"World Cinema: Israel"

My book, "World Cinema: Israel" (originally published in 1996) is available from Amazon on "Kindle", with an in-depth chapter comparing and analyzing internationally acclaimed Israeli films up to 2010.

Want to see some of the best films of recent years? Just scroll down to "best films" to find listings of my recommendations.


Thursday, October 10, 2019

Our Boys is a Triumph!

This is my second posting about Our Boys, a TV series of 10 episodes, created by Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu-Wael (two Jewish Israeli filmmakers and one Palestinian Israeli filmmaker).  

The series is based on an historical re-enactment of terrible murders that took place in Israel-Palestine during the summer of 2014, and is being broadcast on HBO in North America and Keshet in Israel.
If you are looking for the story of the kidnapping and murder of the three Yeshivah boys – Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, and the subsequent military search for the Palestinian terrorists who committed this crime, then this is not that film.  

This TV series focuses on the subsequent revenge attack, equally shocking and repulsive, perpetrated on a Palestinian youth by Jewish terrorists.

The series is very well-acted and directed, extremely hard-hitting and amazingly realistic.  In brief, it is a triumph!  But keep in mind that the subject is very difficult.  See my previous posting for info concerning the story-line.

My husband and I went to the preview screening of the final episode at the JCC on the Upper West Side in Manhattan a few days ago. The screening was followed by a discussion with two of the filmmakers, Joseph Cedar (Norman, Footnote, Time of Favor, Campfire) and Tawfik Abu-Wael (Thirst), moderated by Yitzi Zablocki, director of the JCC film center. The discussion opened my eyes to so many things about the series, including the creative process of working collaboratively and some of the difficult societal issues brought up in the script.

Identifying with the Pain of the parents of the victim
A fair amount was talked about concerning the series’ success in humanizing the characters, both Israeli and Palestinian, so that viewers would empathize with their personal anguish and would understand them better. Abu-Wael felt that they were dealing with a taboo story in both societies, so there was the need to fully empathize with the other side. He lives in Tel Aviv and he was proud to declare that one of his Israeli Jewish friends told him that in this show, you can identify with the Palestinian pain. He concluded by stating that “when you humanize your enemy, you humanize yourself.” 

Indeed, as I viewed this series, I became intensely involved with the human tragic stories and serious moral dilemmas of so many of the characters: the Palestinian father and mother of the boy who was so brutally murdered; the agent for the Shabak (Shin Bet security services) who did the best he could in extremely trying circumstances, but was conflicted whether he did the right thing vis a vis the youngest of the Jewish perpetrators of the murder; the psychiatrist, who held her ground, despite lots of pressure to declare her patient mentally unfit to stand trial; and the rabbi/father/grandfather who struggled also to do the right thing for his family.

Insanity as a defense strategy
The lawyer for the main suspect in the murder trial presented a defense of mental incapacity.  Cedar said that theoretically one might have thought that the establishment (the government, the prosecutor and the Shabak) would have wanted him to be declared insane and this would have allowed most Jews to breathe a sigh of relief and to consider this occurrence as an aberration.  But the Shabak in the TV series reaches the opposite conclusion -- a guilty charge for all three boys would be preferable to an insanity plea because of fear of public opinion and pressure in Israel and the world, and also because it would help deter the future growth of the movement of the right-wing Jewish fanatics.

Within the ultra-orthodox community, a lot of pressure was put on Devorah, the psycho-therapist (who was actually a composite figure based on two female therapists in Jerusalem), to certify that the main suspect was incapable of testifying.  According to Cedar, Devorah, however, had the courage to say “no” to the need for people to blame this all on one psychotic young man, which would have whitewashed a deeper problem within Israeli society. 

The Process of Collaborative Work
Cedar worked on writing and directing the scenes with the Jewish Israeli characters.  Abu-Wael worked on the Palestinian scenes.  In fact, the family of Mohammed Abu Khdeir saw Abu-Wael as their representative who was retelling their story.  In so doing, both directors made an honest and authentic attempt at presenting both narratives, and multiple sub-narratives on each side.  Both Cedar and Abu-Wael discussed the fact that this TV series is fiction, even though they tried their best to verify the details by speaking with so many people involved with the story.  

In addition, they used a lot of documentary footage, especially the ambulance scene when the mob attempted to steal the body of Mohammed, and all the rock-throwing demonstrations.  Cedar stated that he wouldn’t know how to make a TV series of substance about Israel that doesn’t reflect reality and have tremendous nuance.  Although it is a close representation of reality, it is a nuanced form of art, and not a form of international propaganda or advocacy.

Our Hero, the Shabak Agent
Simon, the Shabak agent (played by Shlomi Elkabetz) who was tasked with finding the murderers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was called a traitor by many right-wing Jews in Israel in the film, and was shockingly misunderstood by his own brother and others within the ultra-orthodox community, especially for his lack of willingness to conduct his life based solely on Jewish loyalty. This character, according to Cedar, was a composite of a few Shabak agents who worked on the case.  Abu-Wael added that the fact that Simon is considered to be traitorous and is forced to leave his job and go abroad makes you want to think about the country we live in. 

The character of the Rabbi
The rabbi in the film, who is also a composite character, is conflicted by the understanding that his son, who committed the murder, actually dragged two of his grandsons into this with him. On the one hand, he wants to empathize with his son, whom he believes is mentally disturbed, and on the other hand, he is somehow bothered fundamentally that his son actually committed murder. He travels all the way to the prison to visit his son, looking for a sign of contrition, willing to apologize to him for how he has treated him over the years.  But he is disappointed in what he finds.  The rabbi represents the kind of Judaism in which young people are growing up and learning to hate “others”, especially Arabs, ultimately leading them to do such disastrous deeds.

The System of Justice
The leading prosecutor (played by Lior Ashkenazi) is also one of the heroes of this film series. He reaches out to the Palestinian father, Hussein, in a very meaningful fashion, and tries to help him as much as possible in preparing for the trial and during the trial itself.

It’s not really a spoiler to tell you the verdict that the judges provide – not to sound banal, they provide justice, the only verdict that was really possible, given the evidence in the case.

And here is the crux of the matter – the judges raise the disturbing question about the kind of Jewish education that these orthodox Jewish boys received. How was it possible that their education led them to such hatred and such despicable deeds? This is undoubtedly one of the major themes of the film, one of the reasons that the actions of these three perpetrators were so disturbing to me and to so many others in Israel and abroad at the time, and still is to this very day.

To see my first posting about this TV series -- press here!

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