler'. The Afrikaners were largely antisemitic and to some of their leaders' disgrace sympathised with the Nazis." 

As a spy, she must have been incredibly lonely at times. Because although she had relationships with people such as the British journalist Jon Swain, who suspected nothing and appears in the film, she could never be completely honest with people. 

"Well isn't that the case? Trust is so important to a woman in a relationship and she couldn't afford anybody her trust because she was lying. Jon is a wonderful person to speak to because there he was with a wonderful reputation as an investigative reporter, and living with a woman who was the ultimate story. He actually discovered her true identity when he was in Vietnam and her picture came over the wires with her in handcuffs, and he was like, 'Hey, that's my girlfriend. What's all this about?'" 

Do you know how Sylvia experienced the Black September terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics?  

"She was in Israel and like a lot of people saw it unfold on the news. She was obviously considered to be a senior operative, but a lot of these combatants are divided into units, and she fell under the auspices of Mike Harari, who in many ways was quite the opposite to Sylvia. He was very brash and very egotistical. He was put in charge of her unit, at arm's length, and she was obviously flown out and told what the mission was." 

At what point during the operation in Lillehammer did it become clear that something was wrong? 

"Well Sylvia was really the first one to realise that something was wrong and she kept cabling back, saying, 'This is not right. Our target speaks fluent French and I know Salameh doesn't speak fluent French.' She knew something wasn't right and by the time they got around to shooting him, knew they were hitting the wrong person, and that they had been played by Salameh." 

Did you talk to anyone, or try to talk to anyone, who would have been on the opposite side to Sylvia? 

"I spoke to Salameh's widow, [Lebanese former Miss Universe] Georgina Riz. We had a very perfunctory chat on the phone and she made it quite clear she didn't like her ex husband and would have nothing to do with the film." 

You try getting in contact with Sylvia's favourite "wet worker" [Mossad's name for its assassins], Jerry, in the film. Did you ever catch up with him? 

"Put it this way: he came for about 24 hours, to suss us out ... When I was dealing with Mossad they mentioned him, because he's still operating. I said I knew that he had come to our hotel in Tel Aviv and they at first found it hard to believe, but in the end kind of accepted that that had taken place." 

Is the assumption that he was involved in Lillehammer? 

"Yes. That is a clear assumption. They were called 'wet workers' because basically they got sprayed with blood and they very quickly were able to change clothes. They were the last in and first out in many operations. So they would have gone before poor old Ahmed Bouchikhi had hit the ground. Sylvia was ultimately Jerry's commander, so she had to stick around to try and sort out the mess." 

Ahmed's brother, Chico, talks about forgiveness as a way to heal yourself. However, it seems clear from the film that Israel cannot afford to do that, because if it became complacent it could be the end. 

"Well that's my point entirely. You're quite right. There's no way they can sit down at a negotiating table like, perhaps, they did in Northern Ireland, and do a bit of give and take, and so on and so forth. There's just no way they can do that. So you're dealing an entity that cannot afford to lose."  

The UK premiere of Sylvia: Tracing Blood, including a Q & A with Saxon Logan, will take place at JW3, on Sunday 7th May, in aid of the charity Habaid. For more information go to http://www.habaid.org/sylvia-tracing-blood