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Filmmaker Danae Elon returned to Tribeca this year with the story of a decision usually made in private: in Partly Private, filmed during her first pregnancy, she and her husband explore the debate over male circumcision. Theirs is a journey that is at once personal, global, frank, and enlightening.
Congratulations on winning the Best New York Documentary Award! You seemed so surprised in your acceptance.
I am so shocked. I so did not expect it—that was the crazy thing about it. I thought that if I had won, someone would have told me ahead of time. So I was kind of torn about going: I hadn’t seen my family all week, but then I thought, “No, I have to go out and support my fellow filmmakers.” When [Rachael Ray] called my name, I nearly fainted! I am really happy for the crew and the film and for those who worked on it. It really makes a big difference for all of us. We are so happy.
It is especially meaningful because this doc is so personal. The Festival has been kind of difficult for me. Given the personal nature of my film, I have felt very vulnerable and exposed this week, which caught me by surprise. I love the Festival, but my mood had been descending, so this was incredible validation.
What makes Partly Private a Tribeca Must-See?
The audiences all week have really loved the film. No matter what the critics say, to be able to make people laugh for an hour-and-a-half is what counts. The minute you bring out an emotion in people—it’s kind of the reason why I make films. So wonderful to hear the laughter.
I watched the film at home and really loved it.
But when it plays with an audience, people crack up, and then it infects other people. I don’t know how many more times the film will play with an audience, so I feel very strongly about Tribeca. It’s my city, and it feels like my Festival. It’s an honor to screen at Tribeca.
What’s the craziest thing that happened while making the film?
I was arrested by the NYPD for talking to a man on a horse about circumcision. The craziest thing was that the camera was still on when they took it away from me. Thing is, the police happened to leave the camera on a stoop pointed directly at me, so they unknowingly filmed my arrest. (They turned it off afterwards.)
So the bad news was the NYPD had my camera impounded for about a month, so I couldn’t film the last month of my pregnancy. But the good news was that when I got the camera back, I had the footage of the arrest.
What are your hopes/fears/wishes regarding Tribeca?
I would love the film to be able to play in front of as many audiences as possible. It’s a different experience screening in your living room (either on TV or on DVD), so I hope to give the film a little longer life in the theater.
But ultimately, we want people to see the film, to know what we’ve worked so hard on, so I hope it eventually has a broadcast in the U.S. It’s an interesting topic in America, and lots of people are asking these same questions. Just this week, I have had people come up to me and say, “We had the same argument/debate/conversation!” I think it will hit a nerve with many families in this city, and across the country.
If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead)—who would you want it to be?
The person highest on my list right now is Heddy Honigmann. She’s a filmmaker that I am really inspired by. I appreciate filmmakers who make me happy to be a documentary filmmaker. When I’m moved by a film, I’m also happy for the filmmaker and what they’ve been able to do.
On a side note… in my film, there is an anti-circumcision demonstration in DC. Everyone comes off as off-the-wall in person, yet they are saying such sensible things. It’s a strange contrast. Anyway, I remember asking one of them what they thought about their fellow protesters, and he said, “I wouldn’t have dinner with them, but I will protest with them.” Funny.
What piece of art (film/book/music/what-have-you) do you recommend to your friends?
Well, I have a book that I always recommend to friends trying to get over a broken heart or a relationship that ended: they should read Tolstoy's War and Peace. I tell, them, “By the end of the book, you’ll be over it. You will go through a whole saga, and a whole other life, and you’ll be over it.” I did that once, and it worked for me. It’s really one of the best novels ever written.
Oh, and I would recommend the piece of art [Tom Slaughter's A Map of NYC (with directions to the Tribeca Film Festival), 2009] I won with the prize last night! I looked at the art on the website a few weeks ago, and this piece was definitely my favorite. It’s beautiful!
Have your sons (now two and four) seen the film?
They are the biggest fans. But all they want is the popcorn. At the premiere, they were fighting over popcorn, not the shape of their penises.
What’s next for you?
I am working on a film called The Evil Tongue, which tells a story that takes place in an ultra-Orthodox community. It deals with cases of sexual abuse that are uncovered by a journalist at the Baltimore Jewish Times. The title comes from a prohibition in Judaism—lashon hara—which dictates that Jews are not allowed to speak evil about any other Jew, or expose them to the authorities. We’ve been filming over the past three years.