Bare-breasted, in pink short-shorts and blonde curls, the young Zohar Wagner obeys the instructions from the man filming her: She stands, sits, reclines, sways, flirts. A moment earlier, she was still dressed in a kind of black lace garment, tight and see-through with matching garters. “Draw it out, don’t take it off quickly, this is your time, play with it slowly,” the man behind the camera tells her. Wagner moves as instructed and he says, “Yeah, yeah, baby.” She sits with her legs spread open, he instructs her to lie on her stomach: “The floor is the horniest thing that’s happened to you since you were born.” She performs as asked, and says: “What, like this?”
All this occurs in a short video made in New York about 20 years ago, which appears in Wagner’s new documentary, “But Why Did You Dance Naked?” which premiered last Saturday at Docaviv: The Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival.
This is the third film by the 41-year-old documentary filmmaker and journalist. Wagner’s first effort, “Zorki” (2006 ), dealt with her family life, and described how she became her mother’s confidante at 12 and concealed from her father the affair her mother was having with another man. In her second film, “Stretch Marks” (2009 ), she documented her pregnancy and examined her sexuality and relationship with her partner at the time. In the new work, she revisits her early 20s, when she worked as a stripper in New York.
“But Why Did You Dance Naked?” is the final installment in this trilogy of personal films by Wagner, all three of which will air June 9 on the Hot cable television’s Channel 8.
“Chronologically it begins exactly where ‘Zorki’ ended,” she says. “After ‘Stretch Marks,’ I said that would be my last personal film, but I realized that the issue of exposure wasn’t resolved. I realized I had an obligation to interpret for myself and the viewers, out of an inner reckoning, the matter of using the body in ‘Stretch Marks.’ Now I feel my next film can be a feature, or a film about somebody else. I don’t feel there are any loose ends left.”
“When I embarked on the [new] film,” Wagner explains, “I told people: ‘I’m going to make a film about a girl who chose stripping, loved stripping, and doesn’t see anything wrong with it. It’s a film that sets out to debunk what people think. A stripper is not necessarily stricken by fate, she isn’t to be pitied, she isn’t a drug addict, she isn’t exploited. On the contrary, she is a strong woman.’”
But working on the film brought her to a completely different place.
Wagner grew up in Afeka, an affluent neighborhood in north Tel Aviv, the daughter of wealthy parents – public relations agent Dasi Wagner and businessman Eli Wagner. “I grew up in a very sheltered environment,” she explains. “My parents did not expose me to the real world.”
When she was 20, after her compulsory military service, Zohar went to New York. A man she met on the street there, a former Israeli, got her into the stripping business. Among other things, he taught her what she was supposed to do at a strip club, a “lesson” that is seen in the video he shot then, which appears at the beginning of “But Why Did You Dance Naked?”
At the time, Wagner recalls, “I convinced myself that I had the most amazing job in the world, that I loved this job, that I was living in the most amazing city in the world, that I was making loads of money.”
That mind-set apparently didn’t change over the next two decades, because, “I always thought, how cool am I, I was a stripper, I worked at a club run by the Italian mafia. I knew all the porn stars of the ’90s in New York, I was at a strip club on Wall Street,” she says.
Wagner decided that her third film would deal with this glamorous period in her life, and the obvious first step, she says, was to get in touch with that man in New York. “As a documentary filmmaker, at the beginning of a project, you first of all contact a person who played a significant part in the experience. But I guess I was afraid to make the movie that way. And as though to avoid making that call, I decided I would film reconstructed narrative segments.
“I went to several strip clubs,” she continues, “and got my first big shock, when I entered some club and saw the girls who do the lap dancing and the men touching them. That is something I experienced and saw a thousand times, but at that moment I was terribly nauseous. It made me feel bad. And yet I went home and said: But in New York then it was a little different, it wasn’t like that.”
In any event, Wagner adds, “I didn’t know how to approach the subject. I went into a strip club and did an audition. I stood in front of the club owner and told him: I’ve come to work. He explained to me what to do, told me: ‘Now strip, and now dance a bit,’ and these are things that were done to me there. And I still didn’t get that there was something wrong here. I shot a few scenes, and even started working at a club, albeit with a camera . It was a sort of docu-reality.
“And then, suddenly, after a while, I realized that what I was doing was not a process of investigation, or healing … that once again I was doing something terrible to myself. I was harming myself in the same way. It astonished me to see how, 20 years after the fact, I could dive into the same destructive place where I let people touch me, insult me, exploit me – even if it was in the name of making a film – and there was no difference. I had been filming for a year. The head of Channel 8, Eyal Oppenheim, saw some of the footage and said, ‘I feel like you are getting raped in the shoot. I think it is terrible.’”
At that time, Wagner continues, “I also met my [current] partner, and one day I told him what happened on the shoot, and cried bitterly. I began to understand that if I had hid what I was doing from him until now, and that when I eventually got around to telling him, it was accompanied by such pain – something bad was going on. I stopped everything and said, I will make that phone call to New York, to that man.”
At the time she considered that former Israeli a soul mate. “He was also my support back then,” she says, “because the contact with my parents was pretty much severed and I didn’t have any girlfriends from the ‘normative’ world. The moment you’re a stripper, you plunge into another world. You have no friends from the legitimate world, you only have stripper-friends.”