For the past several years, the burgeoning Israeli film scene has been well represented at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; this year's slate of new docs included three Israeli productions (Lady Kul el-Arab, Unmistaken Child and Voices of El-Sayed). This month, at the invitation of the Duke Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, two prominent voices from Israeli cinema are making an out-of-season visit to the Triangle.
Last Monday saw a rare American showing of Ram Loevy's Khirbet Khizeh, a landmark feature from 1977 about the expulsion of Palestinians from Israeli land in the early days of the republic. The Israeli Filmmakers series continues this Monday, with a screening of Z32, billed as a "musical-documentary-tragedy" by director Avi Mograbi.
The Israeli film community has lately received more than its usual share of publicity, both positive and negative. Last year's Waltz With Bashir won a major international release and was nominated for a foreign language Oscar, while just this month, the Toronto Film Festival's selection of Tel Aviv as this year's "spotlight city" has brought vehement protest from a vocal cadre of filmmakers and celebrities, who accuse the festival of pandering to the Israeli government's propagandistic "Brand Israel" campaign. But as Loevy and Mograbi's body of work attest, some of filmdom's strongest voices against the policies of the Israeli government arise from within the country itself.
Like the more recent work of Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, Z32 experiments intriguingly with the documentary form. The movie concerns a young veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, haunted by memories of a revenge mission in the West Bank. Much of his confession comes in a series of filmed conversations with his girlfriend, from whom he seeks an absolution they both know is not hers to give. With such a heavy story to tell, you'd expect a sober, straightforward treatment; instead, you get Mograbi belting the details of a nighttime ambush with piano accompaniment, cabaret-style.
The soldier and his girlfriend are shown with their faces obscured, as he fears retribution from his Palestinian victims' families, possibly even prosecution for war crimes. Here Mograbi turns a logistical consideration into an aesthetic choice, using 3-D computer rendering to create strangely realistic yet artificial-looking digital masks. It's an unsettling metaphor for the emotional masks the characters wear.
Mograbi also turns the camera on himself, documenting his own artistic odyssey to an unexpected level of detail. "My wife asks me not to film him/ here in our living room," he croons, gazing soulfully into the camera. "She says: 'This is not material for a movie!'" Such postmodern touches add intellectual and artistic panache, but, surprisingly, they don't dilute the film's emotional weight. There's nothing unserious about Mograbi's approach. The layers of self-reference and artistic indulgence expose the artifice of cinematic storytelling, whether truth or fiction. The soldier's descriptions of his lived experience, by comparison, seem all the more banal, which only magnifies their horror.
Mograbi's seriousness of purpose comes from the fact that Z32 isn't just the story of one soldier, but of an ongoing national tragedy. He represents a wave of Israeli filmmakers taking on the mantle of their nation's collective conscience, with films highly critical of the military and the government. The 2008 Full Frame selection To See If I'm Smiling, a disturbing portrait of disillusioned female Israeli army veterans, is another example.
Loevy, who's teaching a class in Israeli film at Duke this fall, has been at the vanguard of this type of cinematic self-critique for over 40 years. His 1968 film I Ahmad was the first to portray the experience of Palestinians under Israeli rule. Khirbet Khizeh sparked a ferocious debate when it was shown on Israeli TV in 1978: The government tried to cancel the broadcast, but was prevented from doing so by the Israeli Supreme Court.
Loevy says today's drastically more tolerant climate is driving the creation of films like Z32 and To See If I'm Smiling. "When you compare Israel of today to Israel in '78," he says, "I think there is a change. The public will allow talking about subjects which have not been talked about before.
"People like the soldiers shown in those films are part of the community, and the stories they tell when they come home after their service are not hidden. It's not that something happened far away at the front and nobody knows about it."
Israelis' willingness to tackle difficult questions of their nation's past and present stands in contrast to the reflexively defensive posture of much of the American Jewish community. "When you talk in Israel, things are discussed openly, even delicate matters," he says. His desire in coming to Duke is that "I hope that things that are hidden and not talked about will be talked about."
Z32 will screen for free on Monday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m. at Duke's Griffith Theater. Tuesday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m., also at Griffith, Mograbi will show clips of his films and lead a discussion of his work. On Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m. in the Richard White Auditorium, Mograbi and Loevy will lead a panel discussion on Israeli documentaries. On Monday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m., Loevy will show clips and discuss his work at Richard White. See fvd.aas.duke.edu/screensociety/schedule.php for more information.
Disclosure: The writer's employer, Center for Documentary Studies, is one of half a dozen co-sponsors of these events from various Duke departments. The writer has no personal involvement in the programming.