Eyal Sivan

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.
Agabat-Jaber from 1987
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.

Shoah (1985) by Claude Lanzmann
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.
FRAGMENTS OF A JOURNEY IN PALESTINE-ISRAEL (2004)

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References   [ + ]

1. See Sue Vice, Shoah, BFI, London, 2012.
2, 3.  Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman, ”The Barber Trial: Sivan vs. Finkielkraut”, Cabinet Magazine, no. 26, New York, summer 2007.

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