Maya Zinshtein thought she’d only be amongst the crazy fanbase of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team for a few days. A journalist for Haaretz with bachelor degrees in Cinema and French studies, and a masters’ in Security and Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University, she was dispatched to cover the arrival of Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev, two players acquired from Chechnya by Beitar’s flamboyant owner Arcadi Gaydamak, who needed something to amuse himself since he was never all that interested in what was happening on the field, despite the fact that Beitar looked nearly unbeatable midway through the 2012-13 season. In bringing the two Muslim players to the team whose roots are inextricably tied to Zionism, Gaydamak, the Moscow-born oligarch who purchased the team with designs on the mayorship of Jerusalem, seeing the deep political ties between Beitar and the city it represents, delivered a twist to Israel’s capital right out of a modern-day Russian novel, one that Zinshtein surely couldn’t help but chronicle.
The result is “Forever Pure,” a riveting and truly improbable look at Beitar’s 2012-13 season in which attendance fell from 29,000 to less than 2,000 as a far-right segment of the team’s fanbase known as La Familia imposed their will. While sports often rises above politics, Zinshtein lays bare the worst situation imaginable when the two are mixed, with “fans” of the team shouting racial and religious slurs at Sadayev, Kadiyev and any player who dares defend their new teammates, primarily goalie Ariel Harush, who reluctantly embraces the pair as the team captain knowing it’s for the best of the squad. Yet Zinshtein delves deeper into the complex business ties between Gaydamak and the Chechens and the political links between Beitar and Likud, the conservative party of current Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to reveal how Beitar became such a flashpoint in the ongoing turmoil that continues to plague Israeli society.
Following the North American premiere of “Forever Pure” in Toronto, Zinshtein spoke about hanging on for dear life to this runaway train of a documentary — her first, and how she struggled to gain every bit of access she could to make such a comprehensive portrait of Beitar, getting her bearings after coming into the film midseason, and the surprises that awaited her along the way.
How did you get started on this?
I was asked by Israeli television to make a story about the Chechens when they arrived, so I was the first person that they met when they landed in Israel. I was there for the first four days and I was shocked. It was just madness. I knew what Beitar is because everybody knows, but I’m an investigative journalist, not a sports journalist, so I was really surprised [as to] why is all this happening and how come people are reacting like that? They’re just a group of football players. After four days, this story [aired on television], but I understood the actual story had just begun because I knew that [the Chechen players] were going to stay at least until the end of the season. So I went to the chairman [Itzik] Korenfine and said, “Listen, your crazy [idea] – a film should be made about it.” And he said, “Great idea! Do you have anyone in mind?” I said, Yes, myself! [laughs] That’s how it started.
If Korenfine agrees to let you in to film, did you immediately have full access to the team or did you have to work at that?
No. I always say you’re not given access, you need to fight for your access, because I quickly understood that the fact that they’re letting me in doesn’t mean that I can film. The coach [Eli Cohen] was telling me, “No, no, you’re bothering me,” so it took time and it was really difficult because I knew I had a really short time [to establish myself]. I had 30 men running around me, and really, I didn’t understand who were my characters [to follow] because from the very beginning, I was really interested in not only the Chechens, but what’s happening within the team. So I needed to figure out what would be the best way to come into it. I understood I needed to engage the coach, and only then would I get the permission to film in the locker room and on the bus and go with them to the games. So I kept filming him all the time and telling him, “Listen, Eli, our film will be a good film if you let me film in the bus or…”
Since this is very much a male-dominated environment, was it challenging to enter as a woman?
It was good and bad. My previous film as a producer was about the Russian mafia, so I’m used [to being] in these male-oriented places. It was good because I was not threatening to them – they didn’t [really] understand who I am and what I was doing there, so people weren’t putting up borders because they didn’t think I was going to cause any problems. In other senses, it wasn’t so good because to be somebody they don’t consider to be a threat, they consider you sometimes as no one. But I actually really like to come into places as a filmmaker that are totally different because it’s easier to find your way in. You can actually observe and ask questions because you really don’t know, and when you are making a film, it’s important to have this curiosity to understand what’s going on.
How did you gravitate towards Ariel Harush, the goalie, as the main person from Beitar to follow?
It was quite obvious from the beginning he’s supposed to be one of the main characters because he actually was the only one who did something. He was asked to go to this [initial] press conference and to talk for the Chechens and that put him into the firing line. But nobody knew where this was going to take us. The Chairman Korenfine told me at the beginning, “You will see – in two weeks, [the Chechens] will score some goals, the fans will calm down and everything will be fine.” Of course, what happened is exactly the opposite. I actually thought I’m going to make a film with a [happy] end and maybe it was naive, but football is the biggest religion [in the world] and [I thought] football should win and football lost in this film.
Was there a moment where the film radically changed direction for you?
When Zaur [Sadayev] scored the goal [against Maccabi Netanya in a crucial league game], I said to myself, “Okay, now everything is changing.” That’s the moment we all waited for because if he scores goals and everything’s fine and he’s a good player, [I thought] why won’t [the fans] accept him? And when I saw the fans leaving [the game], I was shocked. When they didn’t come back [to the next game], that was even more shocking. I remember Israel [Freedman, the cinematographer] and I coming to Teddy [Stadium] and we almost were alone there. One of the organizers said, “For the youth games, there are more fans than are here.” As an Israeli citizen, that became really scary because extremism exists everywhere – on the right wing, the left wing – but I’m always saying we should look at the masses, the big part of society, and [see] where they’re going. When the big part of the fans of this club decided not to come, everybody was shocked [because] nobody expected La Familia to succeed in leading this [protest].
Was there any significance to the two Chechens that were brought over? This probably wasn’t like a Jackie Robinson situation where they were picked for their temperament, but I wondered.
No. The club needed a scorer, so this is why Zaur came and the kid [Dzhabrail Kadiyev] just [came along with]. They weren’t chosen as heroes that were supposed to make a change because that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to make a provocation.
There is one incredible shot of Dzhabrail Kadiyev on the bus alone, praying. How did you capture that?
All the credit goes to my cameraman [Sergei] Israel Freedman. It was before a game and I was walking around searching for something and then suddenly I lost [Sergei]. I started to walk around, saying, “What’s going on? Where is he?” Then I came onto the bus and suddenly I see Dzhabrail praying and Sergei’s standing next to him, filming. It was really funny because [for the film, we cut right before] I’m coming into the frame, saying “Oh shit” [realizing I was in the shot]
Since the season was already in progress when you began filming, did you have to quickly mobilize a team?
It wasn’t financed and I didn’t have the time to raise money because everything was happening, so I just decided to start doing it and a day after, I was filming. The [cinematographer] was a great friend and I told him, “Listen, there’s a great opportunity. I have no idea what will come out of it,” and he told me, “Okay, I’m going with you and if it never comes out as a film, you don’t need to pay me. I’m just doing it to help.” Because I was not paying him [at the time], I could not ask for him to cancel jobs for me, so I needed to take another [cameraperson as well] and it was really guerrilla style with no sound man, so we were just chasing them.
Being your first feature, is this what you thought it would be?
If I knew how difficult it was, I never would’ve started! [laughs] No, I’m totally in love in directing, but it was tough. People were telling me, because you’re filming the season, in less than a year, you’ll have the film. Then the whole process was three-and-a-half years.
At some point, I understood I wanted to make it a big film, and I said to myself I’m filming the season and then I’m making a trailer and that’s it – I cannot put all my life in danger, but I’m going to raise the money. It was a risk, but a risk that I said to myself, okay, I’ll go until that moment and then I will stop. If I won’t raise the money, maybe there’s not going to be a film. And there was almost a year [in between filming and editing], but I met Geoff Arbourne who produced the film with me and we started to think together about the strategy. I don’t think there are [such things as] small films, but [we had] to raise enough money to be able to buy the rights for the games, and the opportunity I had to go to London and edit with Justine Wright [who edits “Last King of Scotland” director Kevin MacDonald’s films], an amazing editor, took the film to a totally different level. It was a much harder journey, but I’m happy that we did it.
What’s it been like to be here with the film?
It’s a huge victory against all the odds. Really. Because I could never believe when I was filming three-and-a-half-years ago that it would go so far. Something that you’re starting and it’s so small and so many people are telling you, “Oh come on, what the hell are you doing?” But you know, people say about startups, if nobody tells you you’re crazy, you’re definitely doing something wrong. Everybody told me I’m crazy most of the time and I think it ended up very well.
“Forever Pure” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at the Chicago Film Festival at the AMC River East 21 on October 18th at 6:30 pm and 19th at 2 pm.