While many people tend to think of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as just that–a conflict between two nations–it is easy to forget that cleavages just as deep run within the Israeli and Palestinian communities. Cinema is a major front on which the battle to speak for the community is fought. Judd Ne’eman’s film Paratroopers (1977) is considered by many to be the first openly political feature film to come out of Israel, helping to usher in a wave of political filmmaking that challenged the myths and narratives on which the state of Israel–like all states–was built. Ne’eman is now a film scholar and critic at Tel Aviv University. He recently visited Texas for a festival honoring his work at the University of Texas at Austin.
Texas Observer: What was the cinematic scene like when you first started making films?
Judd Ne’eman: When I made my first feature film, which was three love stories set in Tel Aviv in the end of the 1960s, movies were not at all interested in the sociopolitical problems of Israeli society. Looking back, we can see these individualistic kinds of films came from a very deep need to play down emotions and appear as if everything’s fine–I like to call it a death mask. These sorts of movies came out of the traumatic past of people like myself, the generation that experienced World War II, the Holocaust, and the war of ’48, people who wanted to pretend that everything was just business as usual.
TO: How did you start making political films?
JN: I was about 30 years old when the war broke out in 1967. My generation had not been aware of the Palestinian problem. The Palestinians were like a ghost in the past; they were living in other [countries], except for the small minority that had become citizens of Israel. But suddenly, we were the occupier. Suddenly we were all faced with the results of the naqba [expulsion of Palestinians]. The refugees, the camps. So there was a new consciousness that the War of Independence was not the naïve, political event like our educational system made it out to be: that we were an oppressed minority and there is no blood on our hands; that everything is the fault of the Arab world that rejected us and the Palestinians who fought against us and rejected the UN partition plan that would have given them their own state. We believed that that was history, and we were absolutely unaware that there was another narrative alongside our narrative, one that is entirely different. Slowly, slowly we started to get information, and this caused a change of heart, mind, vision.
TO: Has there been an evolution in political filmmaking since then?
JN: The height of political filmmaking took place in the ’80s, between 1977 and 1990. These days what you see are films that deal with class and ethnic issues [such as between Ashkenazi and Sephardim]. But the style has changed; it’s not overtly political anymore. On the other hand, there is now a flood of documentaries which are straightforward political films that deal with the conflict, with Israeli militarism and the Holocaust. There are many second or third generation filmmakers telling family stories about the Holocaust, or stories of the traumas suffered by Jews uprooted from Arab states like Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s and 60s. All of those stories that were heavily suppressed by the Zionist-socialist ideology.
TO: What form does this suppression take in the cinema?
JN: The control is there, but it’s very complicated. All my films were censored, in this way or that. We do have an official censor in Israel, but there are other techniques, too. Take as example my film Paratroopers. It’s a story that takes place in boot camp, so I needed the help of the army because there is no civilian storehouse where you can rent props like jeeps or rifles on a commercial basis. Before they would give me the props, I had to submit the script to the public relations department of the army. They read the script and said no way, that the story was distorted. In the story, a soldier who is being harassed in boot camp commits suicide. But they said that this would never happen, and if I must kill this soldier, it should be a “positive suicide”–they suggested the soldier jump on a hand grenade that falls during the training to protect his comrades. They actually said that if I replaced my scene with their positive suicide, they would give me everything. Of course I wouldn’t do that. . . [After taking the script all the way to the Chief of Staff and being rejected] I started to check the possibility of importing my props, but I wasn’t licensed as an arms dealer, and couldn’t get a license. Finally I wrote a letter to the Minister of Defense, who at that time was Shimon Peres, arguing that if Israel is a democracy the army cannot act as a censor through its monopoly on renting out props for film production. Finally I got the letter from Peres [telling me] that I would get what I need for the movie from the Ministry of Defense, but I must not say that I got any aid from the army. And when [the film] was shown to the censor, they only wanted to change one line, where a commanding officer orders a female soldier to go make love to him.
TO: Is official censorship very common?
JN: There is still a censor, and some movies are banned outright. Just now a film about alleged war crimes that took place in the Jenin refugee camp, Jenin, Jenin, [made by] an Israeli Palestinian named Mohammed Bakri was banned in Israel. In addition, it was supposed to be broadcast by Arte, a prestigious television network in Europe. But there was so much pressure put on the network that they pulled it off the air. So censorship is everywhere. You could argue that what you see in war coverage on the American television now is censorship, even though it’s not institutionalized. It’s self-service censorship.
TO: By that do you mean that it’s motivated by commercial interests to not lose audience share or advertisers?
JN: It’s not about commercial interests. It’s just ideology, the ideology of American patriotism deciding what is shown on television. This is the way democracy works in terms of censorship. There’s financial issues, there’s films that just don’t get distributed. For example, my film Streets of Yesterday (1989) was about a high-ranking Jewish political figure who was assassinated by another Jew. It showed in the Cinematheque, but no one would distribute it, because they said this is an abomination, that it can never happen. This was six years before the assassination of Rabin. But they wouldn’t distribute it after, either, because they said it was now obsolete.
This film had another problem, which was languages. I produced the film for Channel 4 in London, which gave me most of the money to make the film, but I had to find other funding. The people who put up the rest of the money wanted the movie to be in English. So I decided to make a second version in Hebrew, Arabic, and German. I went to the Israeli government film fund and asked for money to make the [non-English] version, a relatively small amount of money, $100,000 or $200,000. But the readers said the script wasn’t good enough, that they were rejecting it for artistic reasons. Later I had the chance to read the readers’ reports, and obviously it was political. So I didn’t get the money and didn’t make a non-English version. It didn’t get distributed in Israel–of course Israeli audiences won’t want to watch Israeli and Palestinian characters speaking English. It also hurt foreign reception. The film was selected for the Venice Film Festival, but they asked for the version [in Hebrew and Arabic], and when I couldn’t give them one, they sent me a letter saying they couldn’t show an Israeli movie in English. I still have that letter. So this is the complexity. It’s very subtle and nothing official, but it is ideological.
TO: What changed in the ’90s that people stopped making political films?
JN: What we did in the late 1970s, myself and Ram Loevy and Eli Mosheshen, was a pioneering political act, and I’m proud to have been a part of it. These films started a wave of films that were telling a new history of the Palestinians, the Holocaust, the relationship between the Yishuv [Jews living in Palestine before 1948] and the survivors of the Holocaust, and their relations with the Arab Jews. And then came literary works, plays, and histories, like a snowball, because Israeli culture was dealing with all the traumas they had suffered, and also their guilt. Together these two strong feelings of trauma and guilt created a wave in Israeli culture.
But there is a counterwave starting now. Of nationalism. Of not wanting to look at ourselves and instead preferring to point out the blood on the hands of the Palestinians. Of rejecting Arafat as a legitimate leader because there’s blood on his hands. Does our prime minister have no blood on his hands? So I’m very happy to see any films and histories that excavate and uncover the atrocities and war crimes of the Israelis in Palestine. It’s the first step towards reconciliation, like what they did in South Africa with these truth and reconciliation commissions. You have to tell the truth first. Tell the truth! Say what you did, what crimes you committed. And maybe you have all kinds of explanations: It was war, we didn’t understand. But tell the truth. That those people were expelled, and there was a massacre in Sabra and Shatila [refugee camps in Lebanon] and the Israeli Army was in charge at that time as an occupier, and Ariel Sharon was the Minister of Defense. So I’m happy for the films and new historians that tell about the predicament of the Palestinians and the Holocaust survivors and the Jews from Arab countries. I say, give me more. And I’m also waiting for the day when Palestinians will have their own new historians, who will look into their own problems of conscience, of human rights, to see what was wrong there. And it is starting. But that’s their business, not mine. I will deal with the problems of my society. This is my duty and I have done my lot. And paid the price.
Rachel Proctor is a writer in Austin.