A few days ago, I was a guest at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival and was invited to speak about Room 514 by Sharon Bar-Ziv. There was a large crowd at the screening and a lively discussion ensued.
The title of the film refers to an interrogation room on an army base. This is a film about critical issues of morality – abuse of power, the conflict between security needs and human morality, varying codes of morality, and the dilemmas of how to behave as an occupying power. These are startling contemporary issues facing young people serving in the Israeli army.
According to Bar-Ziv, “The viewer is introduced to the conflict between the acute security needs and the human moral values of a society which carries collective historical and emotional ties to its land. This relates to the intense drama within the Israeli army culture, in which young soldiers are forced to deal with situations in which personal and national responsibilities contradict.”
The film, which won a special jury award at New York 's Tribeca Film Festival, is worth much attention due to its unique cinematic style. It is produced in a minimalist and low-budget style. The actors rehearsed for six months and the film was shot in one week!
I want to call your attention to the following cinematic elements:
- Almost the entire film is shot within one small room. According to the filmmaker, the room can be seen as a metaphor for Israeli society. It is a pressure cooker -- crowded, intense, claustrophobic, filled with national and ethical tensions.
- Cinematography -- the film is comprised of long takes and many scenes are shot in real time. In addition, there is the use of extreme close-ups and startling camera angles.
- There is a strongly delineated heroic character named Anna, who is played by a remarkable young actress. She is a young idealistic and perhaps naïve, female investigator -- a soldier of Russian background, an outsider who ironically represents the establishment and sees things that the insiders don’t or can’t see. In addition, she defies the stereotype of the Russian woman; in this film she is a complex character, obsessed with finding the truth. But the truth is not so black and white, and things seem to spiral out of her control. Anna seems to live by a very special moral code. She does not hesitate to lie for her commanding officer. On the other hand, she refuses to be swayed from her mission in interrogating and investigating a young officer in his abuse of an elderly Palestinian man in the West Bank.
A young company commander of a special unit, 24-years-old, is the accused. He comes across as a very strong character, but, as a result of his experiences in policing and controlling a civilian population, he is missing basic human moral values. He says, “After five years in the territories, I learned to do things the hard way.” He is telling us that we have to do whatever is needed to defend the nation, that you have to be strong and perhaps even cruel in order to survive in this part of the world. This represents a conversation within contemporary Israeli discourse – does the end justify the means?
As an occupying power, we have put our young soldiers into difficult situations in Gaza and the West Bank. It is certainly clear that the army does not encourage abusive behavior towards the Palestinian population of the occupied territories. Nor is this behavior considered policy in any way. However, the army sends young soldiers and officers to do police work and they are often pushed to the limit by risking their lives in the face of violent behavior, and sometimes they react badly, even to the degree that they lash out even when their lives are not in danger. The thesis of the film is that the army does not confront this head on and they are letting too many abuses go unpunished.
People don’t want to hear about these abuses and our soldiers know that when they come home and sit with their families, it is better to be silent than to tell stories about what is happening at the checkpoints and on the patrols throughout the West Bank. An organization of soldiers has arisen called Breaking the Silence which attempts to call attention to what is being done by our children when they are sent to be policemen in the territories.
These are tough issues and Sharon Bar-Ziv must be congratulated for helping to bring them into the discourse of contemporary Israeli life.
Singer Izhar Ashdot is another artist who is trying to draw attention to how our soldiers treat Palestinians. His new song, entitled Inyan shel Hergel (A Matter of Habit) -- written by his wife Alona Kimhi -- has been banned by Army Radio, “due to the content of the song,” (according to a recent article in Ha’aretz by Uri Blau, October 16, 2012). The lyrics are as follows: “To learn to kill is a matter of momentum, you start small and later it comes… First it’s only a drill, a rifle barrel bangs the door, children in shock, family in panic… The heart goes crazy, beats wildly, he knows – from now on it will be easier. They’re not a man, not a woman, they’re only an object, only a shadow. To learn to kill is a matter of habit… To learn cruelty is a matter of momentum, it starts out small and later it comes. Every boy is a man, eager for victories. Hands behind your heads, legs apart.”
It is interesting to note that Room 514 is not the only film produced in Israel that deals with complex issues of morality within the army. Additional related films include One of Us by Uri Barbash (1989) about a military cover-up, and the more recent film, Rock the Casbah by Yariv Horowitz (2012), about the issues and difficulties of policing the local Palestinian population in the streets of Gaza during the height of the first intifada. These three films – Room 514, One of Us and Rock the Casbah – all portray issues that many would prefer to sweep under the carpet. But it is crucial if we are going to remain a just and democratic society, we must face these issues head-on and grapple with them in a sober and meaningful manner.
Room 514 is available from Cinema Alpha Productions or for non-theatrical distribution it is available from Film Movement