The euphoria being created by the media and government surrounding the recent visit of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a first such visit by an Israeli head of state to our country — and the length that the Indian PM is going about to create the impression of bonhomie and the defense deals being struck by the two countries reveal a deeper subtext: the regimes of both the countries share a deep-rooted antipathy towards their minorities.
Israel, surrounded by Arab states, has always has been a war-mongering country. For a generation that witnessed the arrival of the government owned Doordarshan in the mid-’70s, one particular news that always captured their attention was the daily news bulletin related to the Israel-Palestine conflict, though its genesis goes back to more than 50 years before 1948, the year in which Israel as a nation was formed by carving out Palestinian land, making the Palestinians refugees in their own land. The conflict continues to this day and there seems to be no solution in sight.
Concerned artists and filmmakers from both sides of the border have responded to the conflict periodically by engaging in their craft, raising questions and trying to understand the problems that beset the most disputed land in the world. Two films that immediately come to mind are Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Lebanon: A Soldier’s Journey, a film from Israel.
Based on true events following the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972 where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organisation, Spielberg’s Munich (2006) follows the Israeli retaliation by a secret Mossad unit which is sent to Europe to track down and kill the 10 Palestinian leaders who had planned the chilling operation. Infused with a sense of Zionist nationalism and craving for revenge, the team carries out its top-secret mission with a ruthlessness and precision that Mossad has always been famous for.
But unlike a regular big-budget Hollywood studio film, Munich is not an outright revenge tale that takes glory in the defeat of its enemies. Spielberg, a non-practicing Jew is matured enough to examine the absurdity of the operation that begins to claim the lives of its protagonists one by one, and the Palestinians begin to retaliate, till a point comes when the team leader — played brilliantly by Eric Bana — starts questioning the purpose of the whole mission. Unlike a blockbuster avenging hero, he becomes paranoid, fearing for his own life and family’s safety and quits Israel and settles down in Brooklyn, a scarred and disillusioned soul riddled with internal conflicts and doubts. A film that set about being critical of Palestine, turns it gaze towards the state of Israel and takes a hardened stand against its ruthless ways.
Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon: A Soldier’s Journey (2009) is an Israeli anti-war film set against the 1982 Lebanon war. It depicts the warfare as witnessed exclusively from inside a battle tank by four young Israeli soldiers who have been ordered to clear a hostile Lebanese town by using phosphorus grenades that is forbidden by international treaty. The battle-ravaged landscape is seen through the periscope from inside the tank, obviously a set — a virtuoso piece of art direction.
A cinematic tour-de-force, Lebanon lays bare the horrors of a meaningless war as the four soldiers cope with the deteriorating state of the tank, heat, smoke, filth, stench, cramped quarters, equipment failure, navigational problems, conflicting information that claim innocent lives and recurring quarrels. To complicate matters there is also the body of a dead Israeli soldier, a Syrian prisoner of war, a visiting higher officer, and a visiting pro-Israeli Lebanese Christian who threatens the POW with torture and a gruesome death. The film won the Golden Lion at the 66th Venice International Film Festival in 2009 against 24 other entries, and caused controversy in its own country for its critical stance against Israel-Arab conflict.
In India, given the present political scenario where a misplaced sense of patriotism, divisive politics, acute polarisation and a state of constant fear have become the order of the day, it would definitely deter filmmakers from making political films for a long time to come — unless they project the ideology of the ruling party.
(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)