The Sum of All Fears

Nuclear Brinkmanship, Suicide Attacks, and Driver's-Ed Scares

The so-called road map to peace passes through a seemingly intractable cycle. At one point in Human Weapon, a Gaza-based Palestinian psychiatrist points out that the suicide bombers are typically the traumatized children of the first, pre-Oslo intifada. Yulie Cohen Gerstel's My Terrorist, showing with Human Weapon, represents an attempt to break the pattern. The filmmaker was a member of an El Al crew ambushed in London in 1978 by a pro-Palestinian shooter. Gerstel was wounded; another stewardess was killed. Twenty-odd years later, as an Israeli peace activist during the hopeful moment that preceded the 2000 Camp David summit, Gerstel established contact with the shooter in his British prison. As he appeared to have repudiated violence, she decided to support his bid for freedom as a means of promoting Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

In her film Gerstel—who is a sixth-generation sabra, the product of a military family (cousin to former Israeli president Ezer Weizman), and a participant in the successful raid on Entebbe—documents her appearances on Israeli TV and at various rallies. The response is generally hostile. Her apparent marginalization in Israeli society renders this political psychodrama all the more depressing.

He's the bomb: an image of Indian prime minister Vajpayee, as seen in War and Peace.
photo: First Run/Icarus Films
He's the bomb: an image of Indian prime minister Vajpayee, as seen in War and Peace.


War and Peace
Written and directed by Anand Patwardhan
First Run/Icarus
June 26 through July 2, at Anthology

Human Weapon
Directed by Ilan Ziv
First Run/Icarus
June 25 through July 8, at Film Forum

My Terrorist
Written and directed by Yulie Cohen Gerstel
Women Make Movies
June 25 through July 8, at Film Forum

Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films
Written and directed by Bret Wood
Kino International
Opens June 27, at Cinema Village

An unfunny comedy and somewhat murky exposé, Bret Wood's weirdly nostalgic, mildly exploitative Hell's Highway—showing as projected DV at Cinema Village—resurrects the gory driver's-education scare movies of the '60s, particularly those produced by the Mansfield, Ohio, firm Highway Safety Films, Inc.

Wood interviews two surviving Highway Safety principals. Archivist Rick Prelinger, whose redeployment of vintage industrial and classroom films is more thoughtful than that of Hell's Highway, is also on hand to provide some context on the genre, which was created by insurance companies in the mid 1930s. Where early driver's-ed films like the 1950 Last Date (which starred the future husband of Samantha the Witch and introduced the concept of "teen-a-cide") were relatively restrained in their scare tactics, Highway Safety's movies were based on unstaged accident footage of bloody, mangled bodies augmented, as in a Coney Island spook ride, with taped screams, and narrated with a detached, dramatizing voice-over.

Some credit Highway Safety with the automobile reforms of the mid '60s—although it's likely that Congress was influenced more by Ralph Nader's muckraking Unsafe at Any Speed. In any case, the firm branched out into police training films. In one, a professional shoplifter demonstrates her skill at slipping a dozen steaks beneath her copious skirt and coolly exiting with the meat firmly between her thighs. Another, so explicit that it fed rumors the folks at Highway Safety were moonlighting as pornographers, turned a hidden camera on the doings in a Mansfield public toilet. Highway Safety also produced a classroom traumatizer called The Child Molester (1964) before going under in the wake of a bungled, money-losing telethon, hosted by Sammy Davis Jr.

Like the movies it samples, Hell's Highway is viscerally unsettling. Unlike those cautionary horrors, however, it doesn't have much of a point—unless it's the remark by one of the comfy old codgers that Highway Safety's films were less shocking than contemporary video games. It's a pity that Wood didn't ask them to comment on David Cronenberg's Crash.

Related Story:
"Too Fast, Too Furious: A Pair of Documentaries Grapple With Fanaticism and Forgiveness" by C. Carr

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