It’s March in Greece. The world famous Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan is attending the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which is showing a retrospective of his many films. Along with Amos Gitai and Avi Mograbi, Sivan is known as a dissident among Israeli filmmakers. He tells DOX that he wants to provoke with his films, to get people to react. Sivan is used to opposition, but for each person who supports him, there are ten who criticise him. Many hate the free-speaking filmmaker from Israel’s upper middle class. He has received a bullet in the mail with the message “next time, it’ll be one of these”. When a director friend of his lost his life making a pro-Palestinian film, he started to fear for his safety and that of his family. But he tolerates accusations and hate-filled comments because, as festival director, Dimitri Eipides, writes in the Thessaloniki festival catalogue: “He dares to show the other side – the Palestinian side – as something less one-dimensional than the word ‘enemy’, to talk about Israel beyond the usual ideological construct of the chosen people or victimhood; to reveal the propaganda machine …”
Sivan thrives at the film editing table with old archive footage, although it has ruined his back, necessitated surgery and a daily exercise regime. He describes his work as a battlefield:
“When you are in the middle of a battle, you don’t ask yourself if you are tired, or haven’t eaten enough.”
This is confirmed by a phone call from his wife during our interview with him – in which she insists that he has to stop working and come home. But there are other journalists waiting in the hallway here in Thessaloniki.
Sivan grew up in Jerusalem with Zionist parents but moved to Paris in his twenties. He has made more than ten controversial documentaries and continues to make his mark through essays and as the editor of the political journal South Cinema Notebooks. His films are principally about the perpetrators – he believes victim films show only the consequences, not the causes.
His aim is to leave his audiences uneasy. In his first film, Agabat-Jaber from 1987, about some Palestinians in a refugee camp, he found that the film virtually just confirmed the audience’s desire to be empathetic humanists. Such films tend to hide the perpetrator. Since then he has wanted to disturb audiences with films like The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal (1999). The Specialist deals with the Israeli court case of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who organised the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps. Sivan claims the legal procedure was political, and emphasizes this in his manipulation of some of the copious archive footage. He found most of the archives hidden in an old lavatory. Sivan creatively edits into the film a “reflection” of the audience in the defendant’s glass cage and also places a judge in the same sequence. He also comments to DOX that the six-month-long court case could have lasted three days, hadn’t it been for the Israeli’s desire to give “evil” a face.
Sivan usually investigates what is omitted when history is written: so how come the Israeli intelligence only apprehended Eichmann in 1960 when they knew about him as early as 1955? 50 years ago this month, they hung Eichmann – the only execution carried out in Israel under civil law. So did Israel make political use of this court case to write its own history?
For his film Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann, another Jewish filmmaker, compiled a collection of witness statements on the annihilation of the Jews. Lanzmann chose not to use archive material since this was often derived from propaganda films, but also because such old clips could have a distancing effect. He also rejected the modern, dramatic staging seen in Holocaust (1978) and Schindler’s List (1993), which he described as obscene because to his mind the incomprehensible should not be depicted through the consolation offered by the survivors. Shoah was to be about death itself, with interviews conducted forty years later at the actual crime scenes with those who had lived up close to this mechanism of death. He calls his film a meticulously constructed “fictionalization of reality”. 1)See Sue Vice, Shoah, BFI, London, 2012.
What role do Jewish or Muslim testimonies play in our memory? Who is deserving of our sympathy and compassion? Only the Jews? Only the Palestinians? Lanzmann has verbally attacked Eyal Sivan, referring to Sivan’s Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel (2004), he said: “I think that he mocks the Palestinians, he has no compassion for them. It is a bad film, fastidious, irritating, Holocaust-denying, profoundly immoral, and dishonest. He neglects to say that on […] the day that the state of Israel was created, five Arab armies invaded the country, and there were 6,000 deaths among the 600,000 Israelis that made up the country.”2) Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman, ”The Barber Trial: Sivan vs. Finkielkraut”, Cabinet Magazine, no. 26, New York, summer 2007. The French philosopher, Alan Finkelkraut, has called Sivan “a self-hating Jew”.3) Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman, ”The Barber Trial: Sivan vs. Finkielkraut”, Cabinet Magazine, no. 26, New York, summer 2007.
Sivan himself tells DOX: “It’s a struggle between Zionism and non-Zionism. I think there are many ways of making cinema, not just one. Lanzmann thinks of Israel in terms of fiction, I think of Israel in terms of reality.”
In Jaffa, The Orange’s Clockwork (2009) Sivan, in contrast to Lanzmann, uses archive film to analyse images of the Palestinians who were forcefully driven out of Jaffa. Only 3000 remained out of the 180,000 who worked in the orange groves there. The film shows old photographs depicting the Palestinians as more barbaric than the Jews and Jaffa as a desolate “primitive place, waiting for modernity to come and save it … Come and conquer me!”
Jaffa is the world’s most famous brand after Coca-Cola, a symbol of Israel as a modern, fruitful country – counterfeited in the name of nationalism. For the Palestinians, the orange brand now symbolises a lost homeland. As is said in the film “the scent of your oranges” symbolises a return to Jaffa.
But what can Jaffa’s past tell us about the future of Palestine? The answer may lie in the film, when an old Palestinian says that in Jaffa, you were not allowed to refer to others as Muslims, Jews or Christians.
Sivan believes the current collaborators in Israel are those who avoid criticising: “When you come from an apartheid state, from the white upper class, with complete freedom to criticise, if you, as an intellectual or an artist do not take the opportunity to criticise – it’s pure collaboration.” Sivan criticises the image of Israel as the victim because it “legitimises” the attacks on the Palestinians.
Israeli nationalism and victimhood are also in the spotlight in the film Izkor – Slaves of Memory (1990), in which Sivan examines what the myth of the “chosen people” and Israel’s ideology about the enemy is doing to the country’s young school children.
– You refer to Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault; do you find engagement in ethics and philosophy?
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