Archive for December, 2005

Ten Days in Gaza

Energized by the Work in Progress panel, I stuck around for the US premiere of Ten Days in Gaza, a documentary produced by Israel’s Channel 2 news about Israel’s recent disengagement from the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. The event is clearly a watershed moment in the history of Israel, and the documentary culls together about an hour of live footage from Channel 2’s live broadcasts of the evacuations. The result is a powerful film not only about the trauma faced by Israeli soldiers and civilians alike but also about the role of the news cameras in producing these events. The film was introduced by an Israeli journalist, Aharon Barnea, who discussed the coverage of these events and the ongoing peace process.

Even though I believe that the relocation of the settlers is a positive step in the peace process, it’s impossible to watch this film and not acknowledge the powerful emotions felt by soldiers and settlers alike, and several scenes feature soldiers, many of whom were no more than 18-20 years old, crying and hugging the people they were evicting. In other scenes, we see settlers (and people sympathetic with the settlers) engaging in various forms of protest, ranging from scrawled messages on the walls of the homes they were leaving to more violent and manipulative behaviors, including one father who dangles his son out of a window, implying that the Israeli government is responsible for placing his family in peril. The intensity of this compilation of live footage adds to the emotional intensity of many of these scenes.

Gradually, it becomes clear that the documentary is engaging in a form of self-critique. The anchors and reporters who narrate what is happeneing are often guilty of emphasizing conflict, whether due to political beliefs or a desire to sustain a captiavted audience. It also becomes clear that the settlers are engaging in their own staged performances, often inciting their children to complain to the soldiers in order to produce a more powerful emotional effect on the audience. Because the documentary consists entirely of Channel 2 news footage, it’s impossible, of course, to see what happened off-camera, but it’s clear that the settlers are often consciously stage-managing their own evacuation, at least to some degree.

The discussion afterwards served to highlight the degree to which these events are still highly contested, especially with upcoming elections both in Israel and among the Palestinians. Aharon Barnea explained afterwards, for example, that the leaders in the settlements had failed to adequately prepare the settlers for the fact that they would be evacuated and noted that many of the settlers have not come to term with their relocation. He also argued that the fact that the military finished the evacuations in only ten days showed that the majority of citizens supported it. But more than anything Barnea urged determination and sensitivity as guiding forces in moving towards peace and pointed with some optimism towards the upcoming elections, noting that “once you start talking, you can reach understandings.”

In a sense, Ten Days in Gaza felt a little rushed, and for viewers without a sense of the history of Israel, the film might have been somewhat confusing and disorienting, but the film itself is utterly compelling viewing, both in terms of portraying the experiences of the settlers and in terms of illustrating the degree to which the media participated in sensationalizing these events.

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Work in Progress: Scapegoat on Trial

This morning, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a “Work in Progress” panel discussion sponsored by the Washington Jewish Film Festival. This year’s work in progress was a documentary film, Scapegoat on Trial, co-directed by one of the fathers of cinema verite, Albert Maysles, and Academy Award nominee, Josh Waletzky. The panel was moderated by another documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who directed The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, among other films.

In Scapegoat on Trial, Maysles and Waletsky will be introducing contemporary audiences to the somewhat forgotten story of the Beilis Affair, in which Mendel Beilis, a Jewish resident in Kiev was framed for the brutal murder of a young Christian boy in March 1911. The framing was cynically concocted by the tsarist secret police and reiled upon the Blood Libel, asserting that the murder was part of a human sacrifice. The case against Beilis collapsed, however, when it became clear that much of the evidence had been fabricated. During the time of the trial, it provoked international outrage, but the story is not as widely known as it should be, in part due to the outbreak of World War I and the subsequent collapse of tsarist Russia. The story is quite obviously significant, if only because it’s worth learning about the heroism of the people who protested against the blood libel. But the film is also significant because versions of the blood libel persist to this day, as the recent documentary, Protocols of Zion, points out. In addition, the film raises important questions about the negative effects of demonizing vulnerable groups in order to promote fear and produce genocidal campaigns, as the recent events in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Darfur illustrate.

Maysles and Waletzky showed about nine minutes of the film, which is still in production, but even in those brief scenes, I was struck by the wealth of materials they will be using. Perhaps the most compelling material for this wanna-be archivist was footage from a 1913 Russian documentary that told the story of the Beilis Affair, complete with re-enacted scenes of Beilis’ arrest and “home movie” clips of his family and other participants in the case, including the corrupt officials who testified against him. In addition, Maysles and Waletzky were able to interview Beilis’ 95-year old daughter in her retirement home in the Bronx. I’ll admit to being utterly floored by this access to history, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing the completed film.

During the panel, Maysles also noted that the documentary also represents an implicit commentary on the degree to which mass media in the United States is “dedicated to dehumanizing” others, calling specific attention to the dehumanizing images offered in commercials and reality TV. In this context, Maysles recalled the experience of filming the 1955 documentary, Psychiatry in Russia, during the height of the Cold War, only to have the realization that “they’re just like us,” which of course makes it far more difficult to see the Soviets as enemies.

I’ll also admit to being more than a little star-struck by the opportunity to meet Waletzky, Kempner, and especially Maysles, after the panel ended. In particular, I had the chance to talk at some length with Maysles about the role of documentary as potentially humanizing other people. Watching this material and getting a sense of Maysles and Waletzky’s plans for the project left me feeling both energized and enthusiastic about the political potential of documentary filmmaking.

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La Petite Jerusaelm

La Petite Jerusalem (IMDB) focuses on Laura (Fanny Valette), an eighteen-year old student living in Sarcelles, a low-income suburb of Paris known as Little Jerusalem. Laura lives with her mother, who moved to France from Tunisia, and her sister, Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein) and her husband, Ariel, and their three children. Laura, a serious student of the Torah and of philosophy, specifically the work of Immanuel Kant, whose emphasis on the rational and knowable dominates Laura’s thinking. Laura even takes evening walks every evening at 7 PM, in imitation of the legendary stories about Kant’s embrace of routine. Of course, Laura’s investment in the rational and her faith in the Torah comes into question later in the film when she cautiously, haltingly embarks on an affair with an unreligious Algerian Muslim, Djamel. The cinematography captures the loneliness of these suburbs rather well, particularly in the repeated shots of the empty courtyard next to Laura’s building and the overhead shots of these low-income neighborhoods.

It’s difficult to watch this film, with its shots of gritty streets and concrete-block housing in suburban Paris and not think about the recent riots that have dominated the news, but the film only briefly tackles what Doug Ireland calls France’s lack of any “serious effort to integrate its Muslim and black populations into the French economy and culture.” It’s clear, of course, that Laura and Djamel’s families are struggling financially. Laura’s family, for example, decides aginst her renting an apartment in the city in part because it wouldn’t be affordable, but also because they worry that she will depart from the family traditions. Later in the film, Ariel is beaten in a brutal attack simply because he is Jewish, prompting Mathilde to worry that Laura should not be taking her evening walks.

As this Variety review notes, Petite also deals frankly with sexual desire as well. Mathilde, in particular, struggles with her obligations to the Torah and a satisfying sexual relationship with her husband. First-time writer-director Karin Albou handles Mathilde and Ariel’s cautious exploration nicely, as the two nervously and clumsily demonstrate their passion for each other in new ways. Unlike the City Paper review, which reads the bedroom scenes as implying the director’s awkwardness with this material, I think she’s simply capturing the caution that these characters might feel in breaking with the only practices they’ve known.

While I liked La Petite Jerusalem quite a bit and would certainly recommend it, it was somewhat difficult to determine what was particularly new about the film, which sometimes seemed caught up in some of the more familiar tropes of French cinema, particuarly Laura’s apparent sexual awakening. In particular, I would have welcomed a more explicit exploration of the tensions that Laura and Djamel’s families face as they seek to feel fully integrated in French society. These struggles–conveyed most vividly in the stark images of the separation between the bleak suburban cités and the Parisian city center–seemed crucial to the impossibility of a relationship between Laura and Djamel, but I left wishing for a more explicit exploration of that situation.

Note: La Petite Jerusalem is playing in DC as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival and will be playing again tomorrow evening at the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater. If you’re in DC, I’d certainly recommend catching the film. Oh, and tomorrow morning, I’ll be attending Work in Progress: Scapegoat on Trial, which also looks quite interesting.

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Indie Film Notes

I’m in full putting-out-forest-fire mode, so entries for the next few days may consist of fragments and partial maps of ideas for some articles I’m writing. Today, I’m working through some ideas related to the discussion of “independent cinema” I mentioned a few weeks ago. With that in mind, I’m linking to two somewhat unrelated articles.

The first is simply a promo piece on the Independent Spirit Award nominees. It’s tempting, of course, to be dismissive of the definition of “indpendent” represented in these awards, which tends to promote a relatively narrow image of indie, but I’m also interested in thinking about what people working on the “margins” of Hollywood can do politically (this is not to dismiss those working completely outside of Hollywood, of course, but to complicate these boundaries altogether).

Second is a mediageek blog entry on that NYT article on the independent filmmakers who put themselves over $50,000 in debt making their film, which has screened at over a dozen film festivals, gambling that it would get picked up for distribution. The mediageek entry discuses alternatives to the festival model, including touring with your film (much like an indie rock band might tour to promote an album), something Sujewa is planning to do with his film.

Oh, and I just wanted to mention that tonight I’ll be catching one of the films at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, the first time in several weeks that I’ve had a chance to see a movie in the theater (I have been way too busy). Tonight’s pick is La Petite Jerusalem, which looks really good.

Update: Here’s the DC City Paper article on the Film Festival.

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Voices of Iraq

I’ve been involved in some other writing projects this week and, thus, have not had time to feed the blog. One of those writing projects involves revisiting my work on documentaries about the war in Iraq, and with that in mind I watched the 2004 documentary, Voices of Iraq (IMDB), in which a group of American producers distributed 150 digital video cameras to Iraqi citizens who then passed them throughout the country. By the time the footage was compiled, over 1,500 Iraqis had filmed aspects of their daily lives, which was then compiled into a two-hour documentary. In fact, in the end credits the director’s creidt goes to the “People of Iraq.”

The film was made in the summer of 2004, around the time that the first round of elections were taking place, but also at the same time that the Abu Ghraib scandal had begun to break. Despite, the negative effects of the war, we are presented with euphoric images of family dinners, jubilant (male and female) students, and and happily employed workers. All of the people who address the cameras talk readily about their newly acquired freedom to speak against the government. These stories are told in a video verite style that often places emphasis on the amateur filmmaking techniques (clumsy zooms, out of focus shots, poorly framed shots) in order to emphasize their “authenticity.”

Of course things aren’t so simple, as we all know by now. Documentaries such as Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland, which were filmed at around the same historical moment tell a much different story, one that conveyed many of the divisions within the country that have complicated the Bush war plan. The film itself is a relatively transparent attempt to counteract many of these criticisms, with gloomy American newspaper headlines contratsed with the cheerful images that have been presented in the film, which raises some important questions about how much control the “people of Iraq” really had over the degree to which their stories were organized in the final film, as this Village Voice review points out. Because the Iraqis in the film seem to have been prompted to address a U.S. audience, it’s difficult to determine whether some of the interviews might be fabricated and even more difficult to determine what footage was left on the (purely metaphorical) cutting room floor.

For these reasons alone, the film should be treated with more than a little skepticism, but it’s difficult not to appreciate the upbeat images. And I’d agree with the Village Voice’s Joshua Land that “It’s certainly important for American leftists to consider that many Iraqis have benefited from the war that we oppose.” At the same time, the film offers little historical context or explanation for the conditions in Iraq both before and after Saddam Hussein’s fall. In this sense, to suggest, as Jonathan Curiel does, that Voices of Iraq conveys the situation in Iraq “in all its complexity” and “conflicting viewpoints” is misguided at best. I’ll admit that it’s relatively easy now to look back at something like Voices of Iraq and to fault the film for its euphoric presentation of the war (and I’ve done a little of that), but I’m intrigued by the effectiveness of the film’s appeal, particularly through its carefully crafted ideology of authenticity.

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Join the Party

For now, just a quick pointer to KF’s call for participation in the new ElectraPress blog and wiki.

According to KF, the goal of the ElectraPress website is “to foster this as a space in which those interested in the future of scholarly publishing can be active in shaping that future.” Here’s a more elaborate description of what she is proposing.

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