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Saverio Costanzo's "Private"

A Film in Search of a Cliché

by PAUL De ROOIJ

Before reviewing the film, it is important to provide some context and discuss a type of action regularly perpetrated by either the Israeli army or settlers. An example that I have personally witnessed may enable one to better appreciate and understand the film.

A reality check

In 1989, a group of armed settlers invaded a house in the Old City of Jerusalem and occupied the top floor; the Palestinian family managed to fend off the settlers from the ground floor. The Palestinian house owner sought police help to evict the invaders, but was fined NIS 500 for "disturbing the peace". During the ensuing months, the settlers set out to make the Palestinian family’s life miserable by throwing garbage onto their courtyard, pounding on the floor at night, and throwing boiling water onto the children when they ventured near the front of the house. The settlers eventually drilled a hole through the sewage pipes so that the dirty water would drip onto the living room/kitchen below where the eleven family members were now forced to sleep. At least two adults were forced to stay at home all the time to prevent the settlers from invading the rest of the house. The family resisted for more than a year, building several contraptions to stem the sewage flow onto their ground floor living quarters. I visited this family several times and witnessed the menacing, bearded, armed settlers asking the Palestinian homeowner when he was going to leave. Furthermore, this type of incident has been repeated thousands of times throughout the occupied territories where settlers or the army have invaded and confiscated Palestinian houses.

Such incidents are worse than house demolitions, because in addition to their dispossession, Palestinian families are subjected to abuse and humiliation. While house demolitions are an impersonal affair conducted by soldiers with explosives or Caterpillar bulldozers, the home invasions are an exercise in calculated humiliation and intimidation — this is up close and personal. It would seem that if the intent is to steal the houses, then this could be attained in one fell swoop. The fact that the settler or soldier sieges last for months indicates that their purpose is also to drive out Palestinians from the area; it is not enough to deprive families of their houses or businesses — the intent is to drive them out of their cities and "Israel" altogether. Besides the house under siege, the message is also meant for the neighboring Palestinian families. Any film that would raise awareness of this type of dispossession and brutality should be welcomed, but …

A real situation: Palestinian homeowner under the sewage soaked roof of his house in the Old City of Jerusalem. The settlers invaded and took over the top floor of the house, and drilled holes in the sewage pipes — sewage dripped into the remaining ground floor living area where eleven people slept.
Photo: PAUL de ROOIJ 1989, Old City, Jerusalem. © 2005.

And now back to the film

In his film, "Private", Saverio Costanzo, the Italian debut film director and the film’s scriptwriter, portrays a Palestinian family’s ordeal when Israeli soldiers invade their house in Gaza; the soldiers force the family to live in a single room of the house under lock-down curfew. On the one hand, it portrays the Palestinian family’s tribulations and the non-violent means of resistance advocated by the father, excellently acted by the Israeli-Palestinian actor, Mohammed Bakri [1]. On the other hand, it shows the Israeli soldiers transforming the house into a prison and acting as wardens of the Palestinian family. Initially, this setting seemed to be a metaphor for the Israeli military occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people, but soon it became evident that this was not the purpose of the film.

The film primarily portrays the Palestinian family’s struggle to cope and react to imprisonment within their own home. The focus of the film is the dignified non-violent stoic path, or steadfastness (known as sumud in Arabic), advocated by the father and the struggle he faces to convince his family to follow the same strategy. When the soldiers demolish the greenhouse, the father’s reaction is: "if they destroy it, then we rebuild it; if they destroy again, we rebuild it again." The mother urges her husband, for the family’s sake, to take them all elsewhere; and, the elder teenage son considers confronting the soldiers by violent means; and although the elder daughter has an opportunity to study abroad, she too seeks to stay and confront the soldiers. The whole family burns with rage inside at the constant humiliation and brutality dispensed by the soldiers. Eventually the father’s nonviolent resistance prevails and his children seem to follow his example.

The Israeli soldiers are portrayed as a bunch of ordinary people commanded by an officer with a penchant for brutality. The soldiers are victims of circumstance, and eventually the officer is portrayed as someone who grudgingly follows orders. The film shows some of the soldiers’ petty interactions on the top floor, and thereby seeks to highlight their humanity — "they are just like us".

Liberal sentimental mush

The film was shot in Italy with a cast of Palestinian and Israeli actors. All the Israelis are active members of the Israeli armed forces, and the lead Israeli character is a member of the infamous Golani brigade — known for its violent actions in the occupied territories. During the initial stages of the filming, a competition arose between the Palestinians and Israelis to outbid one another in portraying their "humanity" [2]. Of course, following this formula it is not possible to depict the Palestinian condition, and the portrayal of Israeli actions is inherently biased — the soldiers are on their best behavior, and don’t show the brutal face seen by most Palestinians.

The film finds the silliest means imaginable to show the Israeli "human face". The teenage daughter seeks to steal a weapon and possibly use it against the soldiers, but is thwarted at the last moment by an intervention of another soldier. She manages to hide in a closet and gets a glimpse of her tormentors. After this close brush, she repeatedly hides in the closet to get further insights into the soldiers’ lives, and determines that there is a "human side" to them — humanity viewed through a peephole. From this insight, she also changes her attitude towards the occupier and adopts her father’s steadfast resistance. Costanzo uses the glimpses of "humanity" seen covertly through the closet’s doors to demonstrate that the Israeli soldiers are "human". This framework is patently absurd because the issue is not the warm relationship among the soldiers or the fact that they get excited about football; the issue is their behavior towards the Palestinians and here there isn’t much "humane" behavior in evidence. Similarly, the many actual cases of dispossession are not marked by "humane" behavior; in reality, brutality is the norm [3]. The transformation of the daughter’s assessment of the soldiers doesn’t come about because of a change in their behavior towards the family, but only because she finds that between each other the soldiers are actually quite ordinary! Nothing in the reaction of the Israeli soldiers could explain the change of the two teenage children from willingness to countenance violence to one where they decide to pursue a non-violent steadfast resistance.

One must also wonder why the director seeks to "humanize" the oppressor. It would be difficult to imagine the need to "humanize", say, the armed settlers who drilled a hole through the sewage pipe in the Palestinian home in Jerusalem. Those perpetrating brutal and sordid acts don’t deserve to be "humanized" — what is important is to highlight the oppression, not the nature of the oppressors.
Neither does the father have much to show for his steadfastness. His small acts of resistance bear no fruit, nor do they change the Israeli behavior. On the contrary, for the flimsiest of reasons the Israeli commander threatens to execute him in front of his family — oh yes, one of the soldiers briefly raises an objection that is quickly dismissed by the officer. There is no reason in this film to think that the Israelis have changed their attitude, let alone decide to exit the house and observe common decency.

Some days after the threatened execution, Bakri and the officer sit at the kitchen table, and maybe this was meant to show a glimpse of mutual appreciation. The officer asks Bakri why he stays in his house — which yields the profound reply "because this is my house"! The fact that the Israeli soldier asks the question at all is already problematic because in reality it is a common question asked by soldiers of those whom they seek to dispossess [4]. The dialogue with this soldier isn’t one where the oppressor tries to understand the oppressed. Bakri’s means of resistance hasn’t penetrated through to the human core of his tormentors.

The portrayal of the steadfast resistance, or sumud, is also flawed. In one scene, the youngest daughter desperately seeks to go to the bathroom and acceding to her plight would mean her father banging on the door, demanding that the soldiers allow his daughter to go to the bathroom. Instead of banging on the door and eliciting a likely confrontation, Bakri urges his daughter to resist her need to go! NB: steadfast non-violent resistance doesn’t mean that one should improve one’s bladder control. Non-violent resistance is more than just clinging on to a patch of land; in Gandhi’s approach, it entails confronting the oppressor. In this film, non-violent resistance is represented as clinging on to the house, and the father seeks to keep confrontations with the soldiers to a minimum. Again, this is absurd.

Missing the key point

The film dwells on the intra-family tensions in dealing with the occupation of their house and focuses on the friction arising from the characters’ differing views on how to confront the soldiers. The film’s focus is how to resist, with a strong suggestion that the resistance should be non-violent. However, the director fails to ask the key question and never really explains why the soldiers invaded this house or why there are any tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The means whereby Palestinians resist is an issue that has to be debated in their society and by the people affected by the occupation and dispossession. Whatever the outcome of that debate, i.e., a non-violent or violent way to resist, should not affect an outsider’s solidarity with a people who have been subjected to mass injustice. Now, if one were to query why this dreadful situation persists, then this would raise questions for the oppressor and those outside the region concerned with the injustices being perpetrated. Unfortunately, the film stresses the issues centering on the Palestinian society, and not those that impinge on Israelis or outsiders. In essence, the film fails on many levels.

Illegitimate questions

When I witnessed the settlers in Jerusalem making the life of the Palestinians miserable and how the latter were forced to sleep under dripping sewage, the questions that came to my mind were those I wanted to pose to the settlers. How did they justify the manifest barbarity against the Palestinian family? Why did they opt for this drawn out torture and misery? Why did they feel that they were justified in stealing this home? And why did the Israeli government connive with the settlers? These are the key questions. Ultimately, these questions need to be addressed by anyone concerned with confronting injustice.

It would have been rather tactless for anyone to have asked the Palestinian family in Jerusalem how they planned to resist the settler attempt to steal their home. If they chose to resist by violent means this would have given the Israelis the ultimate pretext to dispossess and banish the family. If they chose steadfast resistance, they would have to endure the dripping sewage, humiliation and intimidation. It is facile for liberals to pontificate about non-violent resistance, but ultimately any option has stark consequences. It is also a sign of illegitimate solidarity for one to put the onus on the Palestinians and the way they confront the armed settlers or the soldiers. The key moral questions need to be posed to the oppressors, not the oppressed. Alas, this film deals exclusively with questions posed to the oppressed, and this comes after decades of oppression and dispossession.

Endnotes

[1] Bakri is also the director of the film Jenin Jenin — banned in Israel until recently.

[2] Information provided by Mohammed Bakri during the film premiere at the Amnesty International film festival in London.

[3] See for example this account by the Israeli journalist: Amira Hass, During Tul Karm countdown, anguish in Atil</a>, Ha’aretz, March 21, 2005.

[4] This is an amazing example of the Israeli soldiers brutality in similar circumstances, and the question "why are you still here?". Daniel Day-Lewis "Inside scarred minds", The Sunday Times, March 20, 2005.

PAUL de ROOIJ can be reached at proox@hotmail.com (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.)
PAUL de ROOIJ © 2005