Film as witness to history:
the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza

Interview with Yoav Shamir about Five Days (2005)
conducted with Inez Hedges on June 28, 2023

It’s August, 2005. The prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, has decided that the Jewish settlements in Gaza—8,000+ Jews living among over almost a million and a half Palestinians—are no longer viable. He orders a “disengagement.” That is, Jewish settlers are ordered to leave Gaza. In this process, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) and police are confronted with a unique challenge—the forcible removal of their own citizens, many of whom are defiant and prepared to resist. No-one is to be harmed. Traveling with the Israeli General in charge of operations and with a crew of nine other filmmakers, Yoav Shamir is tasked with making a film of the process, an assignment he undertakes with his typical philosophical humor and aplomb. The result is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking that speaks out of the maelstrom of crisis with profound lessons about conflict resolution.

The making of “5 Days” involved coordination with crews, the IDF, the Israeli police, and the outside protestors led by a guy named “Rafi.” How was this arranged? Did you also need to get permission from the settlers to film them?

Shamir: It was quite a long research process. It started off with our getting access to the General, Dan Harel. And once I knew I had access to him, we started gathering access for the other places. For the settlers, we just spent a lot of time there, looking for the family we wanted to choose for filming, looking for who else might be relevant, and tenting with the army, so it was just scouting for the right people.

You seem to be filming everywhere at once. The quality of the images is exceptional. How many film crews did you have? How was financing arranged?

Shamir: We had nine teams. All of them were working in the same style that I was working, which means people who can basically do everything. I was looking for people who were camera people, but who also have the qualities of directors and be technically savvy enough to know how to do basically everything, to be able to be very independent. We looked for people who would feel comfortable being embedded in specific types of situations. For example, for the settlers, I found someone who shared similar values so he would know how to respect the rules of the community; for the army, we looked for people who had been in the army and knew the system a little bit; we tried to find the right fit for every position.

Five Days:  IDF General Harel outlines the rules for the removal of settlers from Gaza. Five Days: protests by religious youth.

At the same time we realized it was going to be chaotic; we knew that once it started, we would have no control. I was the one filming the General Dan Harel, so that was my position there. Even the communication networks were not working some of the time because there were so many people in the area; and it was hard to move from one place to the other. We had a production team that went between the teams to digitize the tapes when they could but sometimes it was restricted, you could not move. We just had to trust our luck. I had no idea what the teams were filming at the time they were filming—with some of them I managed to talk, with others I couldn’t—they were basically functioning as independent filmmakers, each one doing their own thing.

Was each team about 3 or 4 people? 

Shamir: No, one person who could do everything on his own.

Did you have financing in advance? 

Shamir: Yeah, the first money came from one of the Israeli commercial channels, and then later on we got money from other sources.

At one point you explain the Israeli policy of letting the settlers rage so that they could make their point before leaving. As the film’s narrator, you state that at times you felt you were watching play with predetermined 1st, 2nd, and 3rd acts. At one point, someone even says to Shapira, the leader of the protests in Gush Katif, “they filmed you, the movie’s over now.” Telling him, now he can relax. Do you think that the process of filming them was a help in creating this “theater of protest?”

Shamir: That’s a complicated question. There were small agreements so that the situation would turn out 95% ok. I would go to a meeting with the General and one of the rabbis and head of the community, for example, maybe a few days or the day before they were evicted, and they would say ok: you can do this, and this, and then—it was like synchronized protest, I guess.

This is the reason I used the “prisoner’s dilemma” theory at the start of the film because people need to consider the results of their actions. If it’s only one time you might feel you can screw the other person, but since it’s an ongoing relationship, if you screw them then they’re going to screw you; so I think it’s a matter of working together and making sure that everything is resolved in an ok way.

Five Days:  a settler being carried out by soldiers.

So they get to protest, they get to be carried out—it’s symbolic. It’s symbolic that you’re not walking out of your house—someone will carry you out of your house. You didn’t leave; you were deported. That’s meaningful. Who’s going to be the last one to leave? There was negotiation about that. The more respect you have in the community, the more senior you are, they will let you leave first; as for the troublemaker, he would be the last one to leave. Because people knew of these agreements behind the scenes it didn’t seem like things could go terribly wrong. It’s true even now—Israel has agreements with Hamas about certain things. People from the media say “Oh wow, look what’s going on.” But ok, people need to ventilate, you know, to kind of decompress. One of the reasons for demonstrations is to let people say what they say, protest,; otherwise you don’t know what will happen, otherwise it will be worse.

Yes, I see what you mean. But some of the things the women say to the soldiers are pretty awful, don’t you think? 

Shamir: Yeah, but there were rehearsals in the army, they knew it’s going to come. They practiced, they figured there were going to be nasty things, you know, and sometimes you want to get your point across, you know you want to say things, but you still have to live together, it’s like marriage where it can also get out of hand, right? One partner might say something nasty, the other person might say something nasty but as long as there are no borders being crossed, you can still continue to live together.

In “Five Days” you have a conversation with the commanding officer Dan Harel. You were in the same jeep with him. Can you describe some of your interactions with him?

Shamir: We had a good chemistry. He appreciated me, I appreciated him—I think overall he did a good job, he wasn’t the macho type, he was very cool. We came from a similar family background; we had mutual respect.

In the film you have a scene where one of the Generals has been invited into the home of the resistance leader Noam Shapira by his wife Ruhama. Shapira wants to throw them out, but then Aaron, one of the settlers, starts playing a song. Can you describe how the family related to your crew in that scene? 

Shamir: They were ok; it took us some time to get the right family to film; we knew we wanted only one family to focus on. They were good characters, likeable; they were extreme in a nice way. Some of the families were more bourgeois, living in nicer homes. Among the 8,000 people who lived there, there were the ideologists, and Noam Shapira would belong to the hard-core ideologists, and there were many people who just wanted to live cheaply by the sea. A lot of the settlers were this type of people. So we wanted someone who started from a more ideological background; the surrounding there was almost like a hippie type of community, on the beach…we thought they were going to be good characters, so we had to convince them to be in the film. I had a few meetings with them; and eventually, because it’s a small community, they said they also wanted their neighbors to be ok with that. We held a screening for them of Checkpoint (2003), another film I made, which was totally against their political leanings and all of that; but they said, “Ok, it’s not a film that we would have made, but we respect you as a filmmaker, we felt you are honest, you are not manipulating the audience”; so they decided to participate. As for the other guy that was there, I guess they were busy with their own things, so he was more a fly on the wall, he was doing his thing, they were doing their thing.

What about the guy “Rafi” who roused the Jewish population outside Gaza to come and block the soldiers? Did you talk to him? 

Shamir: Yeah, we talked a bunch of times, we found him and had to convince him to be filmed. Actually the guy that filmed him, Nadav Lapid, became a famous filmmaker and has won awards in Cannes and in Berlin; he became a very successful fiction director.

During the forcible removal of the settlers on the 4th day, you chose slow, sad music, like Kurosawa did in the battle scenes in Ran. I thought that was very effective. You do this also in the final overpowering of resistors at the synagogue at Kfar Darom. Tell me a little bit about the editing process, the music, and putting the film together. 

Shamir: As you can imagine we had a lot of footage, from the 9 crews plus the news archives. I worked with an editor who was super good, I think he’s one of Israel’s best editors, Arik Leibovich. Because there was so much footage, someone needed to go over it before we started editing, and mark it. Basically, Arik suggested his cousin, a very bright young man at the time; actually he had a PhD in Physics, but Arik trusted him. So he went over all the material and marked “good/no good/very good” for every clip. We trusted his judgement, so I’ve never seen the entire footage; we worked with the footage marked “very good.” Then I made a timeline of everything, all the different cameras. Sometimes when things happen in parallel time, you put them on the same timeline, and also add news reports and radio reports. The structure was relatively easy because we knew it was going to be chronological—one day, two day, three day, four day, five—that made our life easier in that sense, it was linear. For the music I worked with composer Ophir Leibovitch, he’s very good, he composed more films with me. He also plays in a rock band and does a lot of music for film and TV. He suggested things, and sometimes we talked about it to find the right tuning for each scene.

You also used that slow movement when the synagogue, Kfar Darom, is being attacked. At that point in the film, you comment that the attack on Kfar Darom was “the last act is to engrave in our collective memory images not easy to forget.” We see images of soldiers storming the roof of the synagogue and removing the last holdouts. Can you talk a little more about that image and what it means to you? 

Five Days: protestors on the roof of the Kfar Darom synagogue.

Shamir: The one with the spraying of the blue paint colors and all of that when the IDF is taking over the synagogue? I mean, it’s a powerful image. The thing is that now things are so crazy here that sometimes it feels like people forgot about it. It happened in 2005, so now it’s almost 20 years ago. I don’t know how engraved it is, stuff happened since. In this place there is always something happening.

Where is the unused footage now? who owns it? 

Shamir: We worked with a producer whose main asset was that he had access to the army. I guess he has it.

Once you finished the film, how did you show and distribute it, and what was the reaction of different audiences? 

Shamir: We edited it very fast, because the disengagement was in August, and we already screened a rough cut in Amsterdam in November, in a special screening. And then it premiered at Sundance, which was in January. It played on the Sundance channel and a bunch of European channels like Arte. It was probably the fastest film I ever made.

Did you go to any of the screenings and do a Q&A?

Shamir: A lot of the time the first question was “So what did the general say after you turned off the camera?” [Note: The film ends as Yoav asks the General whether his method could be applied to other conflicts; the General says he will speak off the record, and Yoav shuts off the camera]

 I think this film should be shown in every course on conflict resolution. I think it’s absolutely brilliant. You can rent and stream it on Vimeo, but you can’t get a DVD of it. The Harvard library won’t let me take it out of the building, I have to watch it under supervision. How could it be made more available on DVD for classes, or do you think it’s ok if it’s just on Vimeo? 

Shamir: Do people still use DVDs? I used to have DVDs that people bought from my website but these are mostly sold now. Mostly it’s German people who buy DVDs. The film kind of disappeared, it’s not one that people talk about, what can I do?

A year after you made “5 Days” Amos Gitai made a fictional version of the settlers’ removal in “Disengagement.” However, he was not able to film in Gaza itself. Did he consult with you on his film? Since he was not present during the actual events, do you think some of his scenes, like the bodily removal of settlers by soldiers, was copied from your film? 

Shamir: I haven’t seen this film. He never talked to me.

If you had a project of making a film in Gaza now, how would you go about getting permission? 

Shamir: Now it’s impossible for Israelis to enter Gaza. I have a press card so I can go to the West Bank, but Gaza it totally off-limits.

I found some interesting parallels between “Defamation,” (2009) with its critique of the way trips to Auschwitz are used to manipulate Jewish teenagers, and your recent film “The Prophet and the Space Aliens”(2020) in that they deconstruct belief systems. At the same time, “Prophet” has some similarities with your praise of the “Bonobos” in “10 %: What Makes a Hero” (the emphasis on non-violence), and you did seem genuinely pleased with the award from the Raëlians (Note: followers of a UFO religion founded in France in the 1970s by a prophet known as Raël). How do you choose your film projects? What is it about each project that captures your interest? 

Shamir: Well, everything starts differently. With the Raelians, you see how the film starts with the award they decided to give me, so it’s all true; for 5 Days the producer came to me; 10% -- What Makes a Hero? (2013) started actually with this researcher, Phillip Zimbardo [Stanford University psychologist who became known for the Stanford prison experiment], who approached me and told me about what they were doing and asked me if I wanted to document it.

Each film starts differently. If I find it intriguing and I think I can find the financing for it I’ll go for it. The new one that I’m working on now, the one in northern Canada, this started with me taking a wrong turn, ending up on someone’s farm, and finding out that they have a meteorite sitting in an old bus that’s been there for 60 years, and what’s the story there. So the guy from the farm told me it’s like divine intervention, this story was waiting for you to come here, it’s really in the middle of nowhere. I cannot even explain why I ended up there because I was not supposed to be there, it wasn’t even on my way.

I’m a curious guy, so when I find something interesting, and the people are interesting, and I have access—access is a key thing. Each film is a little bit different but I like these quirky types of things and I like stories that bring up bigger questions, about faith, about story-telling about whatever. With Five Days it’s a story that many people covered, I think there were more news reporters than settlers, so how do I find my unique angle. So I thought about the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” so this was going to be my angle, to help me find the right anchor. You have to know where you are going.

Have you been in touch with any of the protagonists since the film was made? Do you know what happened to the family of Noam Shapira? Have you had any more contact with General Dan Harel?

Shamir: Noam Shapira I talked with a month ago; if I need some access to settlements I would consult him. He is now a professor, he teaches courses; he was a teacher even back then, now he’s using the Hasidic point of view. He mixes Jewish philosophy and psychology together to help people solve problems in their life. He has a Center where he does that, he’s quite an interesting guy. I’m not in close contact with him, but when I call him he sees my name, he recognizes my number. At first I was in touch with the General but then it kind of faded away. A lot of filmmakers become good friends with their subjects, but I try to maintain a distance. There’s a reason I’m here, I’m not here to be your friend, I’m here to make a film. I don’t tend to stay in touch with people I film.

You’re the only person who doesn’t appear in Five Days. Your voice is there, but you are not seen. 

Shamir: Yeah, well why should I be there. It’s not about me, it’s about them.

Would you describe your ethical stance as an “amused tolerance for foolish humanity” along with a “determined resistance to official dogma”?

Shamir: I like that! Can I use that?