Beyond Words: Harutyun Khachatryan’s “Return to the Promised Land”

Haim Watzman

I misstated the director’s name in the original version of this post. My apologies.

In this friendless week for Israel it’s refreshing and instructive to get away to Sapir College’s annual Film Festival of the South and be reminded that loneliness is sometimes a fact to be lived with, and that history gives us brethren among the nations, if we would only look.

Harutyun Khachatryan “Return to the Promised Land” (1991) observes a young Armenian family returning to its battered home and farm in the wake of the great earthquake, the destructive force of which can be seen everywhere, and the breakup of the Soviet Empire, a distant event invisible in the landscape. The family is a real one, filmed from the beginning of the winter to the end of spring, but Khachatryan structures the film as a story–as a silent film, in fact, for there is no dialogue and relatively little sound. A young father, weighed down by worry, works in the field, reestablishes his livestock, watches over his family. His wife labors in the kitchen garden, draws water, watches the children, has a baby. At first the family seems to be alone; gradually other families join them and, in the end, when spring is well under way, an acrobat and two musicians come to town.

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Beyond Unbelief: Bibi’s Speech and Fred Cavayé’s Pour Elle

Haim Watzman

Sometimes a mediocre film puts everything in perspective. When the lights went down in the Cinematheque last night I was in the middle of discussion with my companion (full disclosure: I’m married to her) how to parse Bibi’s two-state speech. One position (not mine) was that the prime minister had offered an honest and sincere statement of both Israel’s willingness to compromise for peace, whereas the other position (not hers) was that Bibi was just paying lip service to President Obama’s peace initiative and had no real intention of making any progress with the Palestinians.

The film was Fred Cavayé’s Pour Elle (Anything For Her), a thriller that calls for a willing suspension of more beliefs than does Christopher Hitchens writing about God.

Lisa and Julien are happily in love and have a cute little boy named Oscar. Lisa is arrested and convicted of a murder she did not commit. When all legal recourses are exhausted and Lisa turns suicidal, Julien, who teaches French in a high school, decides to free his wife by force. He consults with a former prisoner who has written a book about his many prison breaks (for a guy on the lam, the guy is startlingly easy to locate and oddly willing to speak freely to a total stranger). Then he carefully concocts a plan, scrawled all over the wall of his study at home, to grab Lisa when she’s being taken to the hospital because of her diabetes and abscond with her and Oscar to El Salvador.

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The Scene At Cinema South I: “Afghan Star” and “A Love During The War”

Haim Watzman

Cinema South International Film Festival, June 8, 2009One presents an American Idol spinoff in Afghanistan as a training ground for democracy and the other how the decay of society under years of guerilla war has made rape the common fate of millions of women in central Africa. Havana Marking’s Afghan Star and Osvalde Lewat-Hallade’s A Love During the War, screened yesterday and today at Sapir College’s Cinema South International Film Festival in Sderot, southern Israel, offer glimpses of margins of the world that we hear of only when there is a genocide, or an earthshaking natural disaster, or a war so bloody that it briefly jars us out of our apathy. Tyranny, war, poverty, and distance from the West weaken and silence people, but the women who suffer them are often doubly silenced. Here some of them speak out.

Afghan Star follows an instance of that most insipid of modern entertainment genres, the televised popular song competition, and shows us how it has played an important role in building democracy and human rights in a society split by ethnic and religious conflict. Following the fall of the Taliban, Afghans are allowed to sing again—music and dancing having been banned by the fundamentalist regime, along, of course, with television, film, and freedom for women. An enterprising producer on one a new private television station decides to produce a song contest on a shoestring, and the film follows several of the contestants—including two women—from the program’s first airing to the night on which the winner is declared.

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Intimate Mourning–“Shiv’a”

Haim Watzman

I’m a Jew provincial enough to have only the vaguest notion about what gentiles do when a loved one dies. Non-Jews, and assimilated Jews, may be surprised, intrigued, or revolted by Shiv‘a , an award-winning Israeli/French film by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. The film chronicles the traditional week of mourning observed by the large Moroccan-French-Israeli Ohaion family when a brother, Maurice, dies unexpectedly. A silent, stern-faced family matriarch and nine brothers and sisters, with their spouses, spend the week of mourning in the well-appointed Haifa apartment of the dead man’s widow and two young sons—sitting and eating on the floor, sleeping all together on mattresses in the living room, and churning their loves and hatreds, loves and rivalries, grudges and financial complications.

Shiv‘aThe Seven Days in English, a title that fails to convey the weight of the prescribed week-long mourning ritual—presents itself as a slice-of-life film. We viewers are eavesdroppers on the family’s week of alternately comforting and oppressive togetherness. We move from room to room, listening in on multilingual conversations not meant for our ears, hearing about secret affairs and about the failure of brother Haim’s successful factory, where he has employed several of his brothers.

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Science and Art in “Ice People”

Haim Watzman

Ice People is ostensibly a documentary about geologists in Antarctica, but beyond than that it’s a work of art about the continent’s landscapes. More than informing us about south pole science, director Anne Ahgion tells us something important about the processes of artistic and scientific creation.

In a central scene, the four geologists she whose work she chronicled climb up to one of the ridges of the Trans-Antarctic mountain range and gaze out over a huge ravine at a volcano. Aghion’s camera takes a long shot, showing a small human figure dwarfed against this primal landscape—one that only a handful of human beings have ever seen. It’s a moment of breathtaking, majestic beauty.

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Sex in the Israeli City: “The Ran Quadruplets” Couple and Bore

Haim Watzman

I admit that I have a hard time with the genre represented by The Ran Quadruplets, screened last night at the Jerusalem Film Festival, whether in literature, on film, or on stage. I mean stories about upper-crust Israelis in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area who are primarily concerned with having lots of sex. Perhaps it’s just jealousy. It’s true: I’ve never had a lot of sex in Tel Aviv and sometimes wonder what it would be like. But, emerging with my wife, Ilana, from the Cinematheque last night, I felt that even lots of steamy sex in the city that never stops would not be worth the vapidity of character that such couplings seem to require.

The screening consisted of three segments of what is apparently going to be a television series. The premise is that the four 32-year-old protagonists are the first set of quadruplets to be born in Israel, and that their lives have been chronicled by a filmmaker, Michael, every eight years, in the style of his namesake, Michael Apted, he of the “Seven Up” series of films. Michael is now making the fourth film in the series and intrudes on the life of the Ran family as an interviewer, general nuisance, and unprofessional psychologist, at various junctures when the story flags.

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It Don’t Worry Me–Robert Altman’s “Nashville” 30 Years Later

Haim Watzman

Robert Altman’s Nashville was my favorite movie when I was a college student. I saw it time after time and dragged many friends to it as well. So when my daughter, a film school student, brought it home on the recommendation of one of her teachers, I was curious to see what my reaction at middle age would be.

At the age of 19 I was very much a political animal, and I was also an aspiring dramatist. So, not surprisingly, my favorite politicians were ones that offered dramatic verve and complexity and my favorite playwrights were those who addressed politics and ideas—Shaw, Brecht, and Stoppard. For my part, I was working on a verse tragedy about Alexander Dubcek and a slaptstick comedy about Isabel Peron (this was before I’d ever heard of the asinine Lloyd-Weber hit Evita, I should stress).

In other words, Nashville was made for me. In 1975, when it came out, I’d just lived through a lot of history. A disastrous war pursued by a president who was a truly great man in nearly everything else he’d accomplished had been ended disastrously by another president whose paranoia and megalomania had come dangerously close to destroying American democracy. At Duke University, my friends on the right didn’t seem to understand what had been wrong with the war and with Watergate, while many of my friends on the left seemed to have lost their minds to totalitarian Marxist delusion. Others were simply apathetic. North Carolina had recently sent a right-wing racist demagogue to the Senate. Things did not look good.

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Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (2) — War Ethics in a War Zone (3)

Waltz With Bashir
Haim Watzman

Waltz With Bashir directly addresses the philosophical question we’ve been discussing here. Ari Folman, the film’s director, served as an Israeli soldier on the perimeter of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut at the time of the massacre committed there by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen in mid-September 1982. Folman clearly feels guilt, and feels that he abetted an act that was comparable to the Nazis’ massacres of Jews in Europe—his parents are Holocaust survivors. To what extent is he, an individual soldier, morally culpable. Should he have acted otherwise than he did?

There can be little doubt that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan, and the top army command knew very well what would happen if the Phalangists were given a free hand in the refugee camps. The Phalangist forces had a long history of murder, mutilation, and destruction, committed not just against Palestinians and Muslims but also against rival Christian forces in Lebanon.

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Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (1) – A National Nightmare on Film

Haim Watzman

Just after seeing Waltz With Bashir at the Semadar Cinema in the German Colony, Ilana and I ran into our 17-year old son, Niot, with two friends. They had been at the pool, at their twice-weekly get-in-shape-for-the-army swim class. “You’ve got to see this film,” I told them. “Every kid who is dying to be a soldier should see it. So should every Israeli who loves his country.”

In Waltz With Bashir, director Ari Folman conducts a personal journey to recover his lost time and lost memories of the first Lebanon War. He knows that in September 1982 he was an Israeli soldier in Beirut. He was there when Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen, outfitted in IDF uniforms, massacred Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, two refugee camps that had become neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital. But, except for an odd vision of himself and two friends swimming naked in the sea at the time of the massacre, he can remember no details—what he was doing at the time, how he felt, who was really there with him.

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Ropes of Fate: Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s “Shadow Kill”

Haim Watzman

In the final scene of Adoor Gopalakrishnan‘s film Shadow Kill (Nizhalkuthu), a young man, dressed in black, sets out to perform his first hanging. The young man, Muthu, is the son of the hereditary executioner of the south Indian principality of Travancore. He is a Gandhian nationalist and pacifist who has made speeches in his village against the death penalty. Yet upon his father’s death, during the night before the execution, Muthu accepts the doom of his descent-even though he knows that the boy around whose neck he is about to place the noose is innocent.

Such an end implies that we have just seen (at the Cinema South Film Festival in Sderot, see my post Cinema of the South: Celebrating Sderot and Kerala) a film about how Muthu wrestles with his heritage, resists, and then accepts it. But in fact it is not Muthu but his father, Kaliyappan, who agonizes, from the story’s first scene to its penultimate one, about having killed an innocent man the last time he was called from his village to perform his office. Emulating his hero, Muthu buys a spinning wheel to spin out string, which is taken to the local jail to be made into rope. It’s Kaliyappan who, like the Greek fate-goddess Atropos, cuts the rope-the rope of his last hanging, whose ashes, burnt in ritual and prayer, are a balm that heals the sick and troubled.

In keeping with tradition, on the night prior to the execution, the king’s police officers ply Kaliyappan with liquor and keep him from sleeping (he must not sleep, because his victim is certainly not sleeping this night) by telling him stories. The story that finally helps keep the elderly executioner awake is about a romance between a young teenage girl and an orphan flutist. The girl asks the boy to teach her to play his instrument; when he leaves her to practice, the girl is attacked, raped, and killed by her brother-in-law, who has developed an uncontrollable passion for her. The flute found in her hands implicates the orphan boy; the girl’s family knows who the real murderer is but protects him.

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