Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Divided Self in the Divided Country: Three portraits of Israel

Miriam Weissenstein and her grandson Ben, in Life in Stills

We are pleased to welcome Barbara Shainbaum as a guest contributor to Critics at Large.

Themes of the divided self in the divided country, reflecting different sides of the Israeli psyche, surfaced in three thought-provoking documentaries shown at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

It was, actually, another Hot Docs film, All Divided Selves that set up the framework for me. Scottish filmmaker Luke Fowler’s experimental, fractured, but at times brilliant, archival collage examined Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing and his landmark book, The Divided Self, that theorized insanity could be understood as a reaction to a self that is split. Schizophrenia was viewed as a result of wrestling with two identities – one defined for us by our families, and the other, our true identity, as experienced by ourselves. When both aspects of the self clash, internal fracturing occurs, causing a divide. This phenomenon can also happen to countries and cultures, in this case, Israel, a country split by grappling with issues of identity and memory.

Israeli filmmaker Tamar Tal’s compelling and poignant Life in Stills won the Best Film Award in the Israeli Film competition at the 2011 DocAviv International Film Festival. It shows how the country, city and self can clash. Miriam Weissenstein, the 96-year-old widow of eminent Israeli photographer Rudi Weissenstein, the founder of Tel Aviv’s Photo House (Pri-Or), joins forces with her grandson, Ben. They are battling a developer intent on demolishing her husband’s 72-year old shop, which contains a photographic legacy of over one million negatives chronicling Israeli history, featuring Tel Aviv’s major events, and highlighting the famous long-married couple’s life. Part of the irony was that Tel Aviv was celebrating its 100th anniversary and used Weissenstein’s black and white blow-ups when Tal was shooting her film.

Rudi Weissenstein, with camera
Ben co-owns the Photo House with his feisty, witty and marvelous grandmother and moves into the apartment of his supportive, loving, and male Palestinian lover. The three of them travel to a prestigious Berlin gallery spotlighting the grandfather’s photo exhibit. They hope for a cooperative artistic future. When they return to Tel Aviv they discover that Miriam’s apartment has been ransacked. She fears their photographic treasure, the carefully hidden images from Israel's Declaration of Independence ceremony, the heart of her husband’s work, and an icon of the country’s centre, has been stolen along with other negatives. After it is found, it seems ironic that this shop, a private archive that serves as a public unofficial symbol of the country’s divided self, could possibly be demolished.

(At the 2012 Hot Docs Q & A for Life in Stills, Ben confirmed that the shop’s archive of over one million photographic negatives still has not been digitized and anything could happen to it. He had contacted the Israeli government about digitization, but they declined because it’s a private collection. Harvard University, however, has expressed interest in digitizing and preserving it.)

By showing Tel Aviv’s photographic lineage, Tal, also the film’s producer and writer, creates a conversation between the Israeli past and present, as well as Miriam’s and Ben’s past and present. Tal tells the story in a sensitive yet bracing way. She laces it with liberal doses of sharp verbal humour, as she examines the emotionally complex relationship between grandmother and grandson as they struggle with different versions of official and personal memories, and questions what really holds this family together. Miriam and Ben’s sparring dialogue is triggered by a shocking personal tragedy – an event that both pulls apart and bonds grandmother and grandson – but also contains an underlying love. Years before, Miriam’s daughter (Ben’s mother) was murdered by Ben’s father who then committed suicide when his wife wanted to end their 30-year marriage. It’s implied that the father was mentally ill and possibly schizophrenic. Miriam never forgave her son-in-law, the murderer of her beloved daughter, but Ben, who looks uncannily like his father, struggles with the tragedy and his own torn personality and loyalties. He needs to preserve the image of the father he once loved, while still being connected to his grandmother. Miriam and Ben quarrel with each other, but honour their bifurcated personalities fluctuating between the living and the dead, the family tragedy and the hope of new adventures.

A scene from Soldier/Citizen

Silvina Landsmann’s lively, quick-paced, and straight-ahead documentary, Soldier/Citizen, looks at different aspects of Israel’s divided self in an attempt to bridge the schism. When a group of young Israeli soldiers take a voluntary course in Civic Studies to complete their high school diploma in preparation to re-enter civilian life, a fiery classroom debate erupts between the experienced middle-aged teacher and his young twenty-something students.

Soldier/Citizen, shot over three weeks, uses a fly-on-the wall approach to let us see and experience the dynamic tension. The camera briskly pans back and forth between the teacher and a few engaged and mouthy students who dominate with their passionate views. The film’s energy feeds off them and the crackling debates  – an engrossing process to watch  – as the teacher challenges his students’ beliefs and opinions about the paradoxes of a Jewish democracy, Israeli memory and identity, secular and Orthodox Jews, Arabs, pluralism, education, etc. The students’ split personalities echo in their punchy dialogue as they grapple with Israel’s official and historical concepts which are often at odds with their own personal, distressing, and traumatic experiences gleaned from combat with Arabs, or at the checkpoints in their divided country. These young soldiers, on the cusp of returning to Israel’s cities, towns, and their own families, must question and reassess what threads hold together the conflicting parts of their selves and country. They are soldiers transitioning back to their role as citizens.

A scene from The Law in These Parts

Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s controversial The Law in These Parts won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The film was “designed for mainstream Israelis to show them the double-sidedness of the legal system in the occupied territories,” Alexandrowicz said, at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival Q & A. “There is a metaphorical side to the film that embodies conflicts. There are two conflicting ideologies in play that propagate in Israel’s occupied territories, one for Israeli settlers and one for Palestinian residents.”

Through his extensive research, Alexandrowicz excavates the multitude of laws created since 1967 that reference the set-up of courts and the sentencing of thousands of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories including the Gaza Strip, which is now under Palestinian control. This process allowed thousands of Israeli settlers to move onto, build and live on this land. Decades later, the director tracks down and interviews, in segments intended to be testimonials, the lawmakers and the military judges – the actual architects of the system – to get them to reveal their honest feelings on the impact of their decisions. We quickly sense there’s a hidden agenda about to unfold.

Alexandrowicz (James’ Journey to Jerusalem, The Inner Tour) sets up The Law in These Parts, structured in five chapters, as a soundstage with a filmic witness stand. He probes these retired and elderly men, prodding their memories and hopefully tapping their possible divided selves to see, through hindsight, any division in their thoughts and feelings. The judges on the whole are mentally sharp (some physically frail, one in a wheelchair, some alert, others with foggier memories). They still uphold their decisions and positions about the law in the occupied territories 45 years later. They’re lawyers, so they don’t show a lot of emotional responses. Some of them maintain they didn’t know about the violence of the interrogations; some imply they heard things but kept to their own business; and one judge admits he knew about the situation and shares what he had heard.

Filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz at Sundance earlier this year
Because Alexandrowicz himself is shown interviewing and, at times, interrogating the lawmakers in the film, the viewer feels the subjective power he has over his subjects by what he asks them, by how he frames his questions and interprets their answers, by how he portrays them on film, and finally how he edits them. As the filmmaker/director, he can make them look good or bad. This is the kind of parallel-like power the judges had over their subjects.

Half of the judges in the film are unhappy they participated in it, Alexandrowicz  has said. They didn’t have a problem with the presentation of facts, but were unhappy and felt judged with how he portrayed them within the context of the film. The Law in These Parts cross-cuts archival film footage that often undercuts the judges’ testimonies, revealing schisms that pit them against each others’ stories.

Alexandrowicz’s own conflicted self bristled with moral outrage when he spoke live on stage about Israel, his homeland, a country of Jewish democracy. Although he didn’t state it directly in the film, nor at the festival Q & A’s I attended, it was no surprise when I learned recently that he is one who thinks that Israel is an apartheid state. He was also one of the signatories to the anti-Israel petition, protesting the Toronto International Film festival’s spotlight on Tel Aviv in 2009.

As I reflect on the almost schizophrenic sets of dichotomies in the film, I’m reminded of the lines, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” from William Butler Yeats’ poem found in Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Both Alexandrowicz’s centre and Israel’s centre may well continue wrestling with two clashing identities in the divided country as they struggle to contain their personal and political conflicts.

Barbara Shainbaum is a Toronto arts and culture writer, critic, and film programmer

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