Mitchell Miller on two close-up views of the Arab-Israeli conflict
A teen princess, apple of daddy's eye, giggles as she fires a few hundred rounds of ammunition. Although she can hardly hold the semi-automatic rifle as her parents look on approvingly. She giggles, half with glee, half with terror. Seventy two virgins patiently await the imaginary martyr. Nora Meyer's documentary short Promised Land follows the 'Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces' on their annual MISSION TO ISRAEL (note the Mosaic Dekalogian capitalisation), the reward given to only its most generous contributors. Effectively a glorified bus trip, the MISSION alternates between the comic and the appalling. A trip to a 'base' is in fact a specially designed visitors' centre that shows films tartly described by Meyer as "recruitment video[s] masquerading as a history lesson".
Meyer's candid travelogue shared this year's film festival circuit with Yoav Shamir's Checkpoint. It, too, points an inquisitive lens at the Israeli Army, but whereas Meyer follows armchair religious militants through NeverNever land, Shamir traverses far bleaker territories.
His idea is wonderfully simple; film what happens at the border posts between Israel and 'Palestine'; do not interfere or comment just show. Seeing two mutually antagonistic peoples interact at gunpoint provides ample dramatic tension. Like the courtroom or the clinic, the checkpoints are a crucible, an amplifier of the hidden resentments, jealousies and fears within two communities. Like the numerous 'Ks' of Kafka's novels, the Palestinians are the accused for numerous, nameless crimes.
Shamir presents his footage tonally rather than chronologically, shifting in time and season, from blazing sun to freezing rain, so that this is less reportage than deep existential tragedy; a series of parables about the struggle to maintain humanity, civility and decency in a state of permanent siege. Failure on all three counts is understated but frequent; the border police, mostly Arab Druze, do not seem to care that Shamir is watching them as they sexually harass female Palestinian students and routinely humiliate men at the Bethlehem crossing.
Where it is not downright unpleasant, the situation lapses into the absurd. When a large group of Palestinians decide simply to ignore the soldiers who are detaining them en masse, and walk, the shots fired into the air are a resigned, pathetic gesture. In contrast, a winter scene sees Palestinians playfully broadside soldiers with snowballs, in their excitement letting slip warcries of the Intifada.
Yet there should be no mistake as to who drives the tanks or whose fingers are on the safetycatch. It is always the Palestinians who must submit, and as one of them astutely remarks, terrorists would hardly be obliging enough to present themselves at a checkpoint. Thus, it is only one armed camp that we see here.
And this, one could argue, slightly unbalances the film all of the Palestinians are civilians and all the Israelis are in uniform. As Shamir explains, settlers were almost always waved on. The soldiers themselves are no more than boys, way out of their depth, yet hardening every day that they patrol. Shamir records attitudes ranging from the embittered and openly racist (one soldier refers to the people of Ramallah as 'animals') to the perennially bored, to the homesick. They hold in common a cynicism that sustains them more than any sense of duty or patriotic fervour. "When the Palestinians come," says one soldier reclining by a puddle, "we put on our show."
The Palestinians are equally theatrical one old man, fuming as he waits to pass, mutters to the camera "film this, let them see". There is a contest for the truth taking place here, a greed on both sides for media exposure.
Shamir's next film will seize on the essential difficulty of getting past this contest for the truth, the spectre of antiSemitism. "I am making a film about the connections between being antiIsrael and antiSemitic. It is going to be around the world Israel, France, America, Eastern Europe, the UK, Germany all over the place," he says.
As long as the FIDF and its supporters can claim an antiJewish conspiracy in the proPalestinian movement this seems unlikely. Likewise, movements that sympathise with the Palestinians have dangerously lapsed into thinking that 'my enemies' enemy is my friend' made all the worse because their real target is often not Israel, but its US sponsors.
Interestingly enough, the Israeli Army uses Checkpoint as a training film to improve procedures when training new recruits. Was this what Shamir wanted? "I am not happy about the army using the film to build a better checkpoint I would like to see [them] disappear and I would like to see us withdrawing. But I think on a pragmatic level, while they are still there, it is good for the younger soldiers to see from the outside before they are completely sucked into the situation."