Monday, December 18, 2006

Checking Out the Girls

This time last year I caught, as the last film I saw before Christmas, the superb documentary Avenge Just One of my Two Eyes, by the Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi, in which he examines the contemporary popularity of Jewish suicide cults such as Samson and Massada in Israeli society while also observing the often pettily sadistic treatment of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli Defence Force at the illegal wall that cuts the West Bank in two. One of the last (new) films I will see this year is also Israeli and deals, through fiction, with the same topic, the constant stop-and-checks of both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs by Israeli conscripts on National Service. What makes Close to Home, directed by Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hagar, especially interesting is that the soldiers involved are all female, privates and officers alike. Only once do we see a man in uniform and the film focuses rather on the stiflingly boring patrols effected by the reluctant young women in West Jerusalem. There is much in the film that has been seen before, such as the women contriving ways to doss the day away and keeping a watch out for their superiors while their comrades smoke cigarettes and get their hair done. In a way it is like The Last Detail without the foreboding of that film's prisoner's fate. The two main characters, Smadar and Mirit, despite their smouldering sexiness (it may be the uniforms but the striking thing about all the women in this film is how incredibly alluring they are, even the more mannish officers), have a wonderfully Beckettian comic quality to them; the slightest twitch - many of which are the actresses' own - and each bewildering look radiates far beyond the immediate moment. Rich comic moments include the episode on a bus where a busybodying civilian 'tests' the ladies out by pointing out his own unattended bag as a suspect item, only to be threatened with arrest by them for his cheek. Outraged he screams to bystanders: "Chutzpah! Chutzpah!" with a verve not sensed in any of the English-language uses of that word. There is also the scene where Smadar and Mirit are detailed to the lobby of the Sheraton hotel for the duration of the Jerusalem Arts Festival, while an only-slightly-less-attractive pair of soldiers are left guarding the service entrance - the wan resignation of the latter couple recalls Keaton or Chaplin or even Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films.

Though I am unsure whether Bilu and Hagar intended this the film serves as an indictment of the IDF's treatment of Arab civilians - it is nobody but Arabs that are targeted, the Israelis do not shirk at racial profiling - and often the soldiers conduct their checks with a ham-fisted sense of duty, such as the scene where Smadar instructs an Arab boy to throw his falafal in the bin even though the inspection is complete. The opening scene, over the credits, is fascinating in its forensic study of the conveyor belt inspections in a check-point cabin, the cubicles of which resemble a cross between a doctor's surgery and a clothes boutique changing room, which renders the clinicalness of the inspections all the more discomfiting. There is however a bomb attack which allows the filmmakers to remind us that the patrols, however objectionable they sometimes be in their application, have a purpose, and it is likely that many Israeli citizens would have few pangs of guilt watching the inspections. But it is this neutrality of tone that allows the film to succeed in lowering the guard of the Tsahal method. It is something that is symptomatic of Israeli society itself, which is a paradoxical mix of advanced egalitarianism and frankly racist political policies.

With regard to Israeli film the last few years have seen a number of excellent films such as Raphael Nadjari's Avanim, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz's To Take a Wife, the documentary work of Mograbi, as well as the continuing corpus of the country's pre-eminent filmmaker Amos Gitai, films that extend beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict to incorporate themes as varied as the struggles between secularism and religion, domestic violence and people-trafficking; there are some in Europe however that think that such films should be subject to a 'cultural boycott'. A letter signed by a number of artists and critics, including, regrettably a number of people I respect a lot such as John Berger and Brian Eno have called for Israeli cultural institutions to be shunned because of the Israeli government's increasingly rogueish behaviour. While Berger points out that he does not wish individual Israeli artists to be targeted, the problem is that such a boycott rapidly fosters an attitude of ignorance among the culturally-correct of Europe, one that is as dangerous as the vituperative harrassment of critics of Israel on US university campuses by the Israel lobby, led by snakes such as Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz. The upshot will inevitably be that genuine criticism of the Israeli state by its own citizens will go unnoticed in the West. Besides, would the supporters of this measure have appreciated a situation where the likes of Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba would have been sanctioned because they happened to be living in South Africa under apartheid, a regime they all fought long and hard against? By the same token, we could propose boycotting films from Iran, thereby depriving us of some of the greatest filmed work in the world and a vital alternative mouthpiece for progressive forces in that country.