Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mor Loushy's CENSORED VOICES: Can 48-year-old audio tapes become a visual experience?

The answer to that question in the headline above, if you had much doubt to begin with, is a resounding no. At least not as given us in the new documentary, CENSORED VOICES, by director/co-writer Mor Loushy (shown below). This does not makes the movie a failure, exactly, because those audio tapes -- of conversations recorded in 1967 between Israeli soldiers (just coming off their experience in the immediately historic Six Day War between Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbors) and future writer Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira -- prove too interesting and full of a very different sense of reality than the nation-building tale we've heard ever since Israel decisively won that war, in which five countries, aided by another nine, arrayed themselves against Israel with more than double the troops of that tiny country, and promptly went down to ignominious defeat.

As the Israeli nation cheered, the powers-that-be went to work immediately to begin the legend-building. The tapes that Oz and Shapira produced were quickly censored and only now, via this new documentary, are they being heard, at least fitfully and at last uncensored. But how do you take audio tapes and turn them into the kind of visual experience that moviegoers expect, if not demand? Ms Loushy's answer is to begin with a shot of the now elderly Mr. Oz and what looks like one of the tapes itself, then stick that tape into an old-fashioned player, and away we go. But what about the remaining visuals?

The filmmaker begins fairly quickly cutting back and forth between now and then, showing us -- without any identification -- old men whom we imagine may be the aged counterparts to the voices we hear on the tapes. This back and forth uses plenty of archival footage, too, which we very soon begin to realize is not necessarily connected to the actual voices we hear. This is unsettling to begin with and simply grows more so as the movie continues.

The archival footage is not uninteresting, and it seems to follow to some extent what is being told us via the tapes. But all specificity is missing. And the movie's sound design is such that we get ramped up by sounds that play upon cliché to produce the desired effect. For their part, the old men we see all look glum and concerned by what they are apparently hearing. But so what?  Around the halfway point I realized that I would have preferred simply hearing the translated tapes and dispensing with the visuals entirely.

What we hear is certainly worth our while, as these soldiers talk about how the events of the war left them, well, something less than feeling thrilled and victorious. Instead we hear of massacres and atrocities, and of the "other side" being treated, as one soldier points out, like victims of the WWII Holocaust. "Don't think about it; just kill everyone you see," one soldier recalls being told. To their credit, the soldiers do acknowledge that, had the other side been victorious, just as bad (and maybe worse) might have occurred.

Mixed feelings surface often here. "Perhaps the tragedy," notes one fellow,"is that I identified with the other side." And while, early on, we're told that these interviews "may not do the best service to what they call 'national morale,' we may do a small service to the truth," one does wonder if the small group of soldiers represented here can be made to actually stand for the entire Israeli army? As I recall, Mister Oz has been a peace-nik for quite some time now, as also, I suspect, has Mister Shapira. As am I, for that matter.

Along the way, one solider recalls the mother of another dead Israeli soldier crying out that the western wall is not worth even her dead son's fingernail. And finally, an American reporter for ABC News, in covering the largest of the Six Day War's refugee camps, notes that "The only thing growing here are seeds of revenge." Amen to that bit of prescience.

At this documentary's end, we finally see the names of these elderly men we've been viewing, and as the end credits roll, we are told, "The archival footage used in this documentary was collected from many sources. The people shown in the archival footage are not the same individuals speaking on, or described in, the audio tapes created in 1967." So:
Piece all those visuals together as you're able.

Censored Voices, from Music Box Films and running 87 minutes, opens this coming Friday, November 20, in both New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and in Los Angeles on Friday, November 27 (at Laemmle's Royal), followed by a national roll-out.

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