Films present dark side of Israeli policies

July 26, 2017
“West of the Jordan River”

In 2013, two Israeli films — “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers” — were nominated for an Academy Award for feature-length documentary. It was a great kavod to the Jewish state, no doubt.

Except that supporters of Israel had mixed feelings about these films. “How can we defend Israel,” they moaned, “when Israelis themselves produce such damning films?”

And, as we learned earlier this month at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which screened “West of the Jordan River” and “Born in Deir Yassin,” that was just the beginning of the cinematic self-criticism. 

In 2013, it was clear that both Israeli Oscar contenders were not the products of the Israeli Foreign Ministry or of any pro-Israeli advocacy group, for that matter. “5 Broken Cameras” details the travails of the Palestinian village Bil’in with the defense barrier, the Israel Defense Forces and the neighboring settlers. In “The Gatekeepers,” five former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet secret service reflect candidly on their years of chasing Palestinian terrorists and Jewish extremists. There is a consensus among these five experienced men: Occupation corrupts Israeli society, and it is in the best interest of Israel to make peace with the Palestinians.

Israeli journalist Igal Sarna was shocked by “5 Broken Cameras,” writing in Al-Monitor in 2012, “What I saw scared me and caused me shame, as an Israeli who loves his country, because these actions of occupation and expropriation, uprooting of olive trees and land theft — are our actions, our stupidity.” On the other hand, J.J. Surbeck, executive director of the nonprofit T.E.A.M. (Training and Education About the Middle East) called it “a manipulative pro-Palestinian movie” that contains “manipulative emotional content to better rile viewers against Israel.”

While die-hard supporters of Israel could perhaps dismiss “5 Broken Cameras” as a propaganda film colluded by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, its Palestinian and Israeli directors, “The Gatekeepers” was a tougher case to handle. As director Dror Moreh said in an interview, the criticism these security chiefs had expressed “didn’t come from the leftists, it came from the heart of the defense establishment. If they say such things, then, OK, there must be something to it.”

Yet “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers” were only a harbinger for more films looking critically at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 34th Jerusalem Film Festival, which ran from July 13-23, fired another salvo of films that will undoubtedly frustrate people who hate to see any artistic questioning of Israel’s policies and conduct.

“West of the Jordan River,” a documentary directed by Amos Gitai, tells the stories of Israelis and Palestinians, who — with the absence of any political solution — struggle daily with the hardships of life in the West Bank. Gitai last dealt with this issue 35 years ago with his documentary “Field Diary,” which at the time didn’t win him many friends. Here, he makes no bones about where he stands. Talking to i24News in May, he said that “[we] are not in a good moment of history. …  I would say this is a film by Israeli citizens concerned about the direction that the country is taking. … I think I have to take my responsibility as a citizen and talk to the world.”

He did talk to the world in May at the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival, where his film was screened. Variety magazine mentioned that Gitai went out of his way to grant Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely a chance to air her “relatively mystical approach to Israeli geopolitics,” but then contrasted it with his 1994 interview with the pragmatic Yitzhak Rabin. And anyway, says Variety, the film reflects “Gitai’s clear anti-government position.”

If this is bad enough news for people who believe that we shouldn’t air our dirty laundry, then they are up to an even harsher blow with “Born in Deir Yassin.” Director Neta Shoshani took on one of the most sensitive landmarks of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the bloody conquest of the Arab village Deir Yassin on the western outskirts of Jerusalem in April 1948 by Etzel (the Irgun) and Lehi (the Stern Gang). After the death of 110 of the villagers — many of them the elderly, women and children — the Arab population panicked and started to flee Palestine, thus becoming refugees for generations.

Shoshani interviewed the people who had taken part in the operation in 1948 and again, like in “The Gatekeepers,” these are far from being leftists or liberals. Now in their early 90s and obviously still haunted by the gory scenes of the battle, these men proudly defended their brutal acts by saying — not without justice — that it was “either us or them.”

It’s not only pro-Israel advocates in the Diaspora who resent these kinds of films that seem to badmouth the beloved Jewish state. Last year, Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev proposed a bill, referred to as “Loyalty in Culture,” which conditions state funding to cultural institutions on the respect they show to Israel. And recently, she demanded that movie foundations hand over information about lectors who had discussed movie-funding proposals over the past five years and the reasons they gave for their decisions.

My advice to anyone startled by these films is to take a deep breath and relax. The Israel that survived a surprise attack on both fronts in the Yom Kippur War surely can survive these critical films. Furthermore, this is a cleansing process that shows the self-confidence and maturity of Israeli society, which is ready to confront unpleasant chapters of its history. When a reconciliation with the Palestinians finally is reached, these films will be remembered as the first positive steps.

But when will Palestinian films begin to echo some soul searching on the other side, confessing atrocities and admitting the rejection of any compromise? Probably not so fast.

And yet, this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival also included “Gaza Surf Club,” which tells the story of Palestinian youth in that Godforsaken place, who instead of joining Hamas, becoming suicide bombers or butchering a Jewish family with a knife, are poised to become world-renowned surfers. In our gloomy environment, this looked to me like a little sign of hope.

Am I daydreaming here? Maybe, but isn’t that what movies are made for? 

Uri Dromi is director general of the Jerusalem Press Club. He served as spokesman of the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments from 1992 to 1996, during the Oslo peace process.

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