By Sakhr al-Makhadi, Al Jazeera – 2 Nov 2009
A series of controversial Israeli films are provoking outrage and plaudits in equal measure at the London Film Festival.
The best documentary award has gone to one of the year’s most controversial films.
Defamation is a polemic by Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir. In his expose of America’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL), he claims anti-Semitism is being exaggerated for political purposes. He argues that American Jewish leaders travel around the world exploiting the memory of the Holocaust to silence criticism of Israel.
He gets inside the ADL, which claims to be the most powerful lobby group of its type anywhere in the world. With unprecedented access, he travels with them as they meet foreign leaders, and use the memory of the Holocaust to further their pro-Israeli agenda.
At one point, an ADL leader admits to Shamir that “we need to play on that guilt”.
Shamir says his film, Defamation, started out as a study of “the political games being played behind the term anti-Semitism”.
“It became more a film about perceptions and the way Jews and Israelis choose to see themselves and define themselves – a lot of the time unfortunately choosing the role of eternal victims as a way of life.”
Israel’s national psyche
He wanted to find out how this mentality has become part of Israel’s national psyche.
The film suggests that the attitude is thrust upon children from an early age. School trips to concentration camps in Poland run year-round.
From just 500 children in the 1980s, he claims around 30,000 are now flown to Europe every year.
He discovers that the trips are not designed to educate, but to provoke an emotional reaction. They fly out of Israel euphoric, and end their journey in tears, talking about their shared hatred.
They are accompanied by secret service agents who prevent them from talking to any locals – they are led to believe that most Poles are anti-Semites.
The end result is disturbing. The victim mentality is being used to justify Israel’s occupation and colonisation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza.
In the film, one Israeli Jew tells Shamir that she refuses to get upset by Israeli aggression against the Palestinians because “we” faced worse. To her, the Holocaust justifies anything the Israeli army does.
And for Shamir, that is the real danger. “We are experiencing the most right-wing government we’ve ever had, and there is very little room for discussion. Putting so much focus on hate and the negative, I don’t see it as a healthy thing.”
In Israel, the film has received a mixed response. “It’s kind of a love or hate type of response to the film,” Shamir says. “It’s very hard to get people to come and watch documentaries in the cinemas in Israel.”
In the UK, too, there is anger towards Defamation.
Mark Gardiner from one of Britain’s biggest anti-Semitism campaign groups, the Community Security Trust, believes the film could put Jews at risk.
“All of a sudden some bloke appears out of nowhere, oh he’s an Israeli, oh he’s a Jew, therefore what he says must have more credence than what organisations like my own and the ADL have said for years – I think that shows a deep-seated bias.”
And he is furious at the suggestion that anti-Semitism is being used for political purposes.
“This assumption that people are saying it because they’re being malicious, because they know that it’s not anti-Semitic, but hey lets use anti-Semitism in order to win the Israel case, that’s what I find really really offensive,” Gardiner says.
Shamir is not surprised by reactions like that.
“Anti-Semitism is a very touchy subject and making a film about anti-Semitism is almost like walking on thin ice, you’re going to hurt people’s feelings.”
Martial Kurtz from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) believes the film can make a difference to activists like him.
He says all too often Israel’s supporters label groups like the PSC as anti-Semitic.
“There are many Jewish organisations which campaign [with us] against the occupation, campaign against the siege in Gaza,” he says. “So the whole argument falls flat.”
‘Rocking the boat’
Defamation is not the only controversial movie at this year’s London Film Festival.
Eyes Wide Open provoked anger and walkouts when it was screened.
It is a love story between two Orthodox Jewish men set in Jerusalem. Despite trying to keep their affair secret, the pair are threatened with violence by the community’s elders, leading to tragedy.
Director Haim Tabakman knew the film would not be easy for some Jews to watch. “This film has a provocative pitch,” he says. “Every good film is political.”
But he just wants people to face reality. “If you talk about it, it exists, so it’s not in their interests to talk about it,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It’s like the flood with Noah and his ark – the water came to destroy everything but something new came out of it. Sometimes it’s good to shake the boat.”
‘Victims of war’
Another director causing waves is Samuel Maoz, whose war film Lebanon is sparking debate inside Israel.
“You can’t change anything without first of all talking about it,” he says. “The film moves people to talk, even to argue with each other.”
Maoz’s film, which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in September, is based on his own experiences as his army invaded Lebanon in 1982. He says he made the film because of the guilt which still haunts him to this day.
“I’m not comparing between the suffering of a Lebanese woman who lost her family to the suffering of a soldier who fell into a no way out situation and needs to kill. If I can make some kind of scale, she is in level 10 and he is in the bottom, he is in level two. But both of them are victims of war.”
He knows words like that will cause controversy in Israel, but he is ready for the backlash.
“The army is not something holy, especially after the 2006 Lebanon war. In war itself there are no good guys and bad guys. The war is the bad guy.”
Maoz believes that Israel will only become less belligerent when civilians are shown the realities of war.
“First of all it was a need to unload and expose the war as it is, naked, without all the heroic stuff and the rest of the cliches.”
But Maoz has a bigger aim – to stop Israel launching attacks on Palestinians and Lebanese.
“Every film has its ambition to change something … the film is attacking war itself,” he says.
“Peace will come but it’s just a question of time and time is blood. If we can find a short cut we can save a lot of blood for both sides.”