Film

Michael Winterbottom on new film Shoshana, Israel's war and how violence makes people 'take sides'

Shoshana is a love story set in Tel Aviv in the 1930s and '40s as violence rises on both sides of the conflict

Michael Winterbottom

Michael Winterbottom. Image: Agencja Fotograficzna Caro / Alamy Stock Photo

On 7 October 2023, Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip killed 1,139 Israelis in a devastating surprise attack. About 240 others were seized as captives. It was the start of a deadly, ongoing conflict in which tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed and millions displaced. As news of that attack filtered through, director Michael Winterbottom was in London. It was just hours before the premiere of his new film Shoshana, set among the violent birth of the nation of Israel. The film’s themes had just become appallingly relevant once more.  

“It was a terrible coincidence,” says Winterbottom. “We had Israeli actors with us as the news was unfolding. In the context of what’s happening now, it’s even more important to see a story like the story of Shoshana and Tom.” 

At its heart Shoshana is a love story. It’s based on the real-life relationship between Shoshana Borochov, daughter of Zionist activist Ber Borochov and member of the Jewish territorial defence force Haganah, and Thomas Wilkin, an assistant superintendent in the British colonial Palestine Police Force. The pair met in 1933 and were married for more than a decade. But their cross-community love couldn’t exist untouched by the time and place in which they lived, and so – through them – we’re transported back to the idealism, volatility and brutality of Tel Aviv in the 1930s and early ’40s.  

“It just felt like it was a really important bit of British colonial history that I didn’t know much about. I felt that people in Britain generally didn’t know much about it,” says Michael Winterbottom. “That was the starting point, which makes it sound like some terrible boring, arcane, political, historical film. But actually, what struck me is it was an incredibly dynamic time, an exciting time. 

“Tel Aviv, where the story is set, was a really young city. It was a very vibrant city. Almost everyone was a first-generation immigrant coming from northern Europe to the Mediterranean. People would argue about politics, argue about the future.” 

Irina Starshenbaum as Shoshana and Douglas Booth as Tom in Shoshana
Irina Starshenbaum as Shoshana and Douglas Booth as Tom. Image: Fabrizio Di Giulio

In Borochov and Wilkin, Winterbottom has found “almost a classic Romeo and Juliet love story”. Though they both want a future in which the Arab and Jewish populations live together peacefully, events are moving beyond their control. Shoshana shows violence rising on both sides, with the British forces employing ruthless tactics – including one particularly difficult-to-watch waterboarding scene – in an attempt to regain control.   

It’s far from the first time Michael Winterbottom has taken on a real-life tale. Welcome to Sarajevo is based on the true story of a British reporter who smuggled a young orphan girl out of a war zone to safety in Britain. 24 Hour Party People documents the rise and fall of Factory Records. A Mighty Heart is an account of the search for kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, based on his wife Mariane Pearl’s memoir. They all use very human tales to examine broader political and social contexts. 

For Shoshana, Winterbottom was inspired by Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and the way in which the novelist uses a central love story to paint “a really vivid picture of colonialism in Vietnam in the 1950s”. It kind of felt to me like, through Tom and Shoshana, you could see the way in which the bigger political forces, bigger historical forces, the conflict itself, impacted people’s lives,” he explains. 

Ultimately, for the young lovers, that impact is deadly. Even if you know where the history is headed, the scene depicting Thomas Wilkin being gunned down by Jewish extremists on the streets of Jerusalem is shocking. It is also historically accurate, recreated from Winterbottom’s own interview with David Shomron, one of the men involved in the killing.  

“What David Shomron said is that, for him, it was a war, and it was his job to do whatever he could to create a situation where Israel could be created,” Winterbottom recalls. “He didn’t have any compunction about killing Tom Wilkin. In fact, he used to do little guided tours of the area in Jerusalem – he would point out where it all happened in the street.” 

After Wilkin’s death, the film deploys a striking cut from Borochov in funeral black, walking away from her husband’s grave, to her dressed in army fatigues. As part of the Haganah, she has joined forces with the same group that killed him, fighting with “the people we’d always hated, to get rid of the British”. The state of Israel is established, but the last we see of Borochov – once a moderate force – is her firing a machine gun at a group of Arabs.  

“I don’t think Shoshana has changed. She still has all the beliefs and ideas she had, but the world’s changed. Violence can force you into a position where you have to take sides, and that’s the tragedy of it,” says Michael Winterbottom. “My idea at the end was you have this feeling, watching the film, that it’s just the start of the violence, rather than the end of the violence.” 

Shoshana will open in cinemas nationwide on 23 February.

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