Sunday, January 10, 2016

Censored Voices

Censored Voices
a film by Mor Loushy (2015)
winner of 2015 Ophir Award for best documentary
(currently showing at Opera Plaza, San Francisco)

A week after Israel's 1967 Six Day War, Amos Oz and Avraham Shapira took a tape recorder and visited more than 140 colleagues, soldiers in the Israeli Army, and recorded 200 hours of interviews. The interviews captured the soldiers actions, emotions, and thoughts while fighting the war immediately after the war was over. Those interviews have now been turned into a powerful film documentary by Israeli filmmaker Mor Loushy.

Oz and Shapira both fought in the war. They were young Labor Zionist kibbutzniks. Oz was 27 years old at the time and had already published his first two works of fiction: Where the Jackals Howl (1965), a collection of stories about kibbutz life, and Elsewhere Perhaps (1966), a novel about kibbutz life. He was a member of kibbutz Hulda in central Israel. Avraham Shapira was 32 years old and a resident of kibbutz Yizrael. He became a renowned professor of Jewish philosophy.

Shortly after the war Shapira published Soldiers Talk (in Hebrew), an edited transcribed version of the interviews on the tape. A shorter version was translated to English and published in 1971 as The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk About the Six Day War.  After this, Shapiro kept the tapes closed in the archives of his kibbutz and rebuffed numerous journalistic requests for access. We're glad he relented to Mor Loushy and enabled her to make this powerful and affecting film.

The heart of the film is the oral testimony of seven soldiers made right after the war, played over brilliantly edited archival film footage from the war. Loushy and her team searched through "30 to 40 archives" to come up with visual content for the film. Except for the excellent modern music score provided by German composer Markus Aust, everything we see and hear is from the period. The effect is riveting.

Loushy was able to track down each of the seven soldiers whose voices we hear, and we see them silently listening to their testimony from 47 years ago. Their emotional reactions, after all these years, adds punch to what we see and hear.

The film pays lip service to the familiar narrative of "an overwhelming Arab force poised to annihilate Israel." Dramatic crude graphics from 1967 television provide the story. The film captures the mood of fear and apprehension in Israeli public caused by Nasser's belligerence and the bloodthirsty chanting of Egyptian mobs. But when the order comes to attack the Egyptians in the Sinai, the action does not come across as defensive. "We fucked you in '48, we fucked you in '56, and we'll fuck you all the way to Cairo," soldiers sing. And so they did.

For more background on the build-up to the Six Day War see my post HERE. That war was not a war of self-defense. If you have doubts about this, ask yourself what threat the Egyptian army posed to Israel on the morning after Egypt's air force was wiped out?

The voices in the film, says Loushy, are also voices of Israel's present and future. It's what gives the film immediacy. We see soldiers interviewed outside Gaza city on the second day of the war. It might as well be December 2008, or August 2014. We see troops moving through bombed out and abandoned ghost towns. It could be scenes from today. We see soldiers patrolling occupied towns, subjugating and humiliating civilians against the wall. It looks like the Occupation today. Searching a residence in Nablus, "we wreaked havoc for no reason," says one soldier. It might as well be 2015.

Being conquerors "makes you feel superior," says one soldier. "We felt loathing" for the defeated Arabs, says another. The feeling is reflected in Israeli society today. In 1967 it enabled war crimes. The soldiers tell of uprooting civilians in the West Bank, clearing towns, driving inhabitants away. On the Golan Heights one soldier's platoon encountered a group of refugees. They searched them and found them to be civilians, and let them pass. A while later they encountered the group again; other soldiers had stopped them, sent the women and children ahead, and executed 15 of the men. The soldiers tell of shooting unarmed prisoners of war. "In the war we all became murderers," says one. We were told "kill as many as possible; that was the order." Looking at Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai desert "so long without water, they begged for water. They threw up at our feet. We felt disdain."

Disdain and elation. "A biblical prophecy coming to pass," said an American reporter on television. Capturing the Old City after 20 years--it's "something we've been waiting for," said one soldier. "No longer are we tailors, lawyers, or doctors; we are no longer weak," said another.

The Six Day War, of course, set the stage for Israel's problems today: the occupation and presence of more than four million disenfranchised Palestinian non-citizens (more than 30% of whom are under the age of 14). For 48 years Israel has embarked on a path of occupation and settlement in the West Bank. If you are living in the West Bank and are less than 65 years of age, your entire adult life has been lived under Israel's occupation regime.

We have in mind that in 1948-49 Israel created ~750,000 refugees; we think less often of the fact that in 1967 an additional 350,000 Palestinian refugees were driven out.

Martin Kramer, formerly the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and now president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, takes exception to the film. "Flashy," he calls it; "what it betrays is its creator's agenda," he says. He wrote a long critique calling into question just how much of the original interviews were censored by Israel's censor back when Shapira published his book. He suggests Loushy is playing up the "censored" angle for publicity and that this undermines her credibility.

Well here is Mor Loushy in interview with Haaretz correspondent Nirit Anderman at the screening of the film at Manhatten's "Other Jewish Film Festival."  Judge for yourself whether you think these people are acting with integrity. As long as Israel has people like Loushy and Anderman, and as long as Israel can show films like this, there is surely hope. 

They need your help. You can start by watching this powerful film. 

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