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The full-feature documentary, Withdrawal from Gaza, is a straightforward, moving narrative of the unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. The film is resourcefully shot, edited, and marketed, but lacks a glaringly original angle, except for one: In an industry known for its antipathy towards Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza, Withdrawal from Gaza goes against the general pro-Palestinian line and offers a sympathetic portrait of the Gush Katif settlers.
After a showing at the Laemmle movie theater in Encino, California, where the film made its theatrical premiere on March 23, the film's co-director and executive producer Joel Blasberg told The Jerusalem Post that he didn't intend the film to serve as hasbara (public relations) for the Gush Katif settlers' plight.
"I don't think it's particularly pro-settler, it portrays what happened there," he said.
Blasberg is a long-time Hollywood writer and producer for television and film, but this is his first documentary. He traveled to Israel months before the disengagement to chronicle this pivotal event in Jewish history. A self-proclaimed "very pro-Israel Zionist" who served in the Israeli army in the early '70s, Blasberg geared the documentary as "a portrayal that was favorable to Israel because I thought most films wouldn't be."
He expected the largely liberal media and film industry to hone in on settlers as "wide-eyed fanatics," as did one foreign TV documentary which followed a particularly hawkish Gush Katif resident. Withdrawal From Gaza interviews relatable, down-to-earth Gush Katif residents, including an injured Israeli war veteran, a doctor, a zookeeper, a widow, and a farmer, who describe at eye-level their reasons for settling in Gush Katif, their love for the region, their tragedies, and their fears, hopes and faith.
Blasberg is not surprised that his humane portraits elicited some criticism from local critics, such as the Los Angeles Times reviewer who lamented the omission of "any serious criticism of the settlers, whether from the Jewish left or any Palestinian point of view" and the LA Weekly reviewer who described the film as "carefully skewed toward likable, reasonable evacuees littered with shots of weeping soldiers who find their mission unbearable."
"If you show a film showing the Palestinian side," says Blasberg of such comments, "you wouldn't find a newspaper in American calling it pro-Palestinian propaganda. They'll say it's a film about Palestinian suffering."
While Blasberg claims the film is apolitical, a disengagement documentary can't help but be politically-charged. Classic right-wing arguments are sprinkled throughout the film through settler cautions and through an interview with former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe "Boogie" Ya'alon, who asks: "How did we get to this point that it's legitimate to evacuate Jews and not legitimate to evacuate Arabs?"
The only real, token leftist voice is that of the military governor of Gaza from 1979-81, who calls the settlers "colonialists" and says "we need to look upon this evacuation not with tears - only with joy. Israel will revert back to being a rational Zionist country and will cease being messianic."
Another interview with an evacuating soldier who remains steadfast in his mission gives the film an aura of balance, although Blasberg could have probably maximized the political power and passion of the film had he abandoned this seemingly begrudged effort at impartiality. But in that case, it's likely the film would have been labeled "propaganda" and unworthy of the critical attention and media coverage it has received.
The film premiered at the Israeli Film Festival in Los Angeles, with April screenings to follow at the Beverly Hills Film Festival, Santa Cruz Film Festival and Lenore Marwin Jewish Film Festival in Detroit, where it will receive the award for best directors.
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