NEW YORK — The Israeli film “Six Acts,” cleverly marketed as “S#x Acts” in the United States, is deceptively simple. It seems, at first, to be plotless – mere cinema verite of the life of bored rich teenagers amped up on hormones with access to ADD-inspiring gadgets. While Twitter doesn’t factor into the story, that hashtag in the title still works.
A new girl (Sivan Levy) changes high schools in Herzliya, puts up a new online profile and, in six encounters of increasing unease and (depending how you look at it) violation, the film builds to an unsettling climax.
It’s the type of movie that demands conversation. What was young Gili thinking? Is she a provocative 21st-century woman that has abandoned codes of ladylike behavior, or is this someone so filled with self-doubt that she allows herself to be taken advantage of? Are the boys she interacts with savages, or are they simply so clueless they misread cries for help as come-ons? Or does the truth lie somewhere in-between?
Usually when you have a conversation with a filmmaker he’s cagey about giving you definitive answers pertaining to ambiguous aspects of his work. Not so with “S#x Acts”’ director Jonathan Gurfinkel.
What I thought was going to be a straightforward question-and-answer interview immediately turned into discussion. Furthermore, Gurfinkel charged directly to plot points that may be considered “spoilers.” (If you are the type of person who thinks knowing a lot about a movie spoils it, maybe bookmark this page for later.)
I slipped into the role of Devil’s Advocate in this conversation. Please don’t think, gentle reader, my use of the first person means that these are necessarily my positions. I have a wife, mother and sister, is what I’m trying to say.
Congrats on the film. It’s one of those movies that, when it ends, you have to turn to someone and say “what the hell did I just see?”
Was it rape or was it not?
Well, you sorta jumped right into it, so let’s get to the heart of it. Obviously, you’re not going to give me the answer if I ask . . .
I can give you the answer, for me it is easy.
Oh. Okay. Well, was that scene a rape?
I think it was. Even though no one is forcing her by physical means – and that we associate the word “rape” with psychopaths in an alley. I don’t mean to sound like a total feminist, though I am one, we must remember that 90% of rape is perpetrated by someone the victims have known before.
But this is the key question. Does the character Shabat know he is raping her? Or does he think everything is okay?
Uhh….you tell me.
I do think it was a violation, it’s clear she isn’t into it. However, if she turned around and looked him in the eye and said “hey, stop,” I think it would have stopped. He was not an evil man, just something of an idiot kid. I think he would have said “oh, this is serious, I need to stop now,” if she turned to face him. But she never did that.
You are saying she never says “no” during that scene?
She says “no,” but says it quietly and leaves it open to interpretation.
Okay, so it is a matter of volume? Because she doesn’t scream it? Because she does say “no.”
The other question is, does Shabat really think that she came over because she wanted sex? There is, right now, a popular Israeli singer accused of having sex with a 15-year old girl. Of course he says that he didn’t know she was 15 and that she agreed to it – that it was consensual. But no one is talking about her will.
Maybe it is true that you can push someone to the point where they agree to do something, but I think if someone agrees to something they don’t want it is still an abuse. There are different ways to force someone, without using physical violence. It is a social abuse, an abuse of class, a psychological abuse.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that the scene is meant to portray a violation. Not to blame her in any way – but I’m curious about the intentions of the character that becomes the rapist. Is he inherently bad enough to continue what he’s doing if he were fully aware?
I think you are right, he would have stopped. He is a coward. Not a maniac. But when we showed the film to teenagers, unlike you, they say, “She never said ‘No.’” So we go back to the film and see that she said “no” something like 8 times.
Then they say, “She didn’t say ‘No’ loud enough.” Then you ask them again, “Did she come to that room looking for sex?” And they make excuses, “Well, why did she dress that way? Why did she come so late?” Full of excuses. Again, these are 16-year-old kids. But you ask again, “Did she want sex?” they say “No, of course not.”
She didn’t want sex, but she did want attention from the boys. The problem is that the boys only think of her in sexual terms. They don’t say “Oh, here’s someone we can speak to, a new friend maybe, an individual we can get to know.” She is only recognized as a sexual object. I think Gili doesn’t realize that the boys don’t see her as an equal.
I think it is more tragic than that. By the time we get to the second of the six acts she totally understands that the only card she can use is her sexuality.
Listen, you can’t judge teenage boys for being horny. I was thinking out of my underwear not my head when I was 16. But what is tragic is that she plays her sexuality card and that’s all.
Your film focuses a lot on new technology, even with the American title and the hashtag. Is technology radically changing the landscape?
I think it has always been this way. Look back to your high school, I’m sure you remember a girl everyone says “She’s easy.” But, of course, the statistics say sexual harassment or abuse is not one of a thousand – it is one in seven.
What about the argument that some people – some women, even – will say that a woman has her right to be promiscuous, has the right to owning her sexuality. The interpretation that maybe Gili is okay with what’s happening around her?
The angriest reaction to the film is from women. Angry at Gili. “You stupid girl, why didn’t you get up and leave.” Now, women do have a right to her sexuality, but does anyone really think she wants what happened to her?
I think this reaction is similar to Gili’s comments of self-protection, when she is talking to the other girls. When they say, “Oh, he has a girlfriend, he’s using her” and she proudly says, “I’m using him.” This is a psychological mechanism – to admit to yourself someone is forcing you to do something you do not want, the subconscious knows this. So, this is why she is so active. It’s a reaction. That’s why she sends a text saying “You want to have an orgy in the toilet of the club?” She’s pushing it further than the boys to prove to herself she isn’t being taken advantage of.
You’ve been very forthcoming in plainly stating your intentions with the film, so I’ll ask a bold question about the end. I suppose I’m rather pessimistic. The movie ends with a glance between Gili and the boy’s father driving her home. Does he then make a pass at her? Does she then reciprocate, to try and prove her self-worth?
Normally I do not like open endings. I find them frustrating, and I want to know what happens after the cut to black. But I don’t think this is really an open ending. It’s like this: I don’t know, really, what is going to happen at the end of the movie, but I know what’s not going to happen.
‘I don’t know, really, what is going to happen at the end of the movie, but I know what’s not going to happen’
I don’t know if the father drives her to a deserted parking lot and tries to rape her, and I don’t know if he drops her off at home then goes back to masturbate in the shower thinking about her. Or if he drops her off at home, then goes home to his wife to spoon her very romantically.
But for sure I know what isn’t going to happen: he doesn’t check out what is happening with the girl. He doesn’t offer her to talk to someone, especially not the police. He is really just checking to make sure this “nymphomaniac” isn’t going to press charges against his son. All he knows is that something wrong happened in the basement, but he doesn’t really bother to find out – he just wants to protect his children. In an understandable, fatherly manner, in a way. He wants to make sure his son is okay and then walks away.
This is a universal film. It could take place in New Jersey, it could place in wealthy neighborhoods outside Paris –
But it does take place in Herzliya and there is one shot of Herzl’s image looming, looking down as the kids are driving around. For those who recognize him, it has resonance. Do you think a shot like that, say, in an American version, of the American flag or something, would it mean the same thing?
I don’t know what the American flag represents to an American, but with Herzl… I think Israel wanted to consider itself a place of solidarity. The kibbutz mentality, we are all together. When I was a child I was told, “In America, in New York, if you die in the middle of the street no one will come and help you. But in Israel?!! For sure, everyone will carry you in their arms and take you to the hospital.” People used to say this to me when I was a child.
I don’t think this is true anymore. Israel is a capitalistic place like any other place. You can see this in the movie. As you say, it is a universal story. I think the solidarity is lost in Israel as well.
But there is another shot in the movie that I think is more ironic. When Gili is meeting the girls and they are talking before they go to the club. You remember they are in a square, then before they leave there is a wide shot. There you see a wall of names – these are names of soldiers who have died in Israel’s wars from that town.
This was not something I placed there. In Israel you go to a town square and you sit under the names of every soldier from that town who died. You drink your vodka with Red Bull there, that is the reality. Of course, these kids, they are going to the army in a year or two. These kids sit under the names, thinking they might be on the wall in just a year. Their clock is ticking.
Do you have a new project in the works?
I want to work again with Rona Segal, the screenwriter of this film. We had a terrible time working on this film, full of fighting. But it worked, eventually. So I think we’ll spend another four years fighting.
“S#x Acts” is currently playing in Israel and New York City, and is available on VOD in the US.