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Films: Our Arabs - Represantation of suffering palestinians in  Documentary

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Our Arabs

Shmuel Duvdevani

Film critic Shmuel Duvdevani locates a complex politics of representation and exploitation of the Palestinian suffering in the films 'My terrorist' by Yulie Gerstel Cohen and Avi Mograbi's 'Avenge But One of My Two Eyes'. He brings forward the problematic character of the use of the Palestinian in judgmental documentary cinema in order to present the director as righteous versus Israeli society.


                            While traumatic national events such as the current intifada, with the reality of roadblocks and suicide attacks that it has created, are almost non-existent in Israeli fictional features ('The Bubble' by Eytan Fox and Gal Ochovsky is the exception to the rule that attests to the rule, and it's religious-romantic ending actually offers the viewer a sense of catharsis) – the creators of documentary cinema in Israel remain as the ones who fill the human and cultural need for an urgent response to a difficult political situation, not only in the films themselves but also in accompanying actions. This is a kind of privilege of those who are not dependent on huge budgets and the charity of the coffers to create their films; all this is taking place while fictional political cinema, produced in Israel mainly during the '80s (among others as a response to the Lebanon War and with the support of the Fund for the Encouragement of Quality Israeli Cinema established in 1978) never won great success with the audiences. Uri Barabash's films 'Beyond the Walls' (1984) and 'One of Us' (1989) are an exception as they wrapped the political criticism in Hollywood-genre formats – 'jail films' in one case and the Western in the other.


The conscientious documentary

The two films I will refer to here, Yulie Gerstel's 'My Terrorist' (2002) and Avi Mograbi's 'Avenge But One of My Two Eyes' (2005) were successfully screened overseas. 'My Terrorist' participated in over 80 international festivals, among others in Denmark, Seattle, Prague, Iceland, Seoul, Ecuador, Washington, Germany and San Francisco, and it was also bought for broadcasting by about 20 television stations in The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Norway, Spain and Japan, among others. 'Avenge But One of My Eyes' won the judges award in the Marseilles International Documentary Film Festival, was formally screened at the Cannes Festival and was screened in 25 cinemas in France. However, one wonders – isn't the success in international festivals of many of the Israeli documentaries dealing with the occupation and oppression enough to indicate that this – in other words, a critical reference of an Israeli filmmaker to the wrongs for which his country is responsible – is also what the directors of these festivals and foreign networks are looking for. There is no intention to cynically claim that these films originated from some kind of trend, in the response of local filmmakers to world interest in critical-political films that are easy to sell abroad. There is no doubt that these films are a natural response of Israeli filmmakers to a tragic and tormenting political situation that satisfy, on the one hand, the world's desire to get better acquainted with the daily reality of the conflict, and on the other hand – create a humanistic image of those who are perceived in Israeli media and the Israeli public as a mob of stone throwers and suicide terrorists lacking any human character. the rage and shock demonstrated by these filmmakers toward what is going on in the territories – mainly the reality of roadblocks and walls – may be perceived as an expression of righteousness that encourages the viewers to feel that they are 'alright' in the face of the difficult depicted reality. The film's creators sometimes position themselves as victims, as people whose willingness to acknowledge their responsibility makes them morally superior. Thus the Palestinian is appropriated in order to help them deal with the torments of their guilt.

A symptomatic expression of this phenomenon can be found, for example, in Gerstel Cohen's film 'My Terrorist', in which the director documents her struggle to bring to the release of one of the terrorists who attacked an El Al plane in London in August '78.  Gerstel Cohen, who was a flight attendant at the time, was lightly hurt in the attack, but her friend who was on the plane died. During the film, Gerstel Cohen confronts on a television show a mother who lost her daughter in the suicide attack, and is attacked by a group of demonstrators who call her "traitor". This stand causes her to make a sacrifice – to bring to the release of 'her' terrorist from prison, and thus change the violent reality. Fahed Mihi, the terrorist she is fighting to release, is for Gerstel Cohen "'more of a victim than me" as she defines him in the film. In the film's central scene she even visits her "confession minister", Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy, who is identified with reports on the Palestinian suffering, and whom she treats as a supreme adjudicator in issues of suffering and victimization, and she seeks his moral support. In her perception of Fahed and her visit to Levy's home, the director finds it difficult to deconstruct the victim discourse prevalent in the traditional Jewish conception, and which always regards the Jew and his Zionist successor as a victim or as someone responding to aggression, but never a victimizer or aggressor himself – this point is expressed in sentences such as 'look at what the Palestinians are forcing us to do to them.' Gerstel Cohen's choice to call her film 'My Terrorist' also creates an instrumental point of view, according to which the 'other' has no representation beyond the role it fills for the Israeli film creator. Thus, through a persistent struggle to release 'her' terrorist, Gerstel Cohen presents herself as another victim of militant Israeli society. Her ability to identify with Fahed originates in the same experience of being a victim that dictates the Jewish-Zionist identity, which she cannot go beyond its borders – she runs a victim's economy according to which she can only identify with the Palestinian terrorist because she too has suffered and is suffering, only because she believes he is more of a victim than she is.


Avi Mograbi, at the end of his film 'Avenge But One of My Two Eyes', dedicated to his son Shaul and his friends who are also conscientious objectors, loses his temper when IDF soldiers refuse to open the security fence gate on a hot day in order to allow Palestinian children to pass through on their way back home from school. From a heated argument in which Mograbi defies the troops and provokes them, the confrontation intensifies until the director comes to his wits' end. 'From what hole did they dig you up? From what garbage did they fish you out?' he screams in a rage at one of the officers. However, this scene demonstrates the way in which Mograbi prefers to position himself as a morality warrior holding a camera instead of a weapon, and that the frustration and rage he feels in face of the reality he is documenting serve his conscientious image. All this is happening while the Palestinian children – the struggle's objective – are only seen in the background and do not say a word.

While Gerstel Cohen establishes herself as a victim, Mograbi positions himself as a warrior fighting for the wretched and despondent. He is not that different to Michael Moore, when you come to think of it, who also puts himself in his films ('Roger and Me', 'Bowling for Columbine' and 'Fahrenheit 9/11' ) as the undaunted representative of those damaged by capitalists and the political establishment. Mograbi wants – consciously, of course – to create a provocation through his presence and his camera (an approach fitting the conception of the 'cinema verite' associated with French documentarist Jean Rouch).


Before and behind the camera

Both examples mentioned here – that of the director sacrificing herself for 'her' terrorist and that of Mograbi with the Palestinian children in the sweltering sun as a backdrop for his moral action – express the way Israeli filmmakers make use of Palestinian suffering. Therefore, the suffering is a backdrop for the demonstration of the conscientiousness and suffering of those documentarists. Those Palestinians do not exist in their own right, but only to serve the image of those filming them. Thus Mograbi positions himself as someone who, by identifying with him, the viewer can also become more moral – and as a result he is, in fact, not required to do anything, because watching the film and sympathizing with its creator are enough to polish his conscience.

In order to emphasize the differences between the two camps – the humanistic and the messianic-fascist – Mograbi in his film 'Avenge But One of My Eyes' makes sure to show two contrasting poles. On one pole are the vicious IDF soldiers who prevent Palestinians from working their fields and who stall a Palestinian ambulance on its way to bring a patient to hospital, and they also participate in a messianic celebration in memory of Meir Kahane, and on the other pole – Mograbi himself, almost alone against everyone, who in his activities also represents his Palestinian friend who lives in the occupied territories, who is under curfew and exists in the film only through his voice (and not really his voice – in order to prevent him from being identified, a Palestinian actor reads out the lines said by the friend).

This scene mentioned above in which Mograbi fights the IDF soldiers with his camera brings to mind another, much earlier scene, which ends Amos Gitai's documentary film 'Field Diary' (1982). In that scene Gitai follows with his camera, through the window of his slow traveling car, a few soldiers in the territories. They are trying to avoid his view/camera, but to no avail, and this develops into a kind of comical chase, in which the camera seems to be pursuing them. Through a seemingly simple cinematic trick Gitai creates one of his film's main themes – the way in which the camera's view creates a double responsibility, of the documentarist and of the viewer. We can no longer say 'I didn't know' or 'I didn't see': there is a responsibility for what is seen, in other words, for what we know that exists, but also for what we don't see, or what we choose not to see.

The fact that Gerstel Cohen and Mograbi place themselves as moral warriors, as people whose distress indicates their conscientiousness – is enough to comply with the world's rage against Israel. Something along the lines of 'Look at what a terrible country I'm living and creating in'. Both films discussed indicate that, despite the courage and sincerity of their creators, any documentation of suffering – of the creator or of the other – is considerably involved in exploitation, self-righteousness and manipulation.  The reality of roadblocks, closure and oppression (for the represented Palestinian) stands opposite the reality of opening nights in prestigious festivals and pats on the back (the lot of the successful Israeli director.)


Was published on Maarvon – Israeli magazine for cinema, 2007.

Translated by Anat Rotem.