Reporting from Israel: Yovav Kalifon
Documentary film by an Israeli director living in Finland
“About this film: The film examines the alleged violations of international law carried out by Israel in the Second Lebanon War. Presenting Israel’s previous violations and its attitude towards the UN, Um־Shmum then goes on to deal with the incidents that occurred during the war.”
(UM-SHMUM in Hebrew implies disregard towards the UN, as if it was a non-entity).
I was invited by my good friend Raphi for a screening of this film in the cinemateque in Jerusalem. Before the screening, the director, Gideon Gitai, introduced the speakers of the panel which was to follow:
Major-General Alain Pellegrini, former Commander of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Mats Gezelius, a Swedish-Finish journalist based in Jerusalem, and Otto, an old Finish jazz musician and known conscientious objector. Otto added a bit of music to the film, which was a nice touch.
The movie itself was very disturbing. I can’t describe it to you without boring you to death, so I’ll skip ahead to the interesting part of the evening – the panel discussion. I am sure you’ll understand what disturbed me about the movie.
First to speak was the General. The main topic for him was the tragic incident where a UN observation post in the village Al-Khiam was struck from the air with a JDAM “smart-bomb”. It resulted in the death of four UN observers taking cover in a shelter.
The director was trying to get the General to be a bit more critical, reminding him that the Israeli army was well aware of their positions, and listening to their communications, and still the IDF was shelling the area near the UN post for hours before the tragedy.
The General, keeping his cool, explained to the director that the Hezbollah was taking position only 300 meters from the post, hoping the presence of UN observers would provide some cover from Israeli fire. The observers were actually using coded radio systems to communicate their positions, and the way the area was shelled was actually standard army procedure, and familiar to the General.
The director was visibly disappointed to hear all of this.
The director was, however, pleased to hear the General speculate that the pilot must have entered the wrong coordinates to guide the smart-bomb, possibly on purpose, making the accident a murder case. The only proof for that was that “there’s no other explanation…”
Later came a funny question from the audience, saying: “The movie asks why; why does Israel do these things… but the movie never gave the answer. So please tell us why!”
The director was delighted at hearing this, delighted to spot a sign of outrage and criticism, but he basically left it up in the air. The movie hints, using only suggestion, that the “UM SHMUM” mentality in Israeli society has developed over the years to give rise to army negligence, and contempt for human life in general.
It’s really tough watching a movie that only primes your attention, builds a case, but never gives a clear statement. Endless suggestions can be very exhausting, I discovered.
Anyways, I felt there was another explanation for what had happened during the war, and I felt I could show it by asking the following question, for the General:
“I understand from the film that UN presence in Southern Lebanon does not help deter Hezbollah, in-fact it provides cover for their operations. My question to you is, how could Hezbollah’s actions against Israel be handled, using less force, and causing less collateral damage, when even the UN doesn’t take action”.
The General felt compelled to explain to the audience what the extent of his authority was. Basically, his job was to make observations, and report them back to UN headquarters.
I told him “I understand the point but I ask how you would recommend relieving the threat Hezbollah poses to Israel, when international forces are powerless or not interested to act.”
Again, the General explained it was not his authority to disarm Hezbollah or even limit their mobility, not to mention their operations.
I felt my question wasn’t answered but at that point the director interrupted me, asking how I could miss the point, suggesting my listening was impaired. I told him I got the answer just fine, though my question was misunderstood, but I was willing to give it up in order to ask another question, this one for the director himself (he was pleased):
“Without getting into the question of whether or not your film delegitimizes Israel…”
Gitai: “I am a known anti-Semite, of course my films delegitimize Israel” he interrupted, sarcastically, I should hope.
“OK, I didn’t want to get into that, but still, do you think delegitimizing Israel in documentaries will have the desired effect on Israelis? Do you think they will be more open to criticism, or more deaf towards it?”
“Israelis bring this criticism on themselves” was his answer. I guess my questions were not clear enough that evening… I gave up on him.
The director was later asked who the film was meant for. His answer was very clear and honest:
“The film is intended for a Western audience, which is why the translation is into English, not Hebrew. The aim is to have European countries apply more pressure to Israel, to force Israel to restrain itself.”
Raphi, my friend, was right on the money when he posed the following questions:
“Obviously the UN has a long history of singling out Israel and applying double standards to it. In the beginning of your movie you present statistics showing Israel to be the country with the most condemnations by the UN General Assembly. Do you agree with the UN that in a world of North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the absolutely worst country is… Israel?”
The director was rather stumped…
Another question by Raphi got the director even more stumped. After the director noted that Israel must stop using force and learn to live in peace with its neighbors, Raphi asked:
“Do you mean live in peace like Syrians live in peace with Syrians, like Lebanese live in peace with Lebanese, or like Egyptians live in peace with Egyptians?”
There was a long pause. “You probably know what I think about that” was the only comment Gitai could come up with.
“I am dying to know” Raphi and I both replied.
Then someone came to the rescue, took the mic and broke the tension:
“I have a question for the two guys in the back of the theater…”
Raphi and I burst into laughter. It was ridiculous. Our point of view, as reflected through us posing quick questions, had more of an impact than a film lasting 72 minutes, and a panel managed by the director himself. He had complete control over the event, but I guess his points were proven weak.
I hope you see now why the movie was disturbing. It was a poor show. It was showing bits of information spanning many decades, leading to the tragedy of Al-Khiam, hinting it was a murder case, blaming Israel for its “UM-SHMUMiness”, but never naming the killers or building a good case against them.
I’m sorry, but if a few simple questions, referencing evidence presented in the film itself, can topple the whole argument, then it’s not a documentary at all. It is just another attempt to grasp at straws, trying to present Israel as the bad guy, and insulting the intelligence of the audience in the process.
After it was finished, I tried explaining to the director, in private, that by taking such a film to a foreign audience, they just might eat it up. Then, their perceptions might induce foreign press to pick at Israel even more. But, when criticism starts to delegitimize the state of Israel, then by definition, it has foul motives, and it is probably biased. Presenting mostly weak cases, not to mention the lack of context, will not be convincing for most Israelis anyway. As a result of Israelis feeling increasingly misunderstood by biased press, I don’t see how it will force Israel to restrain itself on the battle field.
The bottom line is – the film isn’t likely to save lives, but rather have the opposite effect.
I got nowhere with him, but I felt I had a good connection with the General in another private chat. I went over to shake his hand and thank him for being so professional with his clear answers. The General said it was important for him to be heard at these screenings. He understands Israel’s point of view. He finds it outrageous that the film featured a crying Lebanese mother who lost her son in the backyard, in a cluster bomb tragedy, as a result of the war. The General was upset because “the film did not feature the mothers of the abducted Israeli soldiers, victims of the Hezbollah attack which ignited the war. Those mothers did not know, for two whole years, if their sons were alive or dead… until Hezbollah unveiled their coffins when the exchange finally took place.”
He was clearly very emotional and sympathetic. I didn’t feel the need to add anything. We understood each-other well enough. We shook hands one last time and he said:
“Good luck to you and your country”.
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