It is March in Greece. World renowned Israeli film maker Eyal Sivan is a guest at the Tessaloniki Documentary Festival, where a retrospective of his roster of films is being screened. Alongside Amos Gitai and Avi Mograbi, Sivan is considered a dissident among Israeli film makers. He tells me that he wants his films to provoke, to make people react. Sivan is used to resistance; for single person who supports him, there are another ten who criticise. Many people hate the outspoken, upper middle class film maker from Israel. He once received a bullet in the post accompanied with the message “this is next”. When a director friend was killed for making a Palestinian film, he became worried for himself and his family. But, he is not afraid of accusations and hateful statements, as the Tessaloniki festival director stated in the event catalogue: “He dares to describe the Palestinian side with words less one-dimensional than ‘enemy’, is brave enough to speak about Israel without resorting to victim rhetoric and ideological terms about a chosen people, he elects to reveal the propaganda machinery.”
Deconstructing the victim role. Sivan grew up in Israel with his Zionist parents, but moved to Paris in his 20s. He has more than ten controversial documentaries under his belt, and frequently hits the headlines with his essays, and in his role as editor of the political publication South Cinema Notebooks. His films are mainly concerned with perpetrators – he believes films about victims only depict effects and not causes. He wants to leave an uncomfortable audience. His first film about a Palestinian refugee camp, Agabat-Jaber (1987), merely confirmed the audience’s wish to be sympathetic humanists. Such films tend to shield the perpetrator. Since then, he has wanted to disturb the audience, with films such as The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal (1999) and Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork (2009).
The Specialist portrays the Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who organised the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps. Sivan claims that the legal process was political, which he emphasises by manipulating some of the many archive recordings. He found most of the archives hidden in an old toilet. Sivan has edited in a ‘reflection’ of the audience in the glass booth where the accused was standing, and added a judge to an image sequence. He believes that the trial, which took six months, should have lasted only three days, but that the Israelis wanted to give evil a face.
Sivan investigates what is omitted when history is written. Why did Israeli intelligence not arrest Eichmann until 1960, when they knew about him already in 1955? The Israeli judiciary defied international extradition demands, and hanged the man almost exactly fifty years ago – Israel’s only execution under civilian law. Did Israel use the trial politically in a bid to write their history?
Today, those failing to criticise are traitors of Israel, says Sivan: «Coming from an apartheid state, part of the white upper class, able to freely criticise, if you, as intellectual or artist, do not use the opportunity to criticise – you are a true collaborator.” Sivan takes responsibility for deconstructing the old victim role which ‘legitimises’ the attacks on the Palestinians.
The perpetrators are revealed in Sivan’s film on Jaffa, where the Israelis – according to experts interviewed by Sivan – years ago drove out the Palestinians in order to take over their orange groves. The famous trade mark has been falsified in the name of nationalism. The Israeli nationalism’s unilateral identity is being put under the spotlight in Izkor – Slaves of Memory (1990), a film in which Sivan investigates how the myth about the chosen people and the Israeli enemy image on the school curriculum affect the country’s pupils.
Fellowship must be the goal. Sivan enjoys being in the editing suite pouring over vintage archive cuttings, something that has destroyed his back, he has had to operate on it and now does daily exercises. He explains that his work is a fight – akin to a battle field – where you never consider things like fatigue or hunger. This is corroborated by a phone call from his wife, in which she implores him to stop and come home. However, in the hallway, more journalists are waiting.