People learn through stories, often one another’s. There is nothing like a human story to bring home the realities of broad, abstract concepts from motherhood to immigration to even the death penalty. As a journalist I’ve seen stories transcend borders to help people connect, to make faraway situations seem instantly relatable.
Once in a while you find yourself privy to a story so personal and intimate that you can’t help but be struck by the privilege of being able to share in those moments. This was the case – for me, anyway – with The Good Son, a documentary by Shirly Berkovitz which screened as part of this year’s Israeli Film Festival.
The film follows 22-year-old Israeli Or Bar, first introduced as a curly-haired, awkward and frustrated young man with a very big secret. The footage shot by Or reveals some truly questionable activities: stealing money and faking an acceptance letter to Oxford. But Or doesn’t go to Oxford, and gets on a plane to Bangkok instead for sex reassignment surgery.
LGBT rights in Israel have been described as the most advanced in the Middle East. Same-sex marriages are not performed in the country, but Israel recognises same-sex marriages registered overseas, making it the first country in Asia to do so. In Tel Aviv, the country’s second most populous city, it’s not unusual to see same-sex couples kissing, nor to attend gay parties at night.
Yet discrimination against transgender individuals continue to exist. In May this year Israeli news website Haaretz reported on a study that said at least half of the transgender community has been physically attacked, with 70 per cent having experienced verbal abuse.
Or knew that she had to document her journey somehow, and shot plenty of footage before deciding to approach a filmmaker to not only help record this transition, but also to be a friend in Thailand. That’s when documentarian Shirly Berkovitz came into the picture; Or simply knocked on her door and delivered the tapes.
After watching Or’s footage, Berkovitz sold her car to buy her flight to Bangkok.
“I never saw a thing like this because no one could have filmed it except him,” Berkovitz told The Online Citizen. “Even if we’re talking about the most important directors around the world, this had such intimacy and only Or could make it and she did it very well.”
What unfolds from their experience together is a story of a transition seen up close. The audience follows Or as she wakes up from major surgery, explores her new face and gets her first makeover. There is no mistaking the emotional transformation of a person who finally gets to be who she really is.
“I felt like I won the lottery when I watched [Or’s tapes], because I had the ability to film the whole process now, in the moment,” said Berkovitz of her opportunity to make a film that captures the entire transition period.
The most impactful moments of the film come upon Or’s return to Israel, and her big reveal to each member of her family. For Berkovitz, it was the relationship between Or and her family that formed the heart of the entire narrative.
“For me it was a love story, less a story connected to LGBT and transgender people,” she said. “It was about secrets that we keep from our family, why we are afraid to share with our family. I also have secrets from my mother and she also keeps secrets from her mother.”
Or’s story is one of guilt and fear, but also of great bravery and liberation. As Berkovitz says, everyone has secrets. How many of us will ever be brave enough to spill the beans, or to take steps – as Or did – to be true to ourselves no matter what?
The Good Son will be screening at VivoCity on Sunday evening. You can get your tickets here.