Wednesday, March 1, 2017

At NYC's Film Forum: the state of Israel now via Shimon Dotan's unsettling THE SETTLERS, and a look at what might have been in Yariv Mozer's must-see BEN-GURION, EPILOGUE


If you haven't yet had your fill of Israeli documentaries (or even if you think you have), the pair that opens this week at Film Forum in New York City are important ones. Both are smart and entertaining but go well beyond that to provide a look at Israel's present state, together with its lost and, it would seem, increasingly irretrievable past. Shimon Dotan's THE SETTLERS, more than any recent documentary or narrative film from Israel that I've seen, makes clear the utter intractability of the current situation, as well as the idea of any kind of peaceful arrangement between Israel and a "state" of Palestine as very nearly impossible.

Mr. Dotan, shown at right, makes it immediately clear that many of the "settlers" -- those Israelis who have built homes in the territories occupied (or "held," as the legal term in Israel would have it) during the period since the Six-Day War of 1967 -- do not approve of this name for themselves. "A settler is someone who lives on land that is not his," one of them explains, and it soon becomes clear that these people believe they have an absolute right -- via prophecy, religion, a divine calling, whatever -- to not just this particular land, but as one young man would have it, any land, "as far as we can see," here in the middle east.

I am guessing that the testimony Dotan draws from the settlers he has interviewed is fairly typical of the feelings of many if not most of them. Only one in the bunch appears not to have a sense of absolute entitlement and expansionist aims. Though in defiance of the Geneva Convention and barely even quasi-legal by Israeli standards, these settlements have grown immensely over time in number and quantity of population within.

According to the film, even the single time that the government cracked down on the settlements and appeared to dismantle certain of them was more of a public relations maneuver to make it appear that the government was offering something up to the Palestinian side. And while no new "settlements" have appeared in some time, there has been plenty of expansion of those already here. In any case, who needs new settlements, when the current and newer name coined for expansion is the "outpost?" We see a number of these outposts in action.

The movie, in its wide-reaching arc, interviews the settlers and gives us some history of the settlements, includes the views of Israeli scholars and legal experts (but only a very few Palestinians), and gives us quite a lot to consider regarding history, Jewish law vs democracy, land and its occupation, and religion and its discontents. Notes one scholar with some irony, "The messianic drive grows stronger when the prophecy fails."

As one interviewee puts it, "The sewage of European nationalism is being piped into the core of Judaism." And it must be said that most of the settlers whom we hear come across as entitled, ugly extremists. The first Jewish baby born in Hebron gives them, in their view, the right to this city. We also learn of the "three mayors" whom the settlers decided were "terrorist leaders." The facts, opinions and history here all build toward a conclusion that to some, like me, will seem horrifying and stupid. Others will no doubt see this as a glorious sign of god's will. Good luck to us all.

To view the companion documentary, BEN-GURION, EPILOGUE, and to listen to the words of its subject, David Ben-Gurion -- the primary founder and first Prime Minister of the state of Israel -- is rather like turning the page from the awful current state of this little country and discovering a time of such hope and possibility that should make you wonder at the prospects that were present, and then despair at what has been lost or destroyed over the decades since then.

At the time of Israel's creation and during the decade or so afterward, TrustMovies was young enough not to have had much of social or political conscience. (He knew slavery was wrong, of course, but that was about the extent of it.) So the character and views of Ben-Gurion were completely new to him as he watched this documentary, culled from a six-hour interview (that was never seen nor heard) with the late Prime Minister (when Ben-Gurion was 82 and retired from politics) by a British journalist/filmmaker Clinton Bailey. shown below, left, during the interview.

Even the sound track to the interview had been lost for decades and was only recently found and put together with the visuals. The six hours were then distilled to around 70 minutes by filmmaker/editor by Yariv Mozer (shown two photos above), who also directed Snails in the Rain), and the result is one of the most thoughtful, surprising, and finally moving and edifying docs concerning Israel that I've yet seen.

What a man this Ben-Gurion was! We learn of his history; his marriage; his wife, Paula and her love for the ideas of Emma Goldman; and his own ideas and his hopes for this then-new country. What he tells us makes such wonderful and obvious sense, and hearing it now, against what we see and hear in The Settlers, adds up to a sad and mournful eulogy to what might have been. I would love to add "and still might be." But I really don't believe this is any longer possible.

In any case, here Ben-Gurion is, standing on his head in competition with Yehudi Menuhin, talking about Moses and a nation of higher virtues, in a TV interview with Ed Murrow and Burma's U Nu, and with Ray Charles, as the latter sings and plays piano. To hear him and his Palestinian counterpart speak of the possibilities for peace will bring salty tears to your tired eyes.  As a certain Dr. Feldenkrais notes along the way, "Will power is what you need when you don't want to do what you need to do. Ben Gurion doesn't work on will power. He likes what he does."  You must experience this remarkable documentary.

The Settlers (released by Bond/360 and running 108 minutes) and Ben-Gurion, Epilogue (released by Go2 Films and running 70 minutes)  will be showing at New York City's Film Forum, beginning Friday, March 3. Unfortunately, each requires separate admission. They're both wonderful, but the Ben-Gurion's a fucking knockout. To view further playdates, cities and theaters for The Settlers click here. I can't find any info on further screenings of the Ben-Gurion doc, but feel free to reach out to the distributor for information.

2 comments:

Michael Lev said...

Maybe I'm not enough familiar with American slang but translating to other languages I know "fucking knockout" sounds very rude and -
pardon me Sir - for someone like me who grew up in Freudian Vienna tells a lot about the writer and less about the subject. And hurts especially in connection with Ben Gurion.

However - thank you for this review - it made me quite curious so I have booked two places for next week in Tel-Awiw

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for posting, Michael. And I apologize if I threw you for a moment with my use of the "f" word. I feel that too many people are way too worried about "words" and their possibly horrible effects. So I occasionally drop a little bomb now and then, just to keep us all on our toes. But you're right: This usage does tell at least as much about the writer as his subject. But it also, I think, makes its point. It stopped you in your tracks. And that's exactly what the Ben-Gurion movie does, too. I sincerely hope you get to see the film. And again: thanks for commenting.