Censored Voices
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Censored Voices

Our critic ponders the limits of the acceptable in Israeli film

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

 

Israeli filmmakers always have seen cinema not only as a vehicle for artistic expression, but also as an opportunity to delve into the complexities of Israeli life.

From the very beginning, many of the stories they put onto film often questioned the foundations of Zionism, and what it means to live in a state founded on Jewish values. In many ways, these artists looked at the Zionist ideal and asked Israeli viewers — as well as anyone else who was paying attention — to take a hard look at their society, with the hope of making it better. In truth, through the early decades of the state, with but a few exceptions, few Israelis took note. Israeli movies largely were ignored.

In these last dozen years, however, that has changed.

As the quality of Israeli movie-making has grown, with increased foundation and government sponsorship, and with a new generation of film school-trained filmmakers, Israelis finally are paying attention. Once, Israelis flocked to Hollywood movies; now, Israeli cinema finally has caught their interest. It also has brought acclaim from across the globe, including “best foreign language film” Oscar nominations in five of the last eight years.

But what exactly are the films saying? What message are they putting out?

New Israeli films — particularly documentaries —are becoming more and more critical of the country. In Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers,” we watched former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic secret service, speak out about policy mistakes and share their concerns about current government decision-making. In Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s “The Law in These Parts,” former judges and legal experts speak derisively about how Israel has administered the West Bank. Now, Mor Loushy relates the previously untold stories of questionable and sometimes horrific acts committed by Israel Defense Forces soldiers during and immediately after the Six Day War.

Have they gone too far?

Anyone who lived through Israel’s Six Day War remembers our fears about Israel’s vulnerability in the weeks that preceded the conflict, and the deep pride Jews felt after Israel’s miraculous victory. There is little doubt that after Israel’s triumph, Jews around the world stood a great deal taller. We also saw the conflict as one into which Israel was forced, and the combat as a righteous undertaking. Filmmaker Loushy now raises serious questions about the manner in which Israel achieved its miraculous Six Day War victory. The accepted postwar narrative was that after accomplishing the impossible, triumphant Israeli soldiers treated prisoners and inhabitants of conquered territories with respect and honor. Published diaries and journals by combatants did not glorify war. Instead, they made it clear how uncomfortable Israeli soldiers were with the horror and outrage that is war. And unlike other countries, where war is glorified in cinema after a victory, no such films appeared in the Jewish state. Instead, what followed in Israel were films not about the grandeur, but about loss and the rage of war.

Ms. Loushy came across one of the postwar publications: “Siach Lochamim,” released here as “The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk About the Six Day War.” She was caught by the recently discharged soldiers’ frankness, and sought to learn more. In the course of her research, she found that in 1967, in the days that followed the conflict, author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira had interviewed kibbutz members returning from army service. In these interviews, the kibbutzniks wrestled with difficult questions about what it means to be the victor, and about how they acted during the conflict. The probing interviews were recorded on audio, and within three months of the war’s conclusion Oz edited and published them. But Ms. Loushy also discovered that the IDF censored nearly 70 percent of the audio transcripts — they were not allowed to be published. She asked to read the 48-year-old full transcript, but kept being turned away. Finally, after nearly nine months, her incessant probing led her to Shapira and the original audiotapes. What had been kept out of the original published work largely are tales of humanitarian lapses in the treatment of the conquered. Those stories become the centerpiece of Loushy’s film, “Censored Pieces.” Having seen the movie, I can fully appreciate why those events were not published.

The question that I now pondered was whether I would review the film. I questioned Ms. Loushy’s wisdom in making it. She certainly had succeeded in shattering my understanding of the Six Day War, and my strong belief that Israeli soldiers are moral, exceptional, and beyond reproach. How would others respond to the film? Does Israel not have enough on its plate? Yet the film continues to be shown in Israel. It has won the coveted Ophir award for best documentary. Not quite sure what to do, I set up an interview with the filmmaker.

I asked Ms. Loushy tough, probing questions. She was unequivocal about her left-wing politics but quite proud to be an Israeli. “I choose to live in Israel and raise my child in Israel,” she said. She talked about how important it is for a society to bring out the truth. “I think that those who come to watch the film will understand my message: What kind of future do we want for our kids? In order for us to talk about the price we pay for war, we need to put everything on the table. War has corrupted us.” She told me that the film has stimulated extensive dialogue throughout Israel. I can understand why.

I continue to question the film’s screening here. At the same time, I remember the time when another controversial Israeli film was shown in this country. Someone in the audience announced that he was horrified that a Jewish community institution was screening this “anti-Israel” film, and that he was withdrawing his financial support from it. The Israel consul, who was there, responded by saying that an Israeli had made the film, and that the government had provided some of the funding. The consul went on to say that Israel is a democracy, and that filmmakers have the right to express themselves as they see fit.

“Censored Voices” is a film made by a proud Israeli. It may not be the kind of film you want to see, but I respect and support her right to seek truth, and to make the film. The film is well-made. Author Amos Oz, who endorsed the film and who was the architect of the original interviews, opens and closes the documentary. Combined with archival film footage, the filmmaker lets us see some of the interviewees as the audio recordings play their previously censored voices.

The film opens today at Lincoln Plaza in New York.

Eric Goldman is writing a book about Israeli society and cinema. He writes and lectures on Jewish cinema.

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