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Yolande Zauberman on Cannes Doc About Arab Trans Women From Gaza

Yolande Zauberman on Cannes Doc About Arab Trans Women From Gaza

It was on a backstreet in Tel Aviv while filming her last film, M — which would go on to win a César Award for best documentary — that the French documentarian Yolande Zauberman found the subject for her latest, La Belle de Gaza (The Beauty of Gaza).

Zauberman was filming three young Arab trans women, one who told her filmmaking partner in Arabic that she walked from Gaza to Tel Aviv. “I thought it was such a nearly impossible path,” recalls Zauberman. “First, to be a man, becoming a woman, coming from Gaza to Tel Aviv, and being a Muslim in Tel Aviv. I really wanted to find this woman and to see how she was seeing the world.” After losing contact with the woman, Zauberman began searching for her. That journey would become the impetus for — and title of — her latest doc, La Belle de Gaza.

The finished film, which is receiving a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival, ultimately becomes a searing portrait of Arab trans women in Tel Aviv, from sex workers to beauty pageant winners, that is reminiscent of fly-on-the-wall LGBTQ docs like Paris Is Burning and Pier Kids.

Shot over the course of a year beginning in 2022, the film’s subjects include women like Nathalie, who is nursed post-gender-affirming surgery by a childhood friend, and Nadine, who grew up in a Bedouin community and talks openly about the dangers she feels as a trans woman in sex work. The film chronicles the isolation that can befall these women, especially within their own families.

“[Family] is important in every part of the world but in the Middle East especially,” says Zauberman. “So when you become a trans woman, especially if you’re Arabic, it really [amounts to] a separation most of the time from your family.”

La Belle de Gaza — which fearlessly tackles LGBTQ+ rights, Muslim and Jewish relations, and the Arab citizenry of Israel — was finished before Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and the ensuing conflict in Gaza. “I thought we should keep the movie and not release it, so that’s what we did,” says Zauberman of holding back the release of the film, which doesn’t express any political opinions but is inherently politically charged due to its subject during a time of larger tragedy in the region.

At the urging of her filmmaking team, fellow directors and friends like Alice Diop (whose Saint Omer won a jury prize in Venice in 2022), Zauberman screened the film in Paris to gauge reactions. The positive response inspired her to release the film. It will be heading to theaters in France after Cannes via Pyramide International, which is also handling sales at the Marché. The film’s subjects will be in attendance on the Croisette.

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But the possibility of a release in Israel is still unclear. Says Zauberman: “I asked the people that I filmed to decide if they want the film to be shown in the country where they live because I don’t want to put them in a situation that they don’t want. So, they decide.”

That decision, says the director, will be made after Cannes.

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