Les États généraux du film documentaire 2006 Doc highway : Israel

Doc highway : Israel

Programming a selection of Israeli documentary cinema is not an easy task. For one thing, many cineasts do not identify themselves with Israel as a State or a nation. In addition, nothing in the form or direction of these films indicates a specific language, a particular cinematic tradition (as was the case for example last year with Iran). The audiovisual horizon is dominated by the West and more specially the United States with everything that implies in terms of international formatting, dilution in the great cauldron of anglophone show biz. And finally selecting a programme of current Israeli production runs the risk of giving a permanent, solid appearance to today’s highly provisional, unresolved situation.

This said, validating a certain state of things, is not to validate a specific State. Starting from an occupation that is almost a century old, a country has started to exist. This country is called Israel and a cinema exists, reacts, resists there. We have already shown what was born of this tragic history through the most important cineasts, from Avi Mograbi to Simone Bitton, from Eyal Sivan to Nurith Aviv or Amos Gitaï. Our question is more to find out what these filmmakers have created in their wake, and what is the common defining issue that situates Israeli documentary.

What Israeli documentary cinema takes in charge, in our opinion, at least in the films which interest us, is the central question of non-recognition: denying the other or taking him or her into account, and as a consequence, taking on the heavy task of assuming this heritage. This issue is what founds the very possibility of a cinema, that which allows filmmakers working in an oppressor country to continue practicing their art.
Exemplary from this point of view is The Garden1 by Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash. The central problem of this film could be defined as: how to allow the other to exist, beyond their unhappiness, beyond their social situation, beyond a simple subject (prostitution, drugs). The film avoids the trap of reducing its characters to a status or a frozen identity, and moves beyond the need for the filmmaker to clear his or her conscience — the ostensible subject is a friendship between an Arab Israeli and a Palestinian — to accompany its characters along a real trajectory. It is certainly not accidental that the original title of the film is the name of the neighbourhood in Tel Aviv in which the two characters live: the issue of territoriality is never far from the problem of recognition.

That individuals finally exist in and of themselves for who they are and not for what they are is also the movement described in Ramleh (the condition of women in Israeli society) and Badal (on arranged marriages), just as ten years earlier David Benchetrit had succeeded through the use of long spoken passages by three women in Le Voile et l'Exil to tell of History and recount their emancipation as individuals.

The practice of offering the spoken word has not always been evident in Israeli cinema. The written tradition (which dominated the propaganda cinema of the fifties and sixties) was a vehicle for the great myths on which the country was founded and ran against the possible threat posed by the act of recording as a means of providing living documents, proofs, traces. Myth against Document(ary), the Book against the Cinema, this is the tension that permeates Preliminaries by Anat Even. The filmmaker creates a dialogue of the two terms to question the story of the creation of the State of Israel. What narrative can be chosen when you live in Israel?

The political stake of this choice is clear; by its very essence documentary cinema in its negotiation with myth leads to a break or a crisis-provoking questioning. This crisis provides an opening whereby History can be reintroduced into documentary cinema via at least two important filmmakers. The first, Ram Loevy, is a cineast of fiction and television. His famous Hirbet Hizaa was the first film to evoke the evacuation of Palestinian villages in 1948. Its broadcast in 1978 was only possible after a general strike at Israeli television which led to the shut-down of the only channel on the air at the time. So it was a fiction film which undertook to show, speak of and stage the bodies and situations covered by a taboo — filmed in a style that was completely porous to — precisely the Real.

The second essential cineast, David Perlov can be considered the father of Israeli documentary cinema with the cornerstone production In Jerusalem in 1963, followed by his Diary shot between 1973 and 2001. History and the intimate are inextricably linked in the cineast’s apartment, doors open to all winds, windows gathering all the sounds of the world. A premonitory diarist, Perlov never uses the intimate as a refuge to reinvent the Real, but rather uses it as a platform where the issues at stake for his country combine in a completely original way to transcribe this Real.

Cineast and teacher of cinema, Perlov’s influence on all the generations that followed him is universally recognized. Ruth Walk, one of his former students, has dug a subtle path of which The Settlers is an essential stage. Filming alongside the Israeli colonialists, in the intimacy of their apartments and their revelations, she manages to capture the “denial of the other” at its source. She displays no didactic preoccupation, just filming the spoken word which tells of what has been suppressed, of the denial of reality. On the contrary, in the film In Working Progress, we see the economic instrumentalisation of Palestinian workers building the future residences of settlers from which they will be excluded as soon as the work finished. Here just as the Palestinians were invisible in The Settlers, there is no trace of the future colonial occupants. In both cases, the filmmakers refuse to film both sides, as if it was by investigating one side that the other could find an existence, behind the wall, beyond the window or the screen. In this intense position where filmmakers put themselves at risk with their characters — likely to get beaten, seduced or recuperated —, the question of concealment becomes radically apparent; it is not even the reverse angle, it is off screen. Once constructed, it is as if, behind the wall, nobody was there.

Kibbutz pushes this question even further: incapable of taking into account the existence of the other, one ends up disappearing oneself. The kibbutz becomes a no-man’s land where little by little the founding values of Israel disappear, dying off as if by implosion. The fear of disappearance is no longer from far away (the Shoah) but from very nearby, and transmission becomes terrifying — it is twenty-year-old youth who kill themselves, carrying on their shoulders their parents’ failure.

This reversed transmission (giving back to their parents something of their own history) is one of the great projects of young Israeli cineasts. In Ashes, the filmmaker daughter brings her mother back to the Christian Arab village from which she was expelled, reactivating a conscience that her mother, to avoid the pain, had suppressed. The children bear the suppressed parts of their parents’ history, to relieve them of their suffering and assume their role as their parents’ inheritors. But family stories can be more convoluted. SchulMania, Naomi's Corset (exemplary) and First Lesson in Peace are each in their own way built on a perverse structure where cinema is ideally supposed to help out the relation between parents and children, where the camera becomes invested with a demential affective charge, where the cineasts project onto their children an inaccessible desire for reconciliation.

The importance of private family affairs is revealing of the extent to which Israeli film directors have understood what is at stake in the instrumentalisation of images. Israeli documentary production is plethoric, in particular thanks to coproductions by Channel 8 and the support of numerous foundations. There are innumerable film schools but their films often fit into standard formats, the films tell local anecdotes, record an institutionalised memory and continue a worrying denial of the Real. In this context the recent creation of the Sapir Film School in Southern Israel, near the Gaza strip, is something of a wager, and its success is truly remarkable (Between the Pieces, Sisai).

This is because for one of its founders, the cineast Avner Faingulernt, cinema can only be thought of as a place of conflict. How can we put together the oppositions and contradictions of life, without idyllic reunification, but at the heart of the impossibility of things, this is the grand gesture of Men on the Edge, a fine film which attempts against all odds to create an on-screen coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian fishermen, in spite of the shocks and ruptures. As long as there is acting, as long as there is speech, there is a possible scene, a drama, a flame. Holding things together without attempting to reconcile, Avner Faingulernt filmed his fishermen over several years, and chose to set up his school as close as possible to Gaza, in a desire for exchange and dialogue which events very quickly made impossible.
It is a question of physical endurance and attempted dialectics, inseparable, necessary.

A certain Israeli cinema belongs to those who struggle, holding their breath for a long fight, working against all around them not to duck away from their responsibility, to maintain their ability to look at the other straight in the eyes.

Gaël Lépingle and Christophe Postic

1. The Festival was unable to obtain the authorization to project this film.

Read the communiqué and the programm complement.

Coordination : Gaël Lépingle and Christophe Postic

Guests : Invités : Avner Faingulernt (réalisateur et co-fondateur de l'école de cinéma Sapir), Yaël Perlov (monteuse et fille de David Perlov).
N.B.: Après un premier festival de films documentaires israéliens en décembre 2005, l'association Confluences (Paris 20e) organisera une nouvelle rétrospective en décembre 2006, programmée par Ariel Cypel.
Remerciements à Olivier Tournaud, de l'Ambassade de France, et à Ilana Tsur, directrice du Festival Doc Aviv.