A rising number of Israeli soldiers choose to take their own life. A total of 40 Israelis died while in uniform in 2022. Only four fell in combat. There were traffic accidents, mishaps during training, and a staggering 14 killed themselves, making suicide the most common cause of death in the Israel Defense Forces.
The Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi has taken up this extremely sensitive topic in his latest documentary. He gained world attention with his 2011 documentary 5 Broken Cameras, which was nominated for the 2013 Academy Award (Best Documentary Feature), and has since become a true classic. His latest work deserves the same honour because it is nothing less than amazing.
Watching the fence
Guy Davidi digs into the deep causes. He describes Israel as a highly problematic place, where preparations for the upcoming army service – three years for boys and almost two for girls – more or start at birth. In his view, it is a deeply integrated part of growing up in Israel.
Much of the film takes place in Kissufim, a southern kibbutz situated right by the border fence to the Gaza Strip. There we meet a small boy. He is with his mother in the fields, watching the sunset. He also watches the houses on the other side of the fence. His mother explains that those are their neighbours, but they cannot visit them because they live in Deir el Balah, a Palestinian refugee camp in the Strip.
He must not touch the fence. It is electronic, and the whole army will check who is there. Simultaneously, an armoured patrol car is passing along the fence. The boy watches with excitement.
The scene switches to an army camp seen from above. A voice is reading a letter home. This is Ron, a soldier. He is missing home but understands that sometimes you have to be strong.
A rising number of Israeli soldiers choose to take their own life.
Feeling strong is one of the keywords. Ron is one of the soldiers who committed suicide, and the narrative is taken from letters, poems, and bits of diary entries written by soldiers that chose this way out—or rather, who were forced to take this way out when no alternative seemed possible.
Right from birth, Israeli children are taught to be strong. One teacher tells the pupils about the Holocaust and the selection in the camps where the weak ones were immediately sent to their death. The same spirit permeates the army, where there is no room to be weak, and all the upbringing fits into that thinking. We meet one young man who doubts whether he will fit into this system. He considers refusing to turn up for duty, but in the end, he does it. He does not want to disappoint his grandfather, who lost all his family in the Holocaust.
Innocence has died
Another young man, 18 years old, talks to his diary. He aspires to become a combat pilot and starts wondering what happened to him. He has not yet kissed a girl. «Innocence has died», he writes.
Only after donning a uniform did this boy, who is not among us anymore, realise that the word ‘innocence’ also means ‘ending’. If he had superpowers, he would do four things. The first would be to turn back time before he started losing touch with who he was. The second superpower is to be able to fly so he can always see things from above. The third superpower is to see the future. He’d see if he was going to make it as a combat soldier. And if he’d have a girlfriend. The last superpower is when things mess up, he would be able to close his eyes, count to three, and then disappear.
He is thinking of a girl that killed herself during army service. ‘Nothing makes sense to me anymore’ were her last words on a piece of paper. It has not been easy to shoot oneself.
Making war is a storyteller’s job. Militaries find it crucial to legitimise the use of force, and the IDF is very successful at that. As the director writes in the promotional material, both the history of the Jews as a persecuted people and Israel as a beleaguered democracy is enlisted in this effort. For that purpose, every child is screened to serve with bearable pressure and an adjusted amount of exposure to violence.
A typical reaction of those that find it hard to endure is turning into themselves and dreaming of freedom. The film depicts their inner turmoil. It interweaves first-hand military images, key moments from childhood until enlistment and home videos of the deceased soldiers whose stories are silenced and seen as a national threat.
«Don’t break now, Ron. The freedom is within you. Don’t stop wanting it», the narrator reads. But Ron never made it. He capitulated, but thanks to this documentary, the story of his terrible fate is now out in the free.