The Arab-Israeli conflict has unquestionably been a dominant theme in Israeli cinema in recent years. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the subject is hardly mentioned until half way through ARTE’s recently produced documentary A History of Israeli Cinema, or to find out that not one of the documentaries premiering at the 2009 DocAviv Festival in Tel Aviv focus on the conflict.

A History of Israeli Cinema is a monumental three hour long film, comprising interviews with 40 film critics and filmmakers and including about 60 feature film clips. The subject of the conflict is low-key during the first part, explains director Raphael Nadjari, because until the 1970s filmmakers tended to focus on how Israelis were attempting to achieve their long-sought after goal of being a normal nation with a homeland. “Obsessed by the idea of national unity, by the quest for identity, Israeli cinema in its beginnings doesn’t speak of its conflict with the Other. It can hardly define that Other, one hardly sees it pass in the background, in the shadow” he says in an interview.

Many of the films portray the lives of the early pioneers in farming activities such as digging irrigation canals. Historian Nurit Gretz observes that these productions ‘have an almost erotic quality’. They reinforce the founding generation’s utopian vision of a socialist society in which a “New Jew” would emerge – secular, independent and dedicated to working the land; this in contrast to the religious, weak and stateless Jews of Europe.

The turning point in subject matter came in 1978 with Ram Loevy’s landmark drama Khirbet Hiza’a that raised thorny questions about the exile of Palestinians during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. An attempt to ban the film from the state-run television station backfired and led to the film attracting a wide audience across the nation. Khirbet Hiza’a was followed by a wave of political films that took up the subject of Israeli-Arab relations with avengeance. Some of these films try to reverse stereotypes, for example Avanti Popolo (1986, Rafi Bukai) where the Arab protagonists are presented as the ‘good guys’. Others include romances between Arabs and Jews, for example On A Narrow Bridge (1985, Nissim Dayan), or attempt to introduce dialogue such as in Uri Barbash’s Beyond the Walls (1984) that showed Arabs and Jews in solidarity during a prison hunger strike. These conflict-focussed films have been simultaneously accompanied by the productions of large number of auteur filmmakers like Ronit Elkabetz, Dover Kosashvili and Keren Yeda’aya who explore feminist and cultural themes.

A History of Israeli Cinema offers a valuable social and political overview. Nadjari’s decision to present subjective impressions without narration is reminiscent of the style of the Canadian film about filmmaking itself (Capturing Reality, 2009, Pepita Ferrari) – a style that gives the film the feel of an observational documentary.

The film’s main weakness is the overload of interviews with a homogeneous group of film theorists. One breath of fresh air is provided by Israeli Arab actor Muhammed Bakri who gives a dramatic anecdotal account of how he convinced the director of Beyond the Walls to let the Arab character that Bakri was playing in the film deviate from the script and refuse to break the hunger strike in order to maintain unity with the Jewish prisoners. The filmwould have benefitted with more colourful vignettes of this kind.

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