Conflict Films

Liberal politics in Israeli movies of the 1980s and '90s.

Reprinted with permission of the author from an essay that first appeared in Independent Jewish Film: A Resource Guide (The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival).

Consumed with the war against the Palestinians, the impact of the Holocaust, and the death ethos, the political cinema of the 1980s in Israel presented a radical critique of Zionism and set the stage for an apocalyptic/dystopian cinema in the 1990s.

israeli conflict filmsPopular cinema in modern society functions in a similar way to mythology in prehistoric societies. It exposes conceptual contradictions, on the one hand, and explicates unresolved social dilemmas, on the other. In this respect, the 1980s Israeli cinema foreshadowed the emergence of a new historiography and sociology of the 1990s.

Left-Wing Politics in the Late 1970s

Loss of power to the nationalist right-wing parties in 1977 prompted a new moral and political stance among the left-wing cultural elite, which was totally opposed to the nationalist Likud government’s promotion of Jewish colonization. At the same time the left was disillusioned with the lethargic Labor party and its acquiescence vis-à-vis the colonization and the eviction of the Palestinians from their land.

The new platform of the left consisted of two main components: 1) resisting the occupation by means of every political and legal instrument, including objecting to military service in the occupied territories; 2) adopting the “two states for two peoples” solution and promoting direct negotiation with the PLO.

The Israeli cinema expressed the political mobilization of the cultural elite when, concurrent with the upheaval of the 1977 elections, a new school of films emerged. The political cinema was born protesting “the political reality in Israel and more importantly, foregrounding the question of Israeli identity.” (Gertz: 176) This new cinema articulated a radical critique of Zionism that in its rigor and dissidence exceeded a discourse of protest of the political left.

In the late 1970s, three films foreshadowed the forthcoming political cinema of the 1980s. Hirbeth Hiz’ah (Ram Levy, 1978), dealing with the 1948 roots of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, forecast the production of several “conflict films.”

Paratroopers (Judd Ne’eman, 1977), the first anti-heroic army film, set the stage for a dozen anti-war films which, based on their social philosophy, I have called the “nihilistic cinema.” Wooden Gun (Ilan Moshenson, 1978), for the first time in Israeli cinema, revealed a shadow cast by the Holocaust on Israeli society and previewed a number of related films which I have entitled the “Shadow Cinema.”

A radical critique is articulated through the films’ subtexts: (a) in the Conflict Films, rudiments of both Near-Eastern myths and medieval romance deconstruct the Zionist master narrative; (b) in the Nihilistic Cinema, a deeply embedded nihilist philosophy lays open and explicates the national death ethos; and (c) in the Shadow Cinema, Holocaust guilt-laden film characters represent a post-traumatic syndrome leading to psychic numbness and an obsession with death.

Rewriting the Master Narrative

The 1980s Conflict Films reformulate Arab-Jew relationships and challenge the Zionist master-narrative, which dominated 1930s -1950s cinema in films such as Oded the Wanderer (Chaim Halachmi, 1932), Sabra (Alexander Ford, 1933), On the Ruins (Nathan Axelrod, 1936), My Father’s House (Herbert Kline, 1947), Out of Evil (Joseph Krumgold, 1952) and They Were Ten (Baruch Dienar, 1959).

The rewriting of Zionist master-narrative by means of the Israeli cinema began in 1978 with Hirbet Hiz’ah, Ram Levy’s television drama, and continued to develop in films such as Hamsin (Daniel Wachsman, 1982), Beyond the Walls (Uri Barabash, 1984), Smile of the Lamb (Shimon Dotan, 1986), Avanti Popolo (Rafi Bukai, 1986) and Greenfields (Yitzhak Yeshurun, 1989).

Not only do these films present the Arab-Israeli conflict as an uncompromising struggle between two national movements but they in some instances judge the whole Zionist quest as misplaced.

Ironically, both 1930s-1950s Zionist cinema and 1980s Conflict Films exhibit, in both their iconography and narrative, rudiments of ancient Near Eastern myth, and resemble two phases of the medieval Holy Grail romances. The iconographic motifs of chalice and blade appearing frequently in Grail romances are directly related to ancient near-Eastern fertility rituals. In Israeli cinema the same icons, chalice and blade, originate from the cultural wells of the ancient Near-East, both from local Arab tradition and from ancient Judaism.

Another common cultural basis of cinematic representations which link the Zionist cinema to the Grail romances is utopianism–the ambition to redeem a people and restore a land. The first cycle of Grail romances features a two-fold mission for the quester (the Grail hero):

(a) “restore the health and vigor to a king suffering from infirmity caused by wounds, sickness or old age” and

(b) “restore the waters to their channels and render the land once more fertile.” (Weston: 20)

Key films of the early Zionist cinema, such as Sabra, Land of Promise (Yehuda Lehman, 1935), or Out of Evil, feature in their opening sequences a wasteland followed by scenes in which the Arabs are seen using very old agricultural technologies that cannot keep the land fertile. In the Grail romance the King’s infirmity has a disastrous effect on his kingdom, depriving it of vegetation or exposing it to the ravages of war. The Grail hero revitalizes the wasteland by freeing the waters and restoring the rivers to their channels.

Similarly, in early Zionist cinema the pioneer-hero frees natural waters by digging (Sabra), or drilling a well (Avodah), or by forcing Arab peasants to give away water rights (They Were Ten). The Arab jar, a traditional water container, appears in these films along with a plough blade, both symbolizing the process by which the wasteland is revitalized. The sword dance, rooted in the fertility cults of Tammuz, Isis, and Osiris, corresponds to the hora circle dance of the pioneers. These early films present an Arab patriarch–a sheik or a muchtar–as the antagonist of the Zionist pioneers.

Characteristically weak, wicked or backward, Muchtar is defeated by young, virile and progressive Zionist pioneers. These scenes are related to both the Near Eastern mystery cult, where the death of the demigod symbolizes the end of the agrarian year, and the Grail romance, where the rejuvenation of the sterile or old king by the quester eventually frees the waters and restores the wasteland.

The Second Cycle

The second cycle of Grail romances differs significantly from the first cycle in that the quester himself is the cause of misfortunes. The deconstructed Zionist master-narrative in the 1980s Conflict Films corresponds with the late cycle of the Grail romances. The Jewish hero, no matter if he is a pioneer arriving in post-World War I Palestine as in Unsettled Land (Uri Barabash, 1987), a middle class farmer in a Jewish village in 1980 Israel, (Hamsin), or a military-government officer serving in the occupied West Bank as in Smile of the Lamb and A Very Narrow Bridge (Nissim Dayan, 1985), constantly fails to inquire as to the meaning of what he perceives to be a wasteland.

Unlike the master-narrative in early Zionist cinema in which the hero restores the land to fertility, the 1980s hero fails to carry out his mission and instead brings about misfortune: the exile of the Palestinian peasants in Hirbet Hiz’ah, the brutal killing of the Palestinian farmhand in Hamsin, the killing of the son of the Arab patriarch as well the Israeli military physician in Smile of the Lamb, and the exile of the Palestinian school teacher in A Very Narrow Bridge.

The key to the freeing of the waters in the Grail romance is in asking the right question. In Avanti Popolo, a thirsty Egyptian POW asks the “right” question in order to receive water from his Israeli captors. An Egyptian reserve soldier whose civilian vocation is in the theatre recites to his Israeli captors a famous Shakespearean monologue that starts with the line, “I am a Jew, has not a Jew eyes?” and ends “If you poison us do we not die?” When asked by one of his men “What the f–k is he saying?” the Israeli patrol leader retorts: “He got the roles mixed up.”

The Jews who excelled in the art of asking questions in the great Talmudic tradition seem to have lost this gift while the Arabs have adopted it successfully. French-Jewish philosopher Edmond Jabés comments, “All of Jewish tradition is a tradition of posing questions, and this point has been totally ignored. Israel is a Jewish state, but it is not Jewish in its character” (Jabés: 252).

Whereas early Zionist cinema constructs the protagonists as pioneers conscious of their historical-utopian role, 1980s Conflict Film disrupts this sense of telos, featuring heroes who “cannot ask the right question” and suffer from a blurred vision of reality. The soldier, who in Israeli history replaced the pioneer, no longer strives to revitalize the wasteland for the mutual benefit of both Jews and Arabs. Instead he becomes the ultimate cause of suffering to both peoples.

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