Hopeless in Gaza

Yariv Horowitz’s feature film ‘Rock the Casbah’ will shake you up.

Hopeless in Gaza (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hopeless in Gaza
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rock the Casbah Hebrew title: Rock ba’Casbah.Directed by Yariv Horowitz
Written by Yariv Horowitz and Guy Meirson.With Angel Bonani, Yon Tomarkin, Iftach Rave, Roy Nik, Yotam Ishay Running time: 93 minutes.In Hebrew and Arabic. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
If the ideas underlying the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers were encapsulated into a feature film, it would look a lot like Yariv Horowitz’s Rock the Casbah. This film, which just won the International Confederation of Art Cinemas award at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival, tells the story of what it’s really like for a group of Israeli soldiers tasked with patrolling the streets of Gaza in 1989.
Just as the former heads of the Shin Bet interviewed in The Gatekeepers spoke about how their experiences made them question the wisdom of many government decisions, Rock the Casbah shows how incredibly hopeless the mission of the IDF in Gaza already was in the late 1980s. While these soldiers may have been sent there to protect Israel, Rock the Casbah dramatizes how they actually spend their days, either as moving targets or sitting ducks. For most of the soldiers in the film, their only aspiration while in Gaza is to leave alive, and not all of them make it.
While over the past few years three important films – Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir and Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon – looked at the first Lebanon War, few feature films have explored the subject of Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza. This issue is even more charged and more polarizing than the Lebanon War, which ended 27 years ago. In fact, there is probably no single issue that is more divisive and polarizing. It’s a subject about which virtually all Israelis have strong opinions, and that makes it difficult to dramatize. It’s hard to create an engaging film when your thoughts about a subject are black and white. But Horowitz has managed to avoid most of the pitfalls inherent in a movie about the IDF in Gaza and has made a gripping, complex film.
It opens as a group of new recruits arrive in Gaza. They are greeted by a macho commander (Angel Bonani, who starred in a very different role in Salsa Tel Aviv), who tells them they are there to restore order by crushing any terrorism or political activism they encounter. Apprehensive, the soldiers set off on a patrol. In a particularly gripping sequence, they encounter a group of boys throwing rocks at them, and in the confusion that follows, someone tosses a washing machine off a roof and kills one of the Israelis.
What follows is a textbook case of how hard it is to rule over a hostile population. The commander sends four of them to stand guard on the rooftop where the machine was thrown. The building’s residents are a family who are none too pleased to have the Israelis there.
As they sit on the roof with little to do, we get to know each of the soldiers. It’s here that so many films about the military become a bit familiar, even clichéd. Tomer (Yon Tomarkin), is the most sensitive of the group, and it is he who feels the most conflicted about being there. Haim (Iftach Rave) is the cut-up, whose crude humor provides the film with its few lighter moments. Aki (Roy Nik) is angry and pushes for retaliation against the groups of teens who mill around on the street below, taunting and trying to provoke them. The commander who should be pulling the team together and giving them direction, Ariel (Yotam Ishay), is a pot head with just a few weeks left to serve who has little interest in what is going on.
The bulk of the film alternates between nail-biting suspense as the soldiers patrol or cope with the hostile family and taunting boys, and lulls as they reveal their personal stories. The soundtrack is rock ’n’ roll (including the title tune) from the Voice of Peace radio station. The messiness of their mission is matched by its high stakes. They can never bring order to Gaza, but even with all their complaining and cynicism, they are risking their lives to try to do it. Rock the Casbah is masterful at illuminating this strange contradiction.