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Eytan Ipeker • Director of The Pageant

“Sometimes we want to be told who the bad guys are, but that’s not my film”


- Cineuropa talked to Eytan Ipeker, the director of The Pageant, about Miss Holocaust Survivor, a glitzy show with a troubled past

Eytan Ipeker  • Director of The Pageant

Also behind another Visions du Réel 2020 entry, Mimaroğlu: The Robinson of Manhattan Island, which he edited, in The Pageant [+see also:
film review
interview: Eytan Ipeker
film profile
, Eytan Ipeker takes on Miss Holocaust Survivor – the Israeli beauty pageant for women who have survived the Holocaust. Created in 2012, it has already attracted its fair share of controversy. But, as he proves, there is more to beauty than meets the eye.

Cineuropa: After seeing your film, one still doesn’t know whether you like the idea of Miss Holocaust Survivor or not. Which is a good thing, actually.
Eytan Ipeker: My initial reaction was very critical – and still is. I have a problem with this idea of making a spectacle out of something so tragic. But it wouldn’t have interested me if there weren’t more to the story. In the photos I saw when I was doing my research, some of these women looked very happy, ecstatic even. And here I was, having this ethical problem. If it’s something that brings them joy, is it even my place to criticise? We have to think about our position more thoroughly, without looking down on the participants. I wanted to create a space for the audience to wonder about how memories can be politicised. I am Jewish, and I used to live in Israel until I was six; I have people in my family who died during the Holocaust. When my daughter grows up, there won’t be any survivors left. So what are we transmitting to this next generation? All of these questions drove me to make this film, but I didn’t want to rush into any judgemental conclusions.

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You show many moments that are quite problematic, like the organisers trying to figure out which contestant had the most tragic story. How do you even “judge” such a harrowing experience?
What was fascinating is that they were very open about it. It wasn’t like we were capturing these scenes with a hidden camera. Let’s take the opening one in the fabric store, where they are trying to strike a bargain. As soon as they mention it’s for the Holocaust survivors, the tone of the conversation changes. It made me uncomfortable, but they don’t see it this way. They say: “It’s not a beauty contest; it’s about their inner world.” Some survivors have a problem with this pageant, but I was especially interested in the ones who wanted to participate, even though it goes against my own values.

There are so many feel-good films about, say, “elderly people doing exciting things”, starting a cheerleading squad or going on an adventure. At first, it looks like yours might be up there with them as well.
I wasn’t trying to tell another underdog story, where you are rooting for someone to win, nor to portray the elderly in this slightly naïve manner. I hope it takes the viewers by surprise, but I am not trying to create controversy around this event. I just want people to think about all these issues, about having a beauty pageant that’s all about the Holocaust and which turns someone’s suffering into a competition. Sometimes we want to be told who the bad guys are, but that’s not my film.

Whenever you try to talk to these women, it seems that coming back to the past is still very, very hard. Why do you think that is?
It’s something that marks you. They live with it, they think about it. Even the survivors themselves tend to compare their experiences. And then, on top of all that, there is the collective trauma. So it’s understandable that retelling these stories feels so intense.

But the film is actually about the present. When we were there, it really felt like a microcosm of all the problems I have with Israel. I have beautiful memories of my childhood there, but I don’t agree with its politics or ideology. When the head of the retirement home is praising the evangelists for pushing a right-wing political agenda, in the middle of a Holocaust-themed beauty pageant… It was a surreal experience, and deeply disturbing.

And yet people are still volunteering themselves for it – they seem glad that someone is doing their make-up and their hair. Is there a positive aspect to this event in the sense that it finally allows them to be seen?
The politicisation of their trauma and the way their memories are turned into a show is extremely problematic. There’s also the flip side of the coin: one of our characters, Sophie, is participating not to tell her story, but to honour her sister, who recently passed away. But then she comes to the interview wearing all this jewellery, so maybe the glamour of it all is also attractive to her? Or maybe, deep down, she wants to talk, contrary to what she says in the film earlier? We don’t know. If we were to forget this whole Holocaust aspect for a moment, these are older people, living in a retirement home where time stands still. And then you tell them they will be up on stage, the crowd will be clapping and maybe they will get to wear the crown. I can see how this could be appealing.

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