Filmmaker Yun Jong Suh discusses how she came to make a film about the only gay bar in Jerusalem. Her film, City of Borders, airs on public television this month. Check listings in your area here.
As a Buddhist Korean American, I am frequently asked why I am interested in the Middle East and how I discovered Shushan, Jerusalem’s only gay bar. I’m not the most obvious candidate to tell this story. But I believe my outsider status proved to be instrumental in making City of Borders.
I’m drawn to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because I intimately relate to both sides of the war. Like the Israelis, I grew up in constant fear of my neighboring country, North Korea, attacking my small village in South Korea. I did not see North Koreans as humans but as demons determined to kill us if they had the chance. My childhood playtime often involved devising escape routes and places to hide in my home if North Koreans ever invaded.
Like the Palestinians, I understand the horrors and hardships of living under occupation through my parents who survived the Japanese colonization of Korea. Being on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, I also witnessed the impact of the Israeli occupation.
The concept for my documentary began in 2002 while I was producing a series of radio reports in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip on the clashes during the Second Intifada. During the height of the clashes in 2002, I heard about a bar that hosted gay nights where Israelis and Palestinians took great risks to meet and connect as human beings amid all the distrust, death, and violence. This gathering was beyond my imagination and renewed my faith in our shared humanity and desire to connect.
The story stayed with me as news coverage increasingly focused on fundamentalists on both sides of the conflict, thereby providing no hope for a peaceful resolution and coexistence in the future. In 2006, I contacted the bar owner, Sa’ar Netanel, who is considered the Harvey Milk of Jerusalem in that he is the first openly gay elected politician in the Holy City. He was easy to find since his phone numbers were printed in posters all over the religious district in Jerusalem, claiming that Sa’ar was responsible for AIDS, earthquakes, and other natural disasters hitting Israel so everyone should call him. So I called him to understand his great powers to cause such chaos. He invited me to come to Jerusalem and see with my own eyes the people who gathered at his bar nightly: A gay Israeli soldier sitting next to a Palestinian man, who would be sitting next to an ultra-Orthodox woman, who may be dancing next to a straight couple.
Sa’ar’s vision for his bar where people from different worlds can find common ground and be accepted, mirrors my purpose for working in the media. Therefore, I chose this community, whom we rarely hear from in the region, as the topic of my first feature-length documentary despite daunting barriers of budget, bombs, language, and culture.
Whenever I would hit an obstacle in making City of Borders, I would think about Sa’ar receiving more than 300 death threats and draw on his courage. After three adventurous years of production, I’m very excited to share the vibrant, inspiring and courageous community at Shushan with the world.
— Yun Jong Suh
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