Imagine if, each year, Connecticut were the subject of dozens of documentaries—close looks at border disputes with Rhode Island, essays on commuters returning from their daily exile in Manhattan, polemics contrasting inner-city poverty with suburban splendor. Every year in Israel—a nation roughly the size of Connecticut—scores of documentarians train their cameras on the region’s political, religious, ethnic, and social conflicts. Some of their finest works are showcased in this series by the Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television, an organization promoting a screen image of Israel as complex as that country’s reality.
With notable exceptions, including Odessa . . . Odessa!, a poignant evocation of a lost, imaginary city, and In Satmar Custody, a Hasidic thriller-tragedy (both opening for commercial runs), most of the films available for preview focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Director-cameraman Yoav Shamir took two years filming the remarkable Checkpoint (2003), an up-close-and-personal vision of the daily face-off between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians at roadblocks scattered throughout the West Bank. In its (rare) lighter moments, this vérité exposé, which highlights the dehumanizing effects of occupation for both sides, acquires a Kafkaesque absurdity.
The old saw “the personal is political” takes on new meaning in a land where the brother of the person sitting next to you on the bus may be an Internet mogul, a Hasidic devotee, or a suicide bomber. That volatile nexus where affairs of state meet affairs of the heart is the locus of How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon (1997), Avi Mograbi’s darkly comic film diary about the dissolution of his marriage during Israel’s 1996 electoral campaign, while he was working on a documentary about Ariel Sharon. Mograbi, a committed leftist who went to prison rather than serve in Israel’s 1981 war with Lebanon, had long been haunted by Sharon, at the time a relatively marginal presence on the far right of Israeli politics. The filmmaker recounts dreams and nightmares in which Sharon appeared to him; in real life Sharon’s warmth and humor shock and inspire him with a vague yearning to belong. Offscreen, the director’s wife responds with increasing horror to his growing ideological disorientation. With its mix of wild surreality and tragic disarray, the film eerily presages the confusion of Israel’s left and the country’s sharp shift rightward.
“Not what Ben-Gurion had in mind” was one Israeli friend’s response to Channels of Rage (2003), about the blighted search for coexistence among Israeli hip-hop singers. Subliminal, Israel’s leading rap musician, proudly sports a big Jewish star; some of his songs have been censored for their supposedly ultra-right-wing content. Yet five years ago he shared a stage with MC Tamer, an Israeli Arab rapper from the ghetto of Lod, whose rhymes, in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, spell out the rage of his generation. What happened since then? The film provides a window onto a subculture whose conflicts mirror the chaos, anger, and dissent of a divided society.
On the other side of the fence (both metaphorically and, alas, all too literally), Good Morning Jerusalem (2004) exposes the plight of Palestinian families living in East Jerusalem, whose houses have been demolished by Israeli bulldozers and who find themselves squatting in temporary shelters that threaten to become permanent. Avoiding polemic, director Suha Arraf focuses closely on one man, a singer and taxi driver who resides with his wife and young children in a makeshift community set up within the walls of an abandoned cultural center. The images of life continuing amid improvised quarters—a newborn being bathed, laundry being hung, a bride in a princess gown entering her cinder-block home—come to stand for an oppressed people in waiting, creating their existence piecemeal from the shards of yesterday’s dreams.