Can Israeli film take on the monster of war and win?

foxtrot

Anyone for a dance? An Israeli soldier in the controversial new film Foxtrot embraces his rifle in a bizarre dance in the desert (photo Samuel Maoz)

WHAT SHOULD someone who loves Israel feel about a film showing the Israeli army negatively rather than heroically, when the war against the country continues unabated, its enemies unrelenting in their desire to destroy it?

Wars, wherever they occur, are fertile territory for artistic creativity in films and books. Israel’s wars fit the same bill, including the 50-year occupation of Palestinian territories and the generations of Israeli soldiers who served there.

A new Israeli film raising hackles among Jews and Israelis is “Foxtrot”, which on Saturday received the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival. It won best film at Israel’s Ophir Awards and is shortlisted for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. Lead actor Lior Ashkenazi also won the Best Actor award in Venice.

Foxtrot , due to open in American theatres on March 2, is a heartrending portrayal of parents’ reaction to their soldier son’s death in the line of duty, the blind alley of Israeli control over the West Bank, and how this humiliates the occupied people and hardens the souls of those who control them. One scene shows an Israeli soldier doing a mock dance – the foxtrot – with his rifle. Like the foxtrot, things always return to the same spot.

Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev slammed the film. In a statement on Saturday she said: “It’s outrageous that Israeli artists contribute to the incitement of the young generation against the most moral army in the world by spreading lies in the form of art.”  She accused the film-maker of “self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israeli narrative.”

The film’s director Samuel Maoz told reporters in Venice after claiming his prize that his criticism of Israel is because he loves his country and worries about it.

Myriad films have been made about the horror soldiers endure in wars, and the trauma of their families. Some romanticise it; others plunge to the depths of the suffering and absurdities permeating every war.

Iconic films include Catch 22, made in 1970 and based on Joseph Heller’s satirical anti-war novel – a black comedy revolving around the “lunatic characters” who are soldiers at a World War Two Mediterranean base, and whose main aim is to get back home alive. A 1978 film, The Deer Hunter, portrays the Vietnam War in a hard-hitting glimpse of its effect on American working class steel workers shattered by what happens to their loved ones – those who return and those who don’t.

A powerful new American biographical drama of 2017, Rebel in the Rye, is based on the book Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. It shows the author’s life before and after World War Two and the tragic consequences of the PTSD he suffered from his active duties in the war, causing him to isolate himself for years in a wooded retreat far from society, and to cease publishing his work.

Potent triggers about patriotism, courage and betrayal are embedded in the gore of war and movies about them. Are Israeli soldiers and film-makers who depict negatively their experiences and Israel’s current political path, betraying their fellow soldiers and citizens? Are they traitors, as some of their critics would have it? Or brave men telling truths most people don’t know, or don’t want to?

Israeli president Reuven Rivlin emerges as a sane voice, unlike others. Before he had actually watched the film, he said he admires Israeli cinema as “a symbol of freedom of expression and the strength of Israeli democracy.”

His words won’t deter the pack who blindly toe the “party line” and have Maoz in their sights. It’s a sad indictment of Israel’s rightwing government that its Culture Minister sees culture through so narrow and chauvinistic a lens.

 (GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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