Elevate Difference

City of Borders

Directed by Yun Suh

I grew up in Berlin. The images of the wall, of barbed wire around strips of no-man’s land dividing the city, and of rigorous border controls and heavily armed border guards were a normal part of my life for a long time. When the wall came down in 1989, these images disappeared out of my every day life, but they are so much a part of my history that seeing them again in City of Borders brought back that claustrophobic feeling of knowing you can’t move about freely in your city, of being acutely aware of your own vulnerability in the face of stone, steel, and weapons that are designed to keep you in place.

It would be missing the point to compare living conditions in current-day Jerusalem to Cold War-era Berlin. What City of Borders highlights so impressively is how unique the political and social context is for people living in Jerusalem and its surrounding areas. Knowing what it feels like to live with walls and borders and barbed wire every day added a layer of meaning to the documentary by filmmaker Yun Suh for me that made the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stand up for the entire sixty-six minutes of the film.

City of Borders tells the stories of gay and lesbian men and women in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Givat Ze’ev. This one simple sentence entails all of the stunning complexities that City of Borders addresses: issues of sexual identity in the context of fundamentalist interpretations of religion are embedded in the larger context of the political conflict between Israel and Palestine. Personal experiences are not, and cannot be separated from the political realities the men and women in City of Borders live in.

We get to know Boody, a devout Muslim Palestinian man who risks his life climbing the fence from the West Bank into Jerusalem to go to the city’s only gay bar, Shushan. Boody later decides to leave his hometown Ramallah, as well as his friends and family, to immigrate to the U.S. because of constant death threats against him and his family for being an openly gay man—and Ramallah’s first drag queen.

We learn about Samira and Ravit, a lesbian couple who not only faces repercussions for living an openly lesbian life, but also for breaking another big taboo: a love relationship that centers intimacy between Jews and Palestinians. We meet Adam, a young gay activist who lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and is a staunch defender settlement policy, thereby introducing one of the most complex political issues between Israel and Palestine into the mix. Finally, we follow moments in the life of Sa’ar, owner of Shushan, and at the same time the first openly gay man elected into city council in Jerusalem.

These four stories combine to show us—sometimes subtly, sometimes aggressively—that borders in the region are more than walls and barbed wire, that perceptions of us versus them, of "I versus the Other," are so deeply ingrained in both religions, history, and politics in the region that even a moment of intimacy between lovers can turn into a moment of fucking the enemy.

City of Borders is remarkable in many ways. It is packed full of images and insights that stayed with me long after I put the DVD back into its case. The most remarkable aspect of the documentary is that it does not (over)simplify. It layers the realities of the political conflict, complex religious controversies—both within and between Islam and Judaism—and the clash between historic roots and modernism on top of personal stories of finding and accepting sexual identities. It is this approach that drives one point home very loudly: there are no easy solutions to dealing with the borders in our minds.

Written by: Annette Przygoda, November 24th 2009