Are we experiencing a new wave in Israeli cinema?
A shit strewn tank ploughing its way into civilian chaos, two butchers struggling with the weight of beef and forbidden lust between them, massacre in refugee camps; the Israeli Film Fund don’t exactly go in for lightweight musical comedies. With the release of one of their latest films Lebanon – a claustrophobic, disturbing vision of the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon war based almost entirely on the first hand experience of Director Samuel Maoz – what does the Film Fund’s output say about Israel? And should a world audience judge a country by its celluloid cover?
The Israeli Film Fund has been working as a production company, a development agency and a financial backer to Israeli films since 1979. According to their own website, the Fund “has a crucial impact on defining the character of Israeli cinema; the stories, the visual language and the production principles”. So just what sort of character is emerging from these films? Well, according to David Lipkind, Head of Productions, the Fund has a clearly radical character. “Of course we are radical. Since we live in Israel and are facing a lot of problems in our everyday life, the films that are coming out of Israel are pointing towards those problems. We are looking for the hidden places, and want to explore them.”
Lebanon takes us straight in to one of those previously hidden places; the threatening mechanical heart of the Israeli army, the Merkava tank, a potent and familiar symbol of Israel’s military prowess and appetite for destruction. The tank is driving in to Beirut to ‘clear up’ anything left behind after an Israel Air Force bombing raid. It should be, as Zohar Strauss’ character puts it, ‘child’s play’. However, this tank is being driven by a driver who can’t understand his own dials and a gunner who can’t shoot. The captain is cracking up, the walls are dripping in shit and they are lost in the bombed-out wreckage of a strange and devastated city. As Hertzl mutters, “this tank is finished”.
Surely such a clearly anti-war film sits uneasily with the Israeli party line of self-defence? It is hard to argue that a sweating young man shakingly murdering an innocent chicken farmer from inside his reinforced steel tank (an episode that is an exact recreation of Maoz’s own experiences) is an act of personal protection. Is the Israel Film Fund trying to encourage an Israeli anti-war movement through their films? Are scripts chosen by their politics?
Lipkind doesn’t think so. “Of course, Katriel Schory [the Executive Director of the Israeli Film Fund] had a vision when he came here, but we don’t give any instructions to our readers. We read over 200 scripts a year, and our readers come from a variety of backgrounds. So in the end, even if one of them misses a script another will pick it out.” Yet the approach certainly seems to encourage challenging scripts; the Fund’s upcoming projects include Jonathan Siegel’s Lipstick – the story of two Palestinian women meeting up in London to discuss their encounter with Israeli soldiers twenty years previously, Avi Nashag’s Once I Was about the immigrants coming to Israel in the 50s and 60s and 7 Minutes In Heaven – a story of love and suicide bombing in Jerusalem. In these films, as in Lebanon, the story of individual experience is given an international audience. But is it just good Israeli PR, or are we witnessing a national catharsis?
“Films can be cathartic. For the person writing them, and for those who are watching,” says Lipkind. “I think that when you are telling a story that comes from your guts, then that will be felt by the audience. And they will know if it rings true or if it seems false.”
The sense of claustrophobia in Lebanon, which could be easily compared to the submarine setting of Das Boot or the trench of R.C Sherriff’s WWI play Journey’s End comes directly from Samuel Maoz’s own personal memories of his experience as a gunner during the 1982 war. “He wanted to tell his story,” says Lipkind, “his memory of the tank. The war as he saw it was all through the binoculars.” Through the gunner’s crosshairs which lie across so much of the film’s action.
This sense of claustrophobia also infuses much of Eyes Wide Shut. In Haim Tabakman’s film of forbidden lust in Jerusalem, the tightly-knit brotherhood of the orthodox Jewish community becomes stifling, even threatening as homosociality gives way to homosexuality. In both Lebanon and Eyes Wide Open we, the audience, are presumably meant to associate claustrophobia with a desire to break our bounds, whether they are emotional, social or metal. So, does this mean that Israeli films are becoming increasingly rebellious? That a significant number of its individuals are trying to break the rules that confine them? That many of those people are victims of their own circumstances?
Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir was, in many ways, an extended meditation on those circumstances; and the extent to which they rendered their agents culpable or otherwise. If you take part in war, are you a victim of circumstance, or an agent of atrocity? Post-traumatic stress, which after the First World War rendered those who gave orders mute and those who marched into battle physically incapable, haunts the dreams of Folman’s animated self and blocks his memories of the 1982 war. Post-traumatic amnesia is, according to some psychologists, the psyche’s way of protecting itself from the most damaging effects of experience and circumstance. Yet that protection can take place whether or not the individual was complicit in the actions that traumatised. When it comes to trauma, it is argued, we are all victims.
Of course, the Israeli film industry will always be judged by the politics of its government and even a ‘radical’ foundation like the Israeli Film Fund must bear the burden of the country’s history. And while cultural output will always help to create a good international opinion of a country, perhaps this run of Israeli films points towards something else; towards a retelling of that history. “We cannot compete with Hollywood,” says Lipkind. “Our budgets are too small and there are too many obstacles. So we have to find our own way, and that is to show personal stories.”
But in Israel, as in Palestine, Pakistan, China, Britain, the Congo, Burma and the rest of the world, the personal is always political. Especially when that person is sitting behind the trigger.