The Feedback: Ofra Bloch's 'Afterward'
Since IDA's DocuClub was relaunched in 2016 as a forum for sharing and soliciting feedback about works-in-progress, many DocuClub alums have since premiered their works on the festival circuit and beyond. In an effort to both monitor and celebrate the evolution of these films to premiere-ready status, we reach out to the filmmakers as they are either winding their way through the festival circuit, or gearing up for it.
In this edition of "The Feedback," we spotlight Ofra Bloch’s Afterward. Bloch is a filmmaker and psychoanalyst based in New York City. She grew up in Israel, where her deep interest in the short and long-term effects of trauma originated. She volunteered with Doctors of the World, where she interviewed victims of torture and wrote their affidavits. She began making short documentaries ten years ago; Afterward is her first feature film.
We caught up with Bloch via email while she was touring the film on the summer festival circuit. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Synopsis: Jerusalem-born trauma expert Ofra Bloch forces herself to confront her personal demons in a journey that takes her to Germany, Israel and Palestine. Set against the current wave of fascism and anti-Semitism sweeping the globe, Afterward delves into the secret wounds carried by victims as well as victimizers, through testimonies ranging from the horrifying to the hopeful. Seen as a victim in Germany and a perpetrator in Palestine, Bloch faces those she was raised to hate as she searches to understand the identity-making narratives of the Holocaust and the Nakba, violent and non-violent resistance, and the possibility of reconciliation. The film points towards a future – an "afterward" – that attempts to live with the truths of history in order to make sense of the present
Documentary: How did you manage the safety risks of physically walking the streets or sitting across from an ex-neo Nazi?
Ofra Bloch: Experiencing psychic and physical fear during the filming of Afterward provided me with a rare opportunity to examine my ambivalent emotions in response to ambiguous situations. When I was sitting across from an ex-Nazi and I asked him about his experience talking to me, an Israeli Jew, he replied that he was not thinking in those categories anymore. At that very moment I was flooded with feelings of annihilation. The very same person who could have hated me at one time for being Jewish was in some way erasing my identity in making that statement, which I am sure he thought was conciliatory. On the other hand, when I was walking the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, where a few people were stabbed the previous week, I was filled with fear. Though I deeply resented the massive presence of the armed soldiers everywhere, I was also aware of my feelings of gratitude that they were there to protect me.
D: Did you always intend to have yourself in the center of the documentary? Was it difficult to separate your personal stake as the subject and your professional position as the filmmaker?
OB: Afterward began as my wish to make a film about how Germans whose parents or grandparents were Nazis deal with feelings of guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust. I wanted to rid myself of my hatred for these Germans, who have done nothing wrong, but whose ancestors tried to kill my people. I wanted to stop the cycle of hate and othering before I passed it on to my own sons, to the next generation. But the most basic concept of psychoanalysis is that the sources of our motivations are unconscious and therefore are hidden from us. I was no exception. I was really unaware that I was making a film about myself and that to tell my story I actually needed to talk to the other "Others" whom I had been raised to hate and face my own guilt over what is being done in my name to another group of victims—the Palestinians. You can therefore say that Afterward was a very personal journey in which the boundaries between me as a subject and me as a director had vanished, and the two became one.
D: Was it difficult to confront different perspectives along the way that conflicted with your own beliefs? Did you feel you had responsibility to push back against what your subjects are saying and share your experience or beliefs? Or just let them share their side?
OB: It can be difficult at times to listen to "others" who view reality through different lenses, and it was no different when I encountered Germans and Palestinians. I had to listen to them through the fear of my own rage and aggression, through my sorrow and pain. Luckily my skills as a psychoanalyst came to the rescue. While I didn’t chase away my emotional reactions to what I heard or saw because I believed they were an important element of the non-verbal exchange, I was mainly focused on providing the film’s subjects with a safe and spacious environment to share their truth with me. I was not there to evaluate, compare, debate or judge their feelings. I hoped that by being listened to, they would feel acknowledged and recognized and a real dialogue might begin.
D: How did you find your subjects?
OB: Looking for subjects was a lengthy and difficult process that didn’t follow a direct and clear path. I spent long hours searching for appropriate subjects, but when I reached out to them, often I either got no response at all, or people would disappear, sometimes without explanation. I was trying to find Germans for whom the legacy of the Holocast was still present in their lives and Palestinians who were attempting to resist the occupation through non-violent means. I read everything I could get my hands on and talked to almost everybody who cared to. More often than not, I simply contacted potential subjects without any introduction. As an example, I remember contacting Horst Hoheisal, the German artist whose "counter-memorial" for the Jews of Kassel commemorates their absence and asks the viewer to confront the void left behind by rebuilding an old fountain that was originally built by a Jewish merchant and destroyed by the Nazis. Horst recreated the fountain in a negative form, inverted in the ground. He stated that when there were no neo-Nazis anymore, he could turn the fountain so it would stand in a positive form. I read about this project during my research and had a strong emotional reaction to Horst’s ability to understand that a memorial shouldn’t be used for redemption but rather to push people to question the past and consequently racism in the present. At a later point it became clear to me that I wanted to interview a photographer from Gaza. I wasn’t allowed to enter Gaza, but I felt it was extremely important to have in the film the voice and the sights of that place. One potential subject dropped out with no explanation. It was only later that I understood that for some Palestinians talking to me, an Israeli Jew, even one who has been living in the United States for 39 years, was an act of "normalization" of the occupation.
D: How did you find the archival footage for your film? How did you go about deciding how to use it?
OB: The archival materials I used for Afterward belong in three categories: German archival material was used to give context to the reality of the German experience during and after World War II; present-day archival material from Israel and Palestine was used to visually explain the Palestinian experience under the occupation; and a combination of German and Israeli archival footage gave a visual frame for my own memories and recollections. The sources were news archives in both Germany and Israel, personal photos of the subjects in the movie, and images of photojournalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My goal was to use the archival material to enhance and deepen the audience’s experience of what I was presenting.
D: Who is the target audience for Afterward?
OB: I strongly believe that Afterward can appeal to members of any society who are dealing with external and internal political conflicts or who are stuck in a rigid binary—something akin to what is occurring in the US right now—that adds to the divisive nature of bias and prejudice across generational, racial, gender, religion and class lines.
D: What is your hope for this documentary?
OB: My hope for this documentary stems from my basic personal and professional belief in the possibility of change. Afterward does not present solutions or a road map. It limits its scope and aims to expose audiences to another way of relating to others, of finding themselves in the experience of those whom they view as others. In addition, as the director of Afterward, I hope to point out that getting to know the German and Palestinian narratives does not diminish or belittle the magnitude of the Holocaust, but it has the potential to open up what has felt like a collapsed space for the possibility of empathy and compassion in all of us. But most importantly, I hope the film will demonstrate that evil can be unearthed in all of us under certain conditions, regardless of our religious or ethnic background. The movie points to our capacity to become a bystander who stops asking questions, sleeps well at night, and remains silent in the face of moral collapse.
D: How did you come to a middle ground of respect and ease to get your subjects to share such personal, traumatizing, shameful experiences—especially from those with whom you so fundamentally disagree? At one point, Thomas has to take a minute and says he cannot answer one question. Did situations like that happen often? How did you manage that?
OB: In order to provide interview subjects an environment that enables them to share their feelings and thoughts, it is the duty of the interviewer to arrive armed with honesty, patience and respect for the interviewee. I needed to be authentic in their presence. The interviews got pretty intense from time to time, and I have to admit that I was surprised often by how we all allowed our emotional responses to pour out. Like in the case with Thomas, it had been imperative to process with the subject such occasions and to make sure nobody was experiencing shame due to the exposure.
D: What kind of research did you conduct before your interviews?
OB: Initially I concentrated on historical research, simply to make sure that my recollections and the historical events we were referring to were accurate. I then focused our research on placing the subjects in their own historical context based on the year they were born and their place of birth. I had initial meetings online with all of the subjects in order to get a sense of their presence on the screen and assess the potential of emotional engagement. I avoided asking too many questions during those meetings about their experiences and feelings because I wanted to conduct authentic interviews that were unrehearsed and fresh, even surprising.
D: With regard to your screening at DocuClub, what were your expectations going into that screening? Was DocuClub your first public screening?
OB: As a first-time filmmaker, I had no idea what to expect from the screening of Afterward at DocuClub. The film’s producer, Jack Riccobono, recommended it after he experienced as a director the benefits of screening his film The Seventh Fire in DocuClub. It was Afterward’s first public screening and my anxiety was mounting. Would anybody like it? It was only later that I realized the enormous benefits of such a screening. It helps make the film better, points out blind spots, shares reactions, and suggests solutions. I felt that a door was opened before me, and I could reflect in a deeper way about Afterward and the direction I wanted to take it.
D: What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening? What audience observations did you find most surprising and unexpected? When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made?
OB: When I screened Afterward at DocuClub, I was eager to introduce the film to fresh eyes. The audience’s first observations shook my world, in a good way. First of all, they supported the long-held view by the film’s producer, Jack Riccobono, and the film’s editor, Mikey Palmer, that it was actually a film about me, and that I was the hinge that connected the German part to the Palestinian part as a Jew growing up in the Holocaust-drenched reality of 1950s-1960s Israel, in the shadow of wars and loss. Originally I had planned to include a scene with Johana, a German subject, to end the film, but the majority of the audience expressed a strong opinion that the film should both starts with me and should end with me. I initially felt apprehensive about this, but I could see how it was essential for the film for me to go that distance. The other huge benefit I received consisted of questions the audience asked about the structure of the film. Initially the film consisted of distinct German and Palestinian parts. But the audience’s questions caused me to re-examine my thoughts about how the film should be structured. When we went back to the edit room, we weaved together different parts of the film, and ultimately created a better film, all because of the opportunity to screen at DocuClub.
D: What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for your festival premiere?
OB: Once all the technical elements were in place, I needed to ask myself a more theoretical question: Does Afterward succeed to do what I wanted it to do? To show through my own personal journey how the past hovers above the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and feeds the vicious cycle of "othering," leading those who were "othered" to continue the tradition of “othering’” I wanted the film to demonstrate how the act of listening to the other has the potential to open up what has felt like a collapsed space for the possibility of empathy and compassion in me. I started the project living with an obsession, which was replaced at the end of the film with another. I was finally able to think of the Holocaust in the past tense, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues in the present. Afterward tracks my journey to that point.
D: What were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?
OB: The main takeaway for me was that courage is required to make a film when you are actually a psychoanalyst and not a filmmaker. Courage is required to make a film about a provocative topic. And courage is required to open one’s self to feedback from others and to remove one’s ego from casting a shadow on the process, so the film can be allowed to take its own shape and turn itself into a separate and independent entity.
Since its premiere at DOC NYC in November 2018, Afterward has toured in the festival circuit, winning the Best Social Impact award at the Greenwich International Film Festival.
Lauren Giella is an editorial intern at the IDA. She is a senior journalism major at The University of Southern California.