REVIEW – Zaytoun (2012)

ZaytounVideovista have my review of Eran Riklis’s Zaytoun, an almost impossibly idealistic film about Arab-Israeli relations.

Set during the 1982 Lebanon war, Zaytoun tells of an Israeli fighter pilot who is shot down over a refugee camp. Locked up in a cell, the fighter pilot only frees himself by agreeing to help a Palestinian teenager to return to his family’s land in what is now Israel. Essentially a road movie, the two travelers make their way through a number of tricky encounters growing closer and closer to each other with each new mile. More symbolic vehicles than actual characters, the boy and the fighter pilot seem to represent the two sides of the conflict suggesting that if two fictional characters can make friends then surely the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships should also be able to make friends… yeah.

The real problem with Zaytoun is that while Riklis clearly made a deliberate choice to sacrifice depth of character in return for increased depth of symbolic representation, the fable he weaves around his generic archetypes is so trite and simple-minded that the audience is left with neither a decent set of characters nor a particularly good idea about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, strip away the pretty landscape photography, and the broadly comic secondary characters, and you are left with a film that suggests the Palestinian question could be solved if only both sides could be a little bit nicer to each other.

Another issue I raise in my review is the fact that recent years have seen a number of Israeli films that attempt to deal with the current state of Arab-Israeli relations by projecting the writer and director’s ideas back onto a vision of the 1982 Lebanon war. Aside from the obvious questions of historical accuracy and political cowardice raised by this trend, I am also struck by the fact that films like Zaytoun, Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon all treat the Palestinian and Lebanese as symbolic representations of Israel’s moral character: In Waltz with Bashir, the war of 1982 is treated as a sort of psychotic episode, in Lebanon the war was treated as a crucible of psychological hardship and, in Zaytoun, bopth the Palestinian people and the road to Palestine are treated as psychological stepping stones for an Israeli protagonist. The interesting thing about all of these films is that none of them treat the Palestinians as real people with an existence outside of their presence in the minds of Israeli characters. In fact, one is reminded of Chinua Achebe’s incendiary comments about the depiction of African people in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?

The most worrying thing about films like Zaytoun is that they suggest that contemporary middle-class Israelis are falling into the same trap as White Victorian novelists. Rather than treating Palestine as a complex place filled with real and complex people, they reduce it to the state of Universal Other… a place that wandering Israeli soldiers enter at their peril. Zaytoun is clearly an idealistic film but I think it is, in the words of Achebe, ‘bloody racist’.

Incendies (2010) – The Viscera of History

There are many metaphors applied to humanity’s study of the past. In the opening lines of The Go-Between (1953), L.P. Hartley opines that “the past is a foreign country: they do things different there”. In The Aetiology of Hysteria (1896), Freud likens the role of the psychoanalyst to that of a conquistador or antiquarian:

Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins, with remains of walls, fragments of columns, and tablets with half-effaced and unreadable inscriptions… He may have brought picks, shovels and spades with him, and he may set the inhabitants to work with these implements. Together with them he may start upon the ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried.

Both metaphors present the process of historical detection as a voyage into territories unknown. Today, these metaphors ring hollow through a combination of over-use and changing attitudes to the wider world. These days, the world is a village and no two parts of the village are ever more than a plane-flight away. However, in the days of Hartley and Freud, the world was a much larger and scarier place. Were one to update Hartley’s dictum for contemporary usage one would most likely say something like “the past is an oceanic trench: who knows what lies buried in the dark?”

Nowhere is the past’s peculiar edge more evident than when it protrudes from the wreckage of a life recently concluded. When a parent dies, the children move in and sort through their things. This process of sorting generally uncovers all kinds of facts from the actively forgotten to the merely mislaid. People lead complicated lives and these lives are seldom fully encapsulated by the short amount of time that people know each other. To look into a loved-one’s past is to uncover things about them that we would rather not know, things that force us to confront unpleasant truths about ourselves. Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies is a film about a voyage into the past and the changes that such a voyage can bring to otherwise blissfully ignorant lives.

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REVIEW – Lebanon (2009)

Videovista have my review of Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon.

While I thought the film very fine to look at, I was intensely annoyed not only by the under-written and overly pretentious script.  To frame contemporary warfare as a theatre for psychological self-destruction is not only a terrible cliche (one thoughtlessly repeated by the thoughtless Hurt Locker) it is also politically suspect.  My reason for this sentiment is beautifully expounded in a paper that appears in the Summer 2010 issue of Foundation.

In “Hollywood and the Imperial Gothic”, Johan Hoglund draws upon the concept of ‘Imperial Gothic’ first laid out by Paul Brantlinger in his book The Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (1988).  The idea behind the Imperial Gothic is that narratives that deal with the end of an imperial civilisation do not actively weaken or subvert that civilisation.  Instead, they serve to bolster it by creating in the public’s mind further reasons for ‘cracking down’ or ‘surging’ against enemies either real or imagined.  Works like Maoz’s Lebanon and Folman’s Waltz with Bashir are essentially works of Israeli Imperial Gothic.

Indeed, by suggesting that Israel’s wars with Lebanon are places where young IDF soldiers go to lose their minds, films such as Folman and Maoz’s are lending credence to the idea that Israel must be tough in its dealings with Lebanon.  For if war with Lebanon is such a terrifying prospect then it follows that any anti-Israeli activity originating in Lebanon must be met with massive retaliatory force, preferably in the shape of air strikes.