Translated from Hebrew by Aryeh Naftaly
Ra'anan comes to our meeting after 10:00 at night. He's been running around with his impressive film The Law in These Parts for over half a year now and this evening he's coming from a screening and discussion at the College of Law in Hod HaSharon. "It was turbulent," he says. It's always amazing to see when a documentary film grabs an audience. There's a good movie and producers who hand it to the audience with open arms, and, happily, The Law in These Parts is finding its audience. A strong cup of coffee and we begin.
Allow me to look at your body of work so far. It seems like after your first films, especially after "Martin," your films have taken on a more political direction and urgency in the sense of examining life in Israel here and now.
As a film student I wasn't interested in politics. I may have had political sympathies, but I did what you're supposed to do in film school – develop your ego so that afterwards you can justify making movies. Events like the Rabin assassination passed me by like things that are trying to get in the way of my editing my graduate film. Only later when I regained my sense of proportion did I start to look around me. You may not see it, but I think Martin is a political film. Martin, The Inner Tour and The Law in These Parts are all different, but they're definitely political films.
Don't you feel like "Martin" is different from the films you made after it?
Martin came to me out of nowhere. I started filming it, it interested me for some reason, and only as I was editing it and working with it did I realize its political significance. And that released my political demons. Actually, the result of the process of working on the film was that I started to read about the Holocaust and understand its significance here as well as the broader context than was discussed at the time of the Holocaust. The result was a film that mainly dealt with the struggle between a single person, Martin Zeidenstadt, the film's protagonist, and the commemoration of the Holocaust – the commemoration of the Dachau concentration camp in this case. As I examined it I realized that if I look at it honestly, both memories are problematic. I suddenly realized that there really is such a thing as a discrepancy between the memory of something that happened and the narrative that was built up around what happened. I started to ask myself, "What purpose does this story serve?" I realized all this by observing Dachau the town and Dachau the concentration camp, and this also led me to understand how to read much of the collective Israeli memory. But Martin is also the story of a confused encounter that testifies to the relationship between the first generation [of the Holocaust] and the third, my generation, whose ignorance regarding the Holocaust, although this doesn't really appear in the film, is to a certain extent a result of how we're educated in Israel.
After Martin I had another political film which I lost. I worked hard on it, for two years. In today's terms that doesn't seem like much. It was a film about K'tziot Detention Camp, the first round of K'tziot, where they're now building the prison for refugees. This was a prison that housed about ten-thousand Palestinians at certain points during the intifada and images of it appear in The Law in These Parts and stir up a lot of anger among the audience.
I started to make a film about it. It fascinated me and I planned a film that would be based on testimonies from prisoners and prison guards. As I researched it I got to know the West Bank and Gaza for the first time not as a soldier or a hiker with a security escort, and I started to hear people in a way I'd never heard them before. Mainly, I started too see how the Oslo Accords had developed into a sort of huge prison and how the Palestinians see it, how they experience the so-called peace process.
I thought I was so smart. A Dutch television station agreed to fund the film, and when they got here I realized they didn't see me as a film director at all. They saw me as some kind of researcher and I was given no control. I tried to quit and they threatened to stand in the way of any station that tried to deal with the subject. In the end I found myself on the back seat of the van as a researcher. The film made it to DocAviv two years later.
With a different director?
Yes, of course. But doing the research for the film helped me a lot later on. And I guess I also learned a lot of lessons as a person and as a director. Much of what I wanted to say with that film ended up in The Inner Tour, in a totally different form, of course. But to get back to politics, on one hand I became disgusted with the saying "everything is political." On the other hand there are a lot of political things. Anat Zuria's films, for instance, are a political body of work, and in our home, if you ask my partner Liat, who's studying gender studies, they're very important and very political films. So without saying "everything is political" – "political" doesn't only mean being involved in what appears to be the most burning political issue here.
But you chose to deal with what is perceived as the most burning political issue here.
That has to do with my life story. My life story led me to make two films, one which never came out, about the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict. That comes from the fact that I grew up on the borderline in Jerusalem and that I was in the army during the first intifada and a little afterwards. I wasn't ostensibly "political" as a teenager. But now I understand that the fact that I hiked in the West Bank every weekend, and certainly being a soldier later, made me political. Being a soldier is ultimately a very political act, even if they say time and again that the army is "beyond politics." The army is politics. Anyway, my life story created my consciousness which then created these films.
Both the feature film that you directed, "James' Journey to Jerusalem," and the screenplay that you wrote that was never made into a film continue to deal with the injustices we perpetrate here. Can you see yourself being able to make a film that doesn't deal with these issues directly?
Actually, I don't really see it as a film about "injustices." It's a film that takes a certain situation and turns into a model for the economy in which we live. But I think the raw footage I chose may have overpowered the metaphor… In any case, to get back to your question, I ask myself many, many questions about filmmaking. I'm currently considering not making films. Enough of that. Let's do something else. It's hard to imagine myself making a film about love. But I can imagine making all sorts of films that don't have to do with Zionism or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Tell us about your thoughts of leaving filmmaking.
There are many things about filmmaking that we're addicted to. It's filmmaking but it's our ego, too. I think something sometimes happens to filmmakers and writers and journalists, we get mixed up and we think what we're doing is politics. I had an awakening of this kind after The Inner Tour.
I think that when you look at filmmaking critically or systematically, at the huge amount of films and festivals, you see a disconnect between the representation and the people who are in charge of the representation and what I'll call "the street." That disconnect is problematic.
I also feel it when I look at film students. Part of what's supposed to happen to them in school is for them to start to believe that the world should listen to them. I, the director, am going to speak, and the audience is going to listen. Why? Who am I to speak? Not to mention the fact that in order for them to hear you, you have to spend about $200,000. And that's in a world where $200,000 can do a lot. If you want to contribute to society, go contribute to society like all the humble people in less showy professions.
But it seems like "The Law in These Parts" changed something about the way you feel.
I admit that with The Law in These Parts something happened that takes me back to a place where I believe in filmmaking; there's something powerful in the dialogue that develops. I just got back from a session with college law students. The hostility that the film creates can't be dismissed. It sparks a lot of emotion. The reaction that really moves me and which I often encounter with the film is when people say: I'm sorry I saw it. I'm sorry I came, I'm sorry I saw it. I think there's something about it that they find hard to dismiss. As it happens, The Law in These Parts is harder to dismiss, especially for people who were able to dismiss The Inner Tour, it's harder to dismiss, and at least the immediate experience with it is yes, it's a political debate that takes place, not with film critics or a festival audience. The film does something to the viewers and makes me go back to the thing that I'd completely given up on – relating to filmmaking as a political act. The interaction between the film and the world makes me excited again.
And this happens, surprisingly, with an intellectual film that doesn't revolve around emotions and characters.
Right. While I was working on this film it seemed very weighty, like it would be hard to find an audience for it. What I discovered, which I'd never imagined beforehand, was that the people speaking in the film represent something very important to the Israeli audience that I'm looking for. I mean, it isn't a film about a soldier at a checkpoint, which is very easy for Israelis to picture as a distant image, or certainly a Palestinian who says he doesn't like the occupation or he doesn't like Israel. These are characters who, for many, many Israelis, are a manifestation of themselves. I've found that, surprisingly, this heavy, intellectual film resonates with many people I want to communicate with. The film puts the dichotomy or conflict for which I made it on the table. I'm not only trying to show the system of law and order in the occupied territories; I've always felt that that isn't enough, it has to be bigger, you have to ask what it represents. And it represents our lives which involve two conflicting value systems that we're constantly trying to combine. The film worked because of the perspective it offers for opening up this dichotomy.
Let's talk about the fact that you live in Jerusalem. Are you comfortable there or do you just think that living in Jerusalem is the right thing to do?
Let's start with The Inner Tour. When The Inner Tour came out there was a moment in which there was me, the storyteller in the movie, and there were the characters who were filmed for the movie. And our lives were separated to a great extent. In 2002 I traveled with the film and they stayed in the West Bank. I tried to find ways to deal with this. And also living without the internal and external rewards that filmmaking offers. I felt that besides making movies I wanted to be an active person. To a certain degree that was one of the reasons I moved to Jerusalem, because it's a different environment than the one we live in in Tel Aviv, for example.
Jerusalem doesn't have filmmaking or filmmakers or that whole milieu. It's a right-wing city, and I'm not right-wing. It's religious and I'm secular, so it feels much more like living in this country, which I didn't really feel when I lived here [in Tel Aviv]. Not that I have anything good to say about Jerusalem or that I'm one of those people who love Jerusalem. In Jerusalem I found a more intense admixture of the professional and the personal in myself and it seemed more right for the way I live and the films I make.
There's a sense that you don't have a clear esthetic approach, that you choose your cinematic strategy according to the subject and the story.
I feel there are two types of filmmakers. There are directors who have a style and they make movies in that style, and there are others who, once they've chosen the material they want to work with, look for the right style for that specific movie. I belong to the second type. When I started making Martin I was considered the kind of person who "doesn't like films with voiceovers." And Martin ended up being full of narration. When I realized that what the film needed was voiceovers I started to try to figure out how to do voiceovers within my realm of tastes and esthetics. The answer, by the way, included not only the writing style but also the images that went along with the narration. I think that's very typical of my way of thinking about the style for a specific film. But I know that now, and Martin was the lesson that taught me that I have no "style." Each time I examine my subject and my materials and then formulate the esthetic statement. Martin was a very minimal film, I had very little material to work with, and that dictated its form. I feel like the esthetic I end up with is a result of choices, choices and constraints concerning the thing I'm working on.
And "The Inner Tour."
I see The Inner Tour as belonging to a certain tradition of non-fiction films in which the footage is an event that's created for the purpose of the film. Some of these are different in style, such as Pizza in Auschwitz or Super Size Me, films that shove the event in front of the camera, as opposed to a film where you observe an event or work with whatever archive footage you have.
How did you arrive at the way you constructed "The Inner Tour"?
A basic decision was made that just filming things as they happened wouldn't produce anything deeper than an article would. And that the only way to get closer to the people would be to have a controlled event in which there are certain choices; choices of characters and getting to know them better – not getting to know their deepest depths since these were characters I met once before shooting, but at least there was a lot of intention there. I knew why I was filming a certain place and I knew the place. The pre-production was very intense. As often happens with this type of film, the actual footage was nothing like what I'd planned. Often a certain character who I didn't think would stand out in a given situation turned into the focal point of the situation, but what that film taught me and led me to later on, when I started looking for the tone for The Law in These Parts, was that the discussion surrounding The Inner Tour in Israel had difficulty going beyond the question of form. And I asked myself why we're only talking about form and not content. And this time I said to myself: This time it'll be on the table from the start.
What you're saying is surprising because in documentary filmmaking people usually talk more about content than form.
Unless the content bothers someone. Don't think I didn't get hit with a discussion of form with Martin. It's just that the discussion of form took place in Germany, not here. What did they criticize me for in Germany? They criticized me for the form of the film. The politics of Martin were relatively acceptable to the Israeli public which is why it wasn't an issue here. With The Inner Tour, part of dealing with the politics of the film meant talking about its form. And that, as I said, turned into a lesson. I knew they'd take the style of The Law in These Parts and claim that the editing was based on an agenda, that that would be the first thing people would bring up when trying to deal with the film. And so I eventually decided to expose the backdrop in which the cinematic mechanism works in the film.
Tell us a little about the process you went through with "The Law in These Parts."
The Law in These Parts began with my wanting to make a film about the military courts, and it took me a year of research work until I realized that the subject isn't the subject, it's only part of a bigger subject – the whole legal system we operate in the occupied territories.
At first I thought the whole film would be comprised of archive footage. I put together a lot of pilots of scenes that were actually visuals, and the audio was legal material or protocols from trials or court orders. But I just couldn't make it work. I worked on it for a long time, did a lot of experimenting – it took a year of experimenting.
It was unwatchable. There was something about the legal material, the legal texts, that was so dry that the viewer couldn't follow it. Even after you boil it down and sift it through there's something about it that keeps you at a distance. Even if you edit it, not in a linear way but in a sort of associative way (since you never have the appropriate footage). I put a tremendous amount of work into it and it still didn't work. A viewer who isn't an expert on the subject couldn't follow it.
That was very frustrating. And only after I'd failed did I realize that I needed to go back to the human realm. I realized it wouldn't work without the thing that usually works in non-fiction – people – but I knew I didn't want to hear the Palestinians' story and I didn't want to film in the courts.
When did you realize you'd be going to Israeli jurists, and to what degree did they know what it was leading to?
It was when I realized that the archive film wasn't working. We started to contact people and see if they were willing to speak.
I presented it to them as a film I was making about the history of law and order in the occupied territories, and we discussed which part of their career we were going to focus on in their interview. I should add that they were unaware of my perspective, of how I see law and order in the occupied territories and the inability to combine conflicting systems and values. My criticism or the way I analyze things wasn't on the table. Granted, it did come to the table as part of the filmed conversation, but some of the people in the film are very unhappy that they devoted their time to it.
When did you realize that you were actually putting them on trial?
I never used that term and I'm not sure it's accurate. If you look at it, the film is basically made up of two shots. Besides the archive footage, of course. The frontal shot and the lateral shot. These shots derive their power from things that you experience when you're party to a legal procedure. The frontal shot is the angle from which we see the judges – they're sitting higher than me and looking slightly down at us. On the other hand, the lateral shot is kind of like the angle from which we watch the person who's testifying in court. In court, you usually see the witness from the side.
I never used the word "trial" with the rest of the crew although the idea of putting the film into the form of a trial did come up. I didn't want that. We often used the term "testimony." And a witness isn't necessarily a defendant; first of all he's a witness.
It's important to add that I didn't want interviewees who are experts. There are no experts in international law or military law in the film. That was a firm criterion.
But you wanted to use a cinematic ruse, or to use the cinematic ruse to show the ruse of law and order in the occupied territories.
I think I found a lot of parallels in the balance of power between the person who holds law and order in his hands and the power we have when we document people on film. There's a moment in the film where one of the men, Attorney Passenson, describes the process through which he rules to imprison someone based on confidential information that's given to him, and he's aware that ultimately he's receiving this confidential information from one source. And I create a parallel, I say that the viewers are also receiving their information from one source – from the director. There's no separation of powers, there's one side that makes the rules and the game is played according to his rules. There aren't two sides that establish the rules together through agreement.
Did you have disputes with the interviewees?
There were no disputes about facts. The arguments that come up are about how it's presented; they claim there's an agenda behind the way it's presented, to show things in a particular way, and they don't know what the agenda is.
Sometimes the questions were conflictual, but I think they came from a real place; the people interviewed in the film perceive their work as good and not arbitrary. I think they demonstrate a lot of blindness to the big picture. This goes back to what I said at the beginning about the "political-ness" or "apolitical-ness" of soldiers. A soldier can declare that he's apolitical. That doesn't mean that the person on whom he imposes a curfew sees it that way. The same goes for jurists.
Are the cases you examined open to the public?
Let's first ask whether the court is open to the public. Because a military court is an open court inside a closed military base. That means that if you're an Israeli, if you insist, you can go in, and if you're a Palestinian only one of two family members can come in and see the hearing, unlike with us, where the whole family can come in, and if the courtroom is too small they can stand in the hallway and be there for the defendant.
I was lucky enough to have cooperation in making the film, granted, not from the IDF Spokesmanship but from the Military Courts Unit. Throughout the time I worked on the film the people in charge were people who, on one hand, work within the system, but on the other hand, and this must be mentioned, they're open-minded people who said, yes, let them see the files unless there's confidential material in them. By the way, they also allow filming inside the courtroom.
Share the experiences you've had traveling with the film in Israel with us.
Yes. The film has been out for almost a year. The premiere was at last year's Jerusalem Film Festival. I remember the test screenings went very badly. And I'll quote Liran Atzmon, who was my full partner in making the film and he's a producer who's made many more films than I have. I remember Liran telling me during the last week: "I've never invested so much money in something and I've never been so uncertain at the last minute." You have to understand, we were still doing the online editing when the festival began and we finished the film feeling like it was liable to slip between the cracks because of the weightiness of the film, of the subject and the form.
And did you win a prize?
Yes. We won, which was very thrilling and surprising. And right after the festival we felt a draw. People were asking to see it. And starting in November we got it organized and started to fulfill the demand.
There were screenings at cinematheques, what we call commercial distribution, we didn't reach tens of thousands of viewers. But at the same time, wherever people showed interest in seeing the film, I went and showed it and held discussions along with the screenings. There were weeks in the winter when there were ten, fifteen screenings in a week, in all sorts of places and for all sorts of audiences – jurists, law students, quite a few community screenings. Almost all of them were before Israeli audiences. There were also many screenings with pirated copies in various forums that I didn't know about, I only heard rumors afterwards. And there were screenings for the Attorney General's office, the Supreme Court and for the army, of course. The unofficial reactions to the screenings came later and some of them were very moving and to-the-point. And some of them were very scathing.
How do you feel about the journey?
I feel like I reached a place I'd wanted to be for a long time. A place of dialogue with people that I couldn't reach in any other way. There's something very painful about dealing with subjects like these. Not to mention the whole combination of cocktail parties and films about human rights. So here I feel like, unexpectedly, I succeeded, even if it didn't reach tens of thousands of people and certainly not hundreds of thousands, but I certainly made the grade. Maybe I'm still a little star-struck, maybe when I look back a year from now it'll look the same as things have in the past.
It's nice to hear that the film is a success and that people go to see it and to hear you and create a dialogue around it and talk about it. Is it financially viable?
Not so far. So far it's in the minus. But I'm working on it. One thing I'm trying to do is build a website of the film for people who want to delve deeper into the huge body of research I did. It allows those who are interested to have access to the basic material that comprises the film and actually see it – the files, the legislation itself, the questions of what international law is, what the law in the occupied territories is, what these rulings are, what people have said about them, as well as connecting the things in the film with today's constantly changing reality. For instance, this week: suddenly a Knesset member wants to apply Israeli law to the settlements. And someone else, and this is even more dangerous, wants to take all the privately owned land that was "innocently" expropriated and turn it into state-owned land. So the subject that the film brings up is alive and kicking, and I'm very interested in sharing and enabling those who are interested to get into it and expand their knowledge, because this knowledge is important.