PARK CITY, Utah – For Israel fans, it's all pain and anguish this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
in years past at America’s top independent film fest, when feature
films exploring the nuances of Israeli life offset some hard-hitting
documentaries – such as in 2007 when the award-winning Sweet Mud
contrasted with Hothouse – 2012 has no such leavening agents. At the
venues in this mountainous ski town showing the films this week, the
views of Israel range from critical to abysmal.
Shabbat at the 'Sundance Synaplex'
Israeli film makes Oscar short-list
high-impact documentaries -- Five Broken Cameras and The Law in
These Parts -- offer a searching examination of both the conception and
execution of Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
Cameras is West Bank resident Emad Burnat’s chronicle of life in his
Palestinian village of Bil’in from 2005 to 2010. Burnat, who serves as
narrator, director and cinematographer, documents on video the town’s
campaign of legal action and weekly demonstrations against the West Bank
security fence and Jewish settlements being built on Bil’in’s land, as
well as the impact of the protest movement on his wife and four young
children. The film, which won two awards in November at the
International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, was co-directed by
Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi.
How badly does Israel comes off in
this one? Think Bull Connor’s cops in Birmingham, Ala., except that
instead of attacking protesters with fire hoses and police dogs, the
authorities use rubber-coated bullets, stun grenades and tear gas
We witness a protest leader, a local resident known as
Phil who just minutes earlier was yelling at villagers to stop throwing
stones, struck in the chest by an Israeli tear gas canister and killed
during one of the weekly protests. We see an IDF soldier calmly aim
and fire a rubber-coated bullet at close range into the leg of a
protester who already has been arrested and handcuffed and is waiting to
be loaded into a van. We see IDF soldiers come in the
middle of the night to wake up families and arrest their preteen sons
who had been identified as participating in the protests.
film is one-sided and the impact is devastating. No mention is made of
the more than 1,000 Israelis who died in Palestinian terrorist attacks
in the decade before there was a West Bank security fence, no mention of
the soldier who lost an eye in 2005 when he was struck by a rock thrown
by a Bil’in resident. We never hear an Israeli commander explain why
the IDF chose its tactics.
But because Bil’in’s residents eschew
guns and bombs and attract so many Jewish Israelis to their side, and
because the IDF response appears on screen as disproportionate, the
documentary is damning.
It’s not just the documentary. Israel’s
own Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the security fence illegally
impeded on Bil’in’s land and ordered about two miles of the fence
rerouted. It took until 2011 for the IDF to comply, following additional
years of protests and successful contempt-of-court lawsuits against the
IDF over the delay. In all, Bil’in recovered about 170 acres.
Law in These Parts offers a much different look at essentially the
same issue. The film is an interrogation -- literally -- of the
military-run legal system of justice that Israel established in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip following the 1967 Six Day War. Made by Ra'anan
Alexandrowicz, whose previous works include The Inner Tour and James’
Journey to Jerusalem, the movie consists almost entirely of interviews
with the Israelis, now quite old, who had established the system and
run it over the years.
Some of the revelations are shocking. One
judge acknowledges that “of course” he knew about torture, contradicting
the findings of various Israeli investigative commissions.
Alexandrowicz takes us inside the meetings where they developed the
legal justifications for controversial practices such as indefinite
detentions and land confiscation for settlements.
Broken Cameras has the rough urgency of its hand-held production, The
Law in These Parts is calm and methodical, its critical perspective
unfolding in a slow, patient manner. The film, which won top documentary
honors last July at the Jerusalem Film Festival, is evenhanded in that
it gives Israel full credit for its painstaking efforts to create a
consistent set of rules in the areas it conquered in the ’67 war. But
the film also suggests that Israel’s legal system, while it may have
tempered some of the worst abuses of military occupation, also
legitimized many others.
In addition to these two films that focus directly on Israel, others at Sundance have Jewish themes or origins.
Must Be the Place is a bizarre film starring Sean Penn and Frances
McDormand and directed by Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino. Penn portrays
a retired and now middle-aged former goth rock star, Cheyenne, who is
modeled after The Cure’s Robert Smith. Mentally damaged and physically
frail, he wanders around Dublin still in full fright-wig hair and white
The Jewish element comes from left field when Cheyenne is
called to New York to the funeral of his father, an Orthodox Holocaust
survivor. In the film’s oddest turn, Penn meets with Judd Hirsch, who
plays a Nazi hunter, and decides to pursue his father’s one-time Nazi
torturer, now a man of advanced age and living in the United States.
McDormand and Hirsch put on good performances, but it’s hard to imagine
this weird tale attracting a substantial audience, Jewish or otherwise.
Davy follows American-Israeli Rachel Leah Jones’ journey to understand
her non-Jewish father, David Jones, exploring how “a white boy with
Alabama roots become a flamenco guitarist in Andalusian boots” and the
women and children he left behind along the way, including the