Eyal Sivan prefers to make documentaries about the perpetrator rather than the victim. His latest film, Common State, advocates a one-state solution in Israel. Truls Lie met Sivan in Tessaloniki.

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

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.

You refer to Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault, are you motivated by ethics and philosophy?

“Commitment, which stems from reading reality”, Sivan replies.
How is the Israel in which you still work? What makes you committed to working so hard for political change?

“Our memory tells us that we are born out of Auschwitz, but the perspective is also to return to Auschwitz. Israel has an apocalyptic view of reality. The vision of the country is not about life itself, but of its destruction. To expand with new settlements over 50 years is not a solution, it is rubbish. The only things that will help save the Jewish society in an Arab world is integration and participation. Unfortunately, Israel upholds the myth that someone is out to exterminate them, so and are ready to counter attack whatever the cost”, Sivan states, continuing:

“The Israeli state does not provide a future for its youths. Instead, the country facilitates the paranoid, the one who wants to be persecuted, to show that he was right. For 60 years, Israel has constructed the idea that someone wants to destroy us; that we will disappear. We are here talking about a nation who today has nearly 200 nuclear bombs. The terrible thing about Israel’s current attitude to Iran is that it could end in suicide.

“Israel plays on the moral credit once offered due to six million dead bodies – that once a victim always a victim. In this respect, the memory can be a horrible weapon. You can end up fighting battles that are no longer based on actual reality”, says Sivan.

27.1.2012. Docpoint screening "Jaffa, the Orange's Clockwork". Director Eyal Sivan answering to the questions presented by audience.
27.1.2012. Docpoint screening “Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork”. Director Eyal Sivan answering to the questions presented by audience.

Do you consider yourself a political film maker?

 “Isn’t everyone? Those who deny that they are, might be the most political.

Sivan is too modest to deem himself dissident, as he feels he is not subjected to the same risks as the suppressed. He fights for an Israeli one-state solution, unlike the Norwegian government. He feels the two-state solution is a failure:

“For 75 years, they have described a state split into two as a good solution. These 75 years show that it is not good. The question should be how to create a fellowship. Jews and Arabs already live together on a daily basis, so a fellowship should be the goal.”
A new Oslo treaty. In his latest film, Common State – Conversations (2011), 25 intellectuals, activists, academics, Jews and Arabs discuss the one-state solution. The split TV-screen makes it look as if the English subtitles are conversing, despite the on-screen conversation being in Hebrew and Arabic. These are some of the arguments heard in the film: “in the 1100s, 97 percent of the Jews spoke Arabic,” “my culture is both Jewish and Persian”, “my best friend is Palestinian, our conversations flow and are religious”, “no colonial power ever gave anything voluntarily”, “we need an ethical co-existence”, “we have to accept that we live in an Arabic region”, “equal treatment and the right to return home are key issues, the rest mere footnotes”, “the two-thirds living in the diaspora must also be able to decide”, and “we have to accept each other as mutual partners”.

Multiculturalism is the way forward, says Sivan:

«The problem lies within the Jewish belief in one unique identity. Why are they not able to accept diversity? This is exactly what the current power uses. As one, you are always against something. But, as diverse, having an enemy is more complicated.”

How do you envisage the implementation of a one-state solution?

“The international community must intervene and establish an international power in the country, by force. This is about more than just Israel-Palestine, it is about the future of the entire region. All Palestinians must have the right to an equal nationality. We have to accept a society with two languages, and both nurseries and schools must mix Arabs and Jews. The country must have only one army and one police force, as opposed to the various current militia groups. A communal state will only include members that fight for this solution. The occupation must be abolished.”

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A new Oslo agreement is needed, says Sivan:

“We need a new agreement describing how the entire country can be made accessible to all. Even though the previous Oslo-agreement was very unfair, and what followed was catastrophic, it did have some advantages. It led to a change in mentality. After all, Norway did more than other European countries, but should not have pretended that it was a negotiation between equal partners. The last 30 years, the USA have acted as a third part, but they are part of the conflict. Countries such as Norway, Switzerland and Finland have a completely different power because they are neutral.”


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