Can Israeli film take on the monster of war and win?
Wars, wherever they occur, are fertile territory for artistic creativity in films and books. Israel’s wars fit the same bill, and include the 50-year occupation of Palestinian territories and the generations of Israeli soldiers who served there.
A new Israeli film raising the hackles of Jews and Israelis is Foxtrot, which received the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival on Saturday. It won Best Film at Israel’s Ophir Awards and is short listed for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. Lead actor Lior Ashkenazi also won the Best Actor award in Venice.
Foxtrot, scheduled to open in American theatres on March 2, is a heartrending portrayal of a couple’s reaction to their soldier son’s death in the line of duty. It homes in on the blind alley of Israeli control over the West Bank and how this humiliates the occupied people and hardens the souls of those who control them. One scene shows an Israeli soldier doing a mock dance – the foxtrot – with his rifle. Like the foxtrot, things always return to the same spot.
Israel’s minister of culture, Miri Regev, slammed the film on Saturday, saying: “It’s outrageous that Israeli artists contribute to the incitement of the young generation against the most moral army in the world by spreading lies in the form of art.”
She went on to accuse the filmmaker of “self-flagellation and co-operation with the anti-Israeli narrative”.
The film’s director, Samuel Maoz, told reporters in Venice after claiming his prize that his criticism of Israel is because he loves his country and worries about it.
Myriad films have been made about the horror that soldiers endure in wars, and the trauma of their families. Some romanticise it; others plunge to the depths of the suffering and absurdities permeating every war.
Iconic films in this genre include Catch 22, made in 1970 and based on Joseph Heller’s satirical anti-war novel – a black comedy revolving around the “lunatic characters” who are soldiers at a World War II Mediterranean base, and whose main aim is to get back home alive. The hard-hitting 1978 classic, The Deer Hunter, portrays the Vietnam War by showing its effect on American working-class steel workers shattered by what happens to their loved ones – those who return and those who don’t.
A powerful new American biographical drama, made last year, is Rebel in the Rye. Based on the book Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, it shows the author’s life before and after World War II and the tragic consequences of the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from his active duties in the war, causing him to isolate himself for years in a wooded retreat far from society, and to cease publishing his work.
Potent triggers about patriotism, courage and betrayal are embedded in the gore of war and in movies about them. Are Israeli soldiers, and filmmakers who depict their experiences and Israel’s current political path in a negative way, betraying their fellow soldiers and citizens? Are they traitors, as some of their critics would have it? Or are they brave men telling truths most people don’t know, or don’t want to know?
Israeli president Reuven Rivlin emerges as a sane voice, unlike others. Before he had actually watched the film, he said he admired Israeli cinema as “a symbol of freedom of expression and the strength of Israeli democracy”.
His words won’t deter the pack who blindly toe the “party line” and have Maoz in their sights. It’s a sad indictment of Israel’s right wing government that its culture minister regards so broad a concept as culture through so narrow and chauvinistic a lens.
Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog sifrintakingissue.wordpress.com