November 20, 2013
January 31, 2013
When I first began getting invitations to press screenings for Sony Picture Classics’ “The Gatekeepers”, my first reaction was to assume that it was similar to “The Law in These Parts”, the Israeli documentary that is based on interviews with the military judges responsible for creating Nuremberg type legal codes that made the Palestinians the modern equivalent of Jews under Nazi rule.. That film allowed the judges to hang themselves on their own petards as they offered self-vindicating rationales for bending the law to suit the needs of the settlers. It was all about combating “terrorism”.
I probably should have figured out that Sony was not likely to be distributing anything like that. The CEO of Sony Entertainment is one Michael Lynton who is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Furthermore, Sony produced “Zero Dark Thirty”, a film that is related to “The Gatekeepers” after a fashion.
But the closest relative to “The Gatekeepers” is Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”, which allows the war criminal to shed crocodile tears over his “mistakes” in Vietnam. Surely, if the U.S. were able to stabilize a puppet government in South Vietnam, Morris would have not had material to work with. By the same token, if Israel did not have to contend with continuing Palestinian resistance, the Shin Bet chiefs whose interviews form the substance of Israeli director Dror Moreh’s film, would have had no reason to take part in a film that reflects Israeli “dove” nervousness about the settler state’s future.
The Shin Bet is Hebrew for the Israel Security Agency, founded in 1948. It is responsible for controlling the Arabs internally while the Mossad has the same kind of job externally. They are analogous to the FBI and the CIA respectively.
The men interviewed by Moreh agonize not so much about the Zionist project (who would expect them to) but about its difficulties, something they blame on both the unruly Palestinians and the Israeli ultraright. Terrorism of both the Hamas variety and Israeli ultrarightists of the sort who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin are obstacles to a “solution” of the Palestinian problem.
Moreh is content to allow these men to pontificate about their career with hardly any effort made to put them on the spot for illegal detention, torture, or murder. For example, in one interview, the matter of a handcuffed Palestinian being beaten to death in the aftermath of a bus hijacking is raised with Avraham Shalom, who ran Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986. When Shalom defends this obvious criminal act, Moreh does little to follow up with additional questions about what this says about Israeli “democracy”. One can hardly escape feeling that while obviously being appalled by IDF war crimes Moreh attributes them to a state of affairs forced upon a peace-loving but besieged people.
In a very shrewd review of “Zero Dark Thirty”, Israeli film reviewer Noam Sheizaf describes the changing character of his country’s film industry in recent years in words that are just as applicable to a documentary like “The Gatekeepers” as it is to narrative films:
Sometime in the late 1960s, Israeli cinema stopped producing heroic war stories – the kind of action or drama movies where the protagonist serves his country, noble against a powerful and cruel enemy. The quantity of other such works of fiction – in literature, for example – dropped as well. Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird for a country that has a war every few years and needs to reinforce its own ethos. Instead, Israeli popular culture started producing a different genre – that of the confessions. Here, the protagonists or story-tellers were usually trying to come to terms with the terrible things they were forced to do to – by their COs, by politicians or by circumstances, but never of their own choice. The genre even earned a name: “shooting and crying. “ It all seemed brave – but it wasn’t, since our heroes never assumed responsibility for their actions. The real perpetrators were others: generals, right-wing radicals, fools – and sometimes it was simply the Arab’s fault. And sure enough, all those groups didn’t make movies. It was the lefty cultural elites that needed absolution, or at least explanation for the things they did (with much enthusiasm) – usually while continuing to do them. Today I would rather have a right wing that is proud of the occupation than an agonized lefty. You don’t want to do something, don’t do it. In the left-wing protests in recent years you can often hear chants of, “don’t shoot, don’t cry – get out of the territories now,” urging people to take responsibility for their actions.
Moreh appeared on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now on January 29th to promote his film that opens tomorrow at the Lincoln Plaza in New York and at the Film Forum on February 20th.
She asks Moreh to respond to this:
In this clip, former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter discusses an Israeli bombing of a home in Gaza in July 2002. The attack killed Salah Shehadeh, the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, but also 14 innocent civilians, including Shehadeh’s wife and daughter and a family of seven living next door. Dozens were also wounded. The attack occurred just as Shehadeh was reportedly preparing to sign onto a ceasefire halting attacks on Israelis not in the Occupied Territories.
This is what he said:
Well, look, I—I have to say that I a little bit feel uncomfortable in the way that you present the things here, because you portray the things as if Israel is the brutal, aggressive all the time, with the Palestinians, that they are like doves. There is reason why the Shin Bet is doing what it’s doing there. And the fact of the matter is that you cannot say—in a way, portray Israel as the aggressive and the Palestinians are the innocent bystander who are always being killed by those aggressive forces. It’s not the case at all, and I think that this is misleading the people that are watching that.
September 20, 2012
Two powerful documentaries from the Middle East should be put on the must-see list for New Yorkers with a passion for justice. Sharing the theme of the impact of war on children and a partnership between Arab filmmakers and Europeans of conscience, they should definitively answer the question so much in the news today: why do they hate us?
“Tears of Gaza”, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Village, is an unstinting, Guernica-like look at the horror visited on the Palestinian people by the Israeli Wehrmacht (called the IDF) that is focused on three children who lost their parents and other family members in the winter of 2008-2009.
While watching the television news, veteran Norwegian director/writer/actress Vibeke Løkkeberg saw a story about a boy crying over his father who was killed during an Israeli bombing. Upset over the failure of the world media to cover the ongoing brutality that reminded her of the US invasion of Iraq, she wrote a script for the film based on three orphaned children.
Teaming up with her husband and producer Terje Kristiansen, the two were prevented by both Israel and Egypt from entering Gaza. As was the case with Libya before Qaddafi’s overthrow and Syria today, the international press was blocked from Gaza. Unlike Libya and Syria, which were and are ruled by “villains” (excepting of course when they were brokering deals with Western multinationals or torturing victims of the CIA on behalf of the “war on terror”), Israel’s blitzkrieg received the endorsement of American and European elites and was not likely to inspire newspapers or television networks to risk their reporters’ lives over a war against “Hamas terrorists trying to destroy Israel”.
As necessity is the mother of invention, Løkkeberg and Kristiansen ended up with footage shot by Palestinian photojournalists Yosuf Abu Shreah, Mwafaq al Khateeb, and Saed al Sabaa who were in Gaza at the time. Editing and postproduction was done in Norway.
The film starts on a wistful note showing Palestinians at the beach and celebrating a young couple’s marriage. And then all hell breaks loose. In unrelenting detail, you see Israeli jets and helicopters destroying civilian homes and leaving dead bodies strewn everywhere as ambulances speed here and there collecting the still-living. When you see the obvious defenselessness of the Gaza slums and the aerial terror being rained down on them, you feel a rising sense of anger at the Zionist entity. If you were for the Palestinians before you saw the movie, your solidarity will increase. If you were sitting on the fence (and those sorts of people should be dragooned into seeing it), you will find reason enough to oppose Israel. And for those who know how to connect the dotted lines, there is every reason to understand why al-Assad—up to now—has been getting away with Gaza-style slaughter of his own people and why you should demonstrate on Saturday against him.
The press notes for “Tears of Gaza” includes an epigraph from Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Opening at Maysles Cinema on October 8th, “In My Mother’s Arms” is focused on three war orphans just like “Tears of Gaza”. Filmed during the final days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq (excluding the remaining mercenary forces of course), it tells the story of Husham Al Thabe, a young, handsome, and chain-smoking Iraqi man who runs an orphanage for 32 children in a two-story house in the Al-Sadr neighborhood, Baghdad’s poorest slum and a frequent target of senseless bombings by Sunni terrorists. Although the film, like “The Tears of Gaza”, lacks any didactic narration of the sort found in more explicitly political films, Husham’s mission speaks for a break with the sectarian strife that has marked Iraq since the early 2000s, intentionally fostered by American imperialism. The orphans are Sunni, Shia, Turkman and Kurd, a cross-section of the country’s population and obviously representing Husham’s intention to heal the nation’s wounds.
The film begins with Husham stopping his car beneath a bridge and approaching two homeless boys. Do they have families, he asks? No, they were killed. How do you survive? The answer: begging. He invites them to come with him and they do. He provides a warm and supportive environment for all the kids, even if he is one step ahead of the landlord who seeks to evict him. Unlike the state orphanages, which are notorious for their mistreatment of children, Husham’s relies totally on private donations, mostly from humble bazaar merchants who give hundreds rather than millions of dollars.
The most poignant of the children is 7-year old Saif, a Kurd who barely remembers his mother who was killed by a terrorist bomb along with his father. When other children taunt him by calling out his mother’s name—Mujada—he attacks them in a blind rage.
The name of the film derives from a play that Husham mounts with the help of a theater director based in the Al-Sadr slum. “In my mother’s arms” is a kind of oratorio devoted to the vision of mother and child reunion, even if only in the realm of the imagination. It stars Saif who sings a lament about life’s cruelties. Despite the sadness of the play, Saif achieves a kind of psychological breakthrough by finding a reason to live: the chance that others can appreciate his performance.
The film is co-directed by two Iraqis: Atia and Mohammad Al-Daraji. Atia founded Iraq Al-Rafidan, a full-service film and video production company with a mission to give a voice to the Iraqi people. The Al-Daraji’s partnered with Humam Film, a UK/Dutch company established in 2006 “to seek and explore individual creativity while producing films with a social conscience and impact.” This of course is the kind of partnership between NATO countries and the Arab world that should serve as an example.
The film begins with some shocking statistics about the number of orphans the war has left. You get some sense of the depth of the problem by reading an Alternet article dated December 18, 2007:
Iraq’s anti-corruption board revealed on Saturday that there were five million Iraqi orphans as reported by official government statistics, urging the government, parliament, and NGOs to be in constant contact with Iraq’s parentless children.
That’s about 1/6th of the country. For comparison’s sake, the U.S. has just over 2 million orphans even though it is nearly ten times the size of Iraq.
Meanwhile, the government of Iraq has demonstrated hostility toward private aid even when its own institutions are worse than useless. Alternet reported:
Maysoun al-Damlouji, a member of the parliament’s Civil Society Organizations Committee, slammed a recent government decision that closed down all private orphanages. “Instead of helping private institutions improve their performance and remove all obstacles hindering their work, the Iraqi government decided to close them down, adding to the complexity of the situation in the state-run institutions.
This is one instance in which an exception to the drive toward privatization hastened by the invasion and occupation of Iraq works would benefit the people. Or perhaps the more important lesson to be drawn is that the clash between state-ownership and privately-owned institutions is secondary to the more important criterion, namely whether a government serves the people or the people serve the government—the struggle that virtually defined the Arab Spring that is ongoing.
June 19, 2011
November 16, 2010
October 29, 2010
Over the past several days I saw two radically different films about Palestinians. One is the documentary Budrus that is a stirring introduction to the new nonviolent resistance movement in the West Bank. The other is The Time that Remains, a fictional chronicle about a middle-class family in Nazareth over a 50 year period that is deeply problematic but worth seeing.
Budrus is a farming village of about 1500 people largely dependent on its olive tree groves that had the misfortune to be located close to the border between Israel and the West Bank, the so-called Green Line. When Israel began building its infamous wall of separation in 2004, it chose to build it not within its own borders but within Palestinian territory—and more egregiously right through the middle of Budrus. Not only would the Palestinians lose a good part of their olive groves that had sustained them for hundreds of years; their civic life would suffer as the wall cut through and surrounded the village.
The mayor of Budrus was one Ayed Morrar, a long-time activist who arrested as a student activist at the age of 19 in 1981 when it was still illegal to raise a Palestinian flag. He spent most of the first intifada organizing strikes, demonstrations, protest roadblocks and boycotts of Israeli goods. When the villagers first learned about Israel plans, the mayor convened a meeting in which he insisted that they had to choose between passive resignation and peaceful resistance. They chose the latter. This meeting, as well as other key moments in their struggle, was captured by director Julia Bacha, a Brazilian graduate of Columbia University who was inspired to make such a movie from professors in her Mideast Studies classes who challenged the ideological consensus.
She and her film crew risk Israeli repression to get you close to the action, so much so that you can practically smell the Israeli tear gas. Most of the movie depicts the cat-and-mouse game between the IDF and protestors as they fight for control over the olive groves. In one key scene, we see Morrar’s 15 year old daughter Iltezam jump into a pit that has just been dug by a bulldozer, risking the same fate as Rachel Corrie. We also see a number of Israeli peace activists who have come to the aid of Budrus, including Kobi Snitz, a member of Anarchists Against the Wall. (http://www.awalls.org/). In my review of Rachel (http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/rachel/), I commended another anarchist—Jonathan Pollak—whose email reports I receive on a regular basis. As a long time critic of anarchism, I can only say that the movement puts its best foot forward through the example of Pollak and Snitz.
Scheduled to have its last showing yesterday at the Quad Cinema in N.Y., Budrus has been extended to play through next Thursday and possibly longer. It is not to be missed.
The Time that Remains was shown last night at the Museum of Modern Art as the opening night selection of an Arab film series titled “Mapping Subjectivity“, a program described on the MOMA website as aiming “to map the largely unknown heritage of personal, artistic, and sometimes experimental cinema from the Arab world.” Not quite my cup of tea, but I was willing to give director Elia Suleiman’s movie a try. MOMA describes it this way:
Subtitled “Chronicle of a Present Absentee,” this humorous, heartbreaking film (the final installment in a trilogy) is set among the Israeli Arab community and shot largely in homes and places in which Suleiman’s family once lived. Inspired by his father’s diaries, letters his mother sent to family members who had fled the Israeli occupation, and the director’s own recollections, the film spans from 1948 until the present, recounting the saga of Suleiman’s family in elegantly stylized episodes. Inserting himself as a silent observer reminiscent of Buster Keaton, Suleiman trains a keen eye on the absurdities of life in Nazareth.
The movie starts off very promisingly as a dramatic recreation of events in 1948, as Elia’s father Fuad is picked up by Israeli soldiers for supplying guns to the Palestinian resistance. He is beaten into unconsciousness by men who seem exactly like the goons currently making life miserable in places like Budrus. There is a taut and suspenseful quality to these scenes reminiscent of Battle of Algiers. If only the rest of the movie had lived up to these opening scenes, then it would have been a film for the ages. Alas, it veered off in an entirely different action as it moved forward in time.
In the next chapter in the life of Fuad Suleiman, he has become a father to Elia, the character based on the film’s director. Elia goes to a school run by Israelis that awards its Palestinian children a prize for singing Israeli nationalist anthems. Like just about every scene that takes place at this point, Suleiman is determined to wring out every ounce of the ironies of life under occupation.
Despite having withdrawn from the struggle, Fuad is still hounded by the Israeli authorities. As a devotee of late-night fishing, he keeps being interrogated by Israeli cops whether he has an id and why he is fishing so far from Nazareth. Finally, he is arrested—falsely—for smuggling weapons carried by boat.
His son becomes a victim as well. During the first intifada, he learns from a Palestinian cop that he has been denounced and must leave the country. When he returns, his father has become gravely ill from heart disease and soon dies. From the very minute that Elias makes his appearance in the movie as a young boy, he never says a single word. His role in the film is to stare glumly at the camera as one irony-drenched scene unfolds after another.
One in particular illustrates the sensibility that informs the movie. A young boy enters the Suleiman house unannounced and demands that they buy his string beans. It turns out that he has come from Jenin, a village in the occupied territories. He is told by the cop alluded to above, a family friend and frequent visitor, to show his permit. He says he has none and virtually demands that the cop arrest him. Elias’s mother intercedes on behalf of the boy who continues to demand that they buy his string beans. And if they won’t buy them, then they at least should give him a cigarette. This scene, which lasts about five minutes, conveys the futility of Palestinian existence that Elias takes in with the same mournful and mute expression throughout. When there are street protests, he never joins them but stares at them blankly from his balcony.
One cannot help avoid concluding that Elias Suleiman made this movie for Western consumption, and for art houses particularly (it opens at the IFC Center on January 7th.) He studied cinema at NYU and has obviously absorbed the international minimalist style that can be seen in Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismäki, whose deadpan humor he imitates with mixed success.
As a contrast to the stirring Budrus, it is a dispiriting reminder that for at least some Palestinian intellectuals and artists, the experience of expulsion, dispossession and occupation is no guarantee of great or even good art.