Views of Israel at Sundance: Critical to abysmal

In past years movies at the US's top independent film fest have featured films exploring nuances of Israeli life.

January 24, 2012 10:12
'The Law in These Parts' film poster

'The Law in These Parts' film poster 311 . (photo credit: Courtesy)


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PARK CITY, Utah – For Israel fans, it's all pain and anguish this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

Unlike 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.

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Two 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.

Five Broken 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 canisters.

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.


The 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.

The 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.

Where Five 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.

This 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 makeup.

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.

Penn, McDormand and Hirsch put on good performances, but it’s hard to imagine this weird tale attracting a substantial audience, Jewish or otherwise.

Gypsy 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 filmmaker.

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