Underneath the Surface: An interview with ‘Spiral’ director Laura Fairrie

Spiral, directed by Laura Fairrie, is a powerful documentary, focusing on the underlying tensions that have led to the recent rise in anti-Semitism across Europe. Most of the film takes place in France, which has seen a surge in Jewish emigration over the past few years as a result of heightened violence against Jews and Jewish businesses. However, Fairrie also touches upon the Israel / Palestinian conflict and the role that Israel plays in both Jewish identity & anti-Semitism abroad.

While the film is admittedly difficult to watch at times, Fairrie’s masterful directing helps to keep the audience engaged, even when the content is difficult to stomach. It is the fact that Fairrie refused to shy away from the tension, from the difficult topics, from the hard truths that make Spiral such a necessary and impactful film. At this time when people seem to be growing farther apart, pulling away from those that have been characterized as “other,” Spiral serves as a needed voice, reminding us that if society fails to discuss these issues, to provide a forum for people to share unpopular opinions, the result is nothing but an endless cycle of violence.

Overal, Spiral is a thought-provoking and powerful film that provides a jumping off point for deeper discussion. While Fairrie’s focus within the film is anti-Semitism, the lessons throughout the film can easily be extrapolated to all types of prejudice, hatred, and othering. Though it can be hard to have a mirror held up to your beliefs and difficult to face your own prejudices, Fairrie is able to tell the stories of the witnesses in Spiral in such a way that you can’t help but reflect upon your own way of thinking.

FF2 Media had the privilege of asking Fairrie a few questions about her experience with Spiral from how she got involved with the project to her intentions with making the film to the challenges she faced during the filmmaking process.

Q: How did you come to make this film and what about your personal background informed your filmmaking process?

Fairrie: During the summer of 2014 there was a dramatic spike in reported anti-Semitic incidents in countries in Western Europe, especially France and the UK. At the time the rise in verbal and physical abuse of Jewish people was linked to the conflict in Gaza. Many Jewish people reported feeling uneasy, unsafe and fearful for their future.

John Battsek, the Producer of Spiral (as well as Oscar-winning One Day in September and Searching for Sugarman) approached me to have a look at what was happening and to see if we could find a way to make a feature documentary that would capture the human side of the story as well as examine the issues at the heart of it.

I had made a film a number of years earlier about the far right in the UK, where I had been embedded for a year within the BNP, so I had an understanding of the dangers of how racism and xenophobia can take hold. Whilst the story for Spiral was a different one the approach was similar in that it was an attempt to look into the darkness and grapple with some of the uncomfortable issues from different perspectives.

My personal interest in the subject came firstly from the fact that I instinctively felt this was an urgent and important story to follow – we didn’t know what was going to happen next but we knew that the atmosphere was somehow changing and that antisemitism and intolerance more generally was on the rise.

Secondly, I have Jewish heritage and my husband is Jewish, his Grandmother narrowly escaped being sent to Auschwitz and she lost family members in Hungary. I understand that the fear of history repeating itself runs deep and I was interested in touching upon this in the film.

Q: Did you always intend to have witnesses in Israel, or did you find it was necessary to include during the course of the filmmaking process? Do you feel like there is any possible separation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism?

I’ll attempt to answer this question more generally –

I don’t see how you can make a film about contemporary antisemitism without filming in Israel. But I recognize it is difficult territory to tread on and I was always aware during the making of this film that I had a responsibility to get it right.

I can’t pretend it was easy because it wasn’t. I was warned by a French journalist at the start of making this film that I was entering a vipers nest. At the time I didn’t fully understand what she meant but I soon came to find out. Making this film was hugely challenging for a number of reasons.

There are many different strands and extremes of anti-Semitism. There is an undercurrent of hidden anti-Semitism existing in society that reveals itself in subtle and strange ways. There’s anti-Semitism from the far right and the far left – opposing forces joined together in their common hatred of Jews. There is anti-Semitism masked as fighting for the Palestinian cause but which soon spills over into intolerable statements about “Hitler being right” and suchlike.

There are Jewish people who openly consider themselves to be anti-Zionist and who despise the politics and policies of Israel. And there are others who believe that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. There are many who believe in Israel’s inalienable right to exist, but who find the expansion of settlements and treatment of Palestinians intolerable.

In the making of this film, I wanted to try to shine a light on the complex web of factors that makes contemporary anti-Semitism what it is. And I couldn’t dodge the politically sensitive subject of whether Israel’s actions, rightly or wrongly, may be responsible in some part for an upsurge in antisemitism in Europe.

I see the film as a kind of filmic poem – it isn’t a current affairs documentary but it is an attempt to allow us to reflect on what’s happening at a particularly polarised time in history in the hope of provoking meaningful debate and possibly uncovering some truth.

Q: As a female filmmaker, what challenges did you face during the making of this film? Did you ever find that being a woman made it easier to get a witness to talk? Or more difficult?

I ultimately believe that it’s your professionalism, your understanding of the issues at hand, your ability to empathize and communicate with people that counts when you’re making documentaries. These aren’t qualities that are specific to men or women, they are just what is needed in order to make films that get under the skin of your story and capture truth.

Did the fact that I am a woman mean some people are more ready to open up to me or trust me? There are of course instances when filming for

example with families and children that it could be easier for people to let a woman into the private space of a home. And there is the possibility that in certain situations men perceive a woman to be less of a threat. But having said that when I made a film in the UK about the far right I was often accused of being an undercover police officer because the men I was filming just could not understand what a woman was doing on her own with a camera making a film about them. So their ingrained sexism meant I spent half the time persuading them I wasn’t a police spy and was, in fact, a filmmaker with a genuine interest in capturing their story!

Q: As an American Jew watching this film, I felt a tenseness throughout because I could easily see this film being used to perpetuate anti-Semitism and problems facing the Jews. Was that ever a concern while making the film?

There were concerns during the making of this film – as I said previously I felt a huge responsibility to get it right and I knew I was treading on incredibly sensitive and politically tricky territory.

But I didn’t feel I could ignore some of the more complex and difficult aspects of this story – my intention in the making of this film is that useful debate is provoked through showing different, opposing and sometimes uncomfortable perspectives.

I think that the film is well balanced – but understandably different people have different emotional responses to certain things that are shown in the film and this is what sticks out in their mind. There are numerous examples in this film of appalling violence against Jews, some is graphic (bloody bodies lying in the hyper cacher for example), some is emotional (children crying about fearing for their lives after their apartment was set on fire), some is disturbing (the endless stream of horrible anti-Semitism broadcast on the internet) – the list of examples goes on.

The shocking footage of Palestinians being bombed and gassed in Gaza is uncomfortable to watch but that is because it is an appalling scene of horror. This material is included to show the fact of this happening as well as to show it’s impact – when people see this on the news they react to it. The film goes on to illustrate the connection between events like this, the broadcast of the footage and protests in countries in Europe that then can spill over into anti-Semitic acts. This is a chain of events that happens – I’m not condoning it in the film, I’m just showing it.

Q: Something I found very striking in the film is that often times witnesses from “opposite sides” would express the same sentiment just from the other perspective. Do you think the witnesses watching the film back will be able to recognize these similarities?

This aspect of the film is essential to its inner message. It was something that I initially found to be surprising and was then moved by. Here you have people who believe themselves to be enemies, unable to live together, yet expressing the same hopes and struggles. It shows how even in the most complex of situations and in the darkness of fear and hate there is still a common human bond – and this is what we need to focus on.

I would hope that the subjects in the film would find watching themselves mirroring the statements of their perceived enemies a powerful and hopeful thing.


Read FF2 Media’s review of Spiral HERE.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (6/21/18)

Top Photo: Still from Spiral

Middle Photo: Laura Fairrie

Bottom Photo: Poster for Spiral, a documentary examining the circumstances that have led to increased anti-Semitism across Europe.

Photo Credits: Cohen Media Group

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