Israel-Palestine: the war in cinema

Khader Fawzy Nastas, It's Coming... Unless, 2015, Palestinian Territory


What can cinema really do in the face of wars that continue to be considered unjust around the world?

The Israeli film festival, which took place in Paris at the end of March 2024, was set against the backdrop of six months of war in Gaza, with no end in sight, nor prospects for either party. The festival presented an overview of recent production, in which films about war are not very present. How can we explain or interpret this fact, taking into account the fifteen wars that have occurred since the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 and the abundance of films produced?

The imaginary of war?

Israeli cinema is part of the history of a society founded on the ruins of Nazism and permanently marked by existential insecurity. Initially militant, almost propagandist, this cinema, inspired by the spirit of Exodus (1960) by Otto Preminger, celebrated the exploits and Aliyah of the new Israeli strongman. Cinema aimed to help unite a society with a very heterogeneous worldview around the ideal of Zionism. For a long time, the mythology of Zionism fed the imagination of a cinema that, little by little, questioned the pioneering ideology since its beginnings.[1]

The question that will arise differently at the turn of the 1970s, after the Six Day War, rather than with the emergence of the power of the clerics, when cinema strives to highlight the repressed problems of Israeli society rather than showing the wars. Although war films are a minority in terms of production, they contributed to legitimizing a kind of founding narrative of Israeli society and gradually revealed its weaknesses. As a satire of the Israeli army, a popular comedy such as Giv'at Halfon (1976), by Assi Dayan, was considered a cult film, just as, much later, Zero Motivation (2014), by Talya Lavie, which sold 580 tickets.

In the 1980s, in reaction to the war in Lebanon, a wave of the first anti-militarist fiction films emerged: Zidon's two doigts (1986) by Elie Cohen, I Don't Give a Damn (1987) by Shmuel Imberman, Late Summer Blues by Renen Schor (198)7, one of us (1989) by Uri Barbash. Ilan Ziv's documentary, about The Six Day War, Made forty years later as part of an Israeli-French-Canadian co-production, it no longer truly presents the dazzling military successes of an era, but analyzes a war that plunged the country into an endless cycle of occupation and terrorism/reprisals. Recently, another documentary, The tantrum (2022), by Alon Schwarz, centered on the destruction of an Arab village, triggered a broad debate in Israel about the Nakba and its taboos after 1948. As in Lebanese cinema, wars are presented on screen in a generally critical way.

But most of the time, war is treated as a secondary issue and its motivations are not addressed. Israeli fiction cinema developed, above all, around comedies or social dramas (the status of women and feminism, family crises, Talmudic issues and the role of the ultra-Orthodox, ethnic discrimination and homosexuality), from of central themes in favor of a society that wants, above all, to forget the problems of everyday war. Financed mainly through co-productions with France, Israeli cinema shows the upheavals of Israeli society and its neighbors.

Cinema on the borders

But wars are never far away. And although it remains a minority in an abundant production, Israeli war films are no less emblematic. And its success and recognition extend far beyond Israel's borders. Before evoking a war on its borders, cinema deals with internal wars. Both in fiction and in documentary, it reveals the multifaceted facets of a conflict that evolved considerably between 1948, the first Israeli-Arab war, and the successive Intifadas from 1987 to 2005, marked by a series of attacks inside Israel, in a context in which that the planetary television image has become an essential relay.

As a counterpoint to television images, cinema participates in the most critical construction of Israel's recent history, often functioning as a counter-story. The “common home” becomes a broader and sometimes less visible metaphor for the occupation of territories from 1948 to the present. AmosGitai's film, the house (1980), for example, was already concerned with the reconstruction of an Israeli house on the ruins of a Palestinian house. The director, who graduated in architecture, questions a whole series of Israeli myths and explains them using occupation archives, which date back to the British colonization of Palestine in 1917-1918. The film anticipates what will happen with the accelerated process of colonization.

“A certain type of Israeli cinema shows what Israeli society does not want to see, what the Israeli left even hides. It shows the Palestinians, the repression, the violence they suffer, but also their own anxiety about the future.”.[2]

Other documentaries by Amos Gitai about the war in Lebanon, such as Diary of the Campaign (1982), or about the assassination of the prime minister by a Jewish extremist, The Last Day of Yitzhak Rabin (2015), revisit other diluted aspects of recent history. Until then, the enemy seemed to be on the borders and not in the interior of the country. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin became a new internal trauma that took Israeli society by surprise and brought the experience of war to its core.

Intimate wars

Far from the routine of war, the films often testify behind closed doors, accentuating the intimacy of these wars. A wide audience, including non-Israeli audiences, must be able to identify with a story and its various protagonists. Twenty-five years after the event, Amos Gitai carried out Kippur (2000), based on his traumatic experience as a soldier in 1973. The enemy has become ghostly and the heroism of the Tsahal almost non-existent, while the humanism of a small team of rescue soldiers is the main theme. What is at stake in this war is reduced to a few protagonists, without any direct reference to Arab revenge for the humiliation of Six Day War, when Tsahal seemed not only victorious but invincible in the face of a fundamentally hostile Arab environment.

Continuing this intimate record, the war for Dever Kosahvilli in Infiltration (2010) refers to the experiences (intimate in 1956) of homosexuality in closed barracks to contradict the virile image of the soldier. Away from Palestinian issues, the lives of very young recruits (in an army mostly made up of conscripts and reservists) from kibbutzim or rich neighborhoods in Jerusalem are turned upside down by the discovery of a different otherness.

Likewise, in Yossi and Jagger (2002), by Eytan Fox, the war becomes a pretext to address the issue of repression between officers and young soldiers. A haven of peace (2018), by Yona Rozenkier, set during the second war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006, ironically shows the backdrop of an almost invisible war, in which three brothers have to fulfill the last wishes of their late father on a kibbutz in border with Lebanon, transporting his remains to an underwater cave[3]. Ahed's Knee (2021), by Nadav Lapid, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, works along the same lines of invisibility.

Other most significant films in Israeli cinema in recent years also show a conflict unfolding outside of Israel. The 1982 war in Lebanon, Peace in Galilee, supposedly a short operation, but followed by the Israeli occupation of the country for eighteen years, was treated from different angles in the cinema. The impact of the war was dominated by the angle of its post-traumatic experience, in which Israeli soldiers, despite being the occupying force, appear to be the main victims of the war in Lebanon. Ultimately, cinema obscures the consequences of the occupation of Lebanon, often erasing its protagonists.

Em lebanon (2009), winner of the Golden Lion in Venice, Samuel Maoz traces the advance of a tank across eight divisions while filming the anguish of four soldiers inside a tank lost in enemy territory. Fear becomes the main enemy.

Later, in another iconoclastic film, Foxtrot, Silver Lion in Venice (2018), the same director outlines a war in the form of a dance step in rings, as suggested by the title of the film, which designates a musical and dance genre that became successful after the First World War. Here, the absurd war goes in circles without any perspective. Above all, it bears witness to the immovable forces of an endless war, in which the past permanently weighs on the present. A family learns of the death of their son, killed in combat, reopening wounds from the past. From this closed circle, the film slips into a return to the battlefront, showing the life of a unit of recruits in the desert, in charge of an isolated checkpoint.

Cinema also generates controversy. When it premiered, and despite its success, the film was accused by Miri Regev, the conservative Minister of Culture, of “tarnishing the image of the army”, due to a scene that showed a mistake by the Israeli army. In 2015, following the release of a documentary about the imprisoned killer of Ytsak Rabin, Ygal Amir, Beyond Fear, by Herz Frank, the minister reiterated her comments, calling for an end to the financing of “anti-Israeli” films that portray murderous Jews.

A biographical film on the same theme and in the register of intimacy, Les Jours redoutables  (2019) by Yaron Zilberman, winner of the Ophyr award for the best Israeli film, will provoke the same controversy in a society still traumatized by this event. In Beaufort (2007), by Joseph Sedar, the autobiographical experience of war intersects with fiction, adapting Ron Leshem's war novel to show the trapped state of soldiers trapped on Mount Beaufort by Hezbollah.

Once again, the focus is on the fear of the soldiers and not the madness of the fighting. Waltz with Bashir (2008), by Ari Folman, takes up this question in the form of an animated film that revisits the post-traumatic or guilt-inducing aspects of the war in Lebanon, based on the massacre of Sabra and Shatila by Christian Phalangist militias. Check-point (2003), by Yoav Shamir, films the social impact of segregation and refugees, this time on the borders of Gaza and the West Bank.

On the same line, Bethlehem (2013), by Yuval Adler, is a thriller about the comings and goings between the Palestinian and Israeli worlds, centered on an Israeli agent in charge of recruiting informants in the occupied territories. The film shows the porous nature of borders, but also of coexistence. In his archival documentary, Ran Tal 1341 Frames of Love and War (2023) explored Micha Bar-Am's archive of war photographs to bear witness to the memory of this shared violence and the limits of coexistence.

Dani Rosenberg's recent film, The Deserter (2024), shows society's fatigue in the face of an endless war, in which a young Israeli soldier flees the Gaza battlefield to desert and meet his girlfriend in Tel Aviv, when he is thought to have been kidnapped and held prisoner by Hamas. This prescient film, with a politically incorrect theme, took more than 10 years to be produced in Israel.

The law of series

For more than ten years, Israeli war series have been an undeniable success, exported to a large part of the world and, in particular, to the Middle East, where, unlike the auteur films shown in cinemas, they attract millions of viewers through platforms like Netflix. Produced in the cinematic style of a docu-drama, they attempt to capture the attention of a diverse audience, often oblivious to the direct issues at stake in the Israeli-Arab conflicts.

A série Hatufim (2014), by Gideon Rafi, a pioneer in the genre and internationally acclaimed, inspired the American series Homeland. Based on a true story, the series brilliantly recounts the captivity of two Israeli soldiers held prisoner for seventeen years in Syria. Dominated by Stockholm syndrome, one of the prisoners becomes leader of the Arab terrorist organization that tortured him and converts to Islam. In Israel, a large part of society mobilizes to free its soldiers.

In the style of a breathtaking crime film, the series shows all the stages from the detention of the hostages in Syria to their release and return to Israel, with the trauma of reintegration, while also addressing in depth all the related issues with the evolution of the security situation in Israel and rivalries between counterintelligence services.

Fauda (2015), by Avi Issacharov and Lior Raz, both veterans, reports the daily life of Israeli special forces, whose mission is to carry out ambush operations behind enemy lines and in territories. Not only its content, but also its size and the fact that it was broadcast worldwide through Netflix, led to boycotts and rejection by pro-Palestinian organizations, who considered it too favorable to Israeli colonization in the West Bank. .

The Valley of Tears (2020), by Amit Cohen and Gaël Zaid, the most expensive series produced by Israeli television, also broadcast on Netflix and purchased by the American channel HBO, takes up a fictional account of the Yom Kippur War, reliving all the traumas of the 70s experienced in Syrian border of the Golan Heights. In fact, many of the essential issues already addressed in the past by cinema are revisited in the series. But in the series, the goal is to identify with some key heroes whose destinies we follow, creating mimicry effects. In this law of the series, the writing of war seems to be much less metaphorical than that practiced in cinema.

Israeli-Palestinian cinema?

Marked by repetition, like all cinema of this genre, filmed both by committed Israeli filmmakers and by Palestinian documentary filmmakers, the war, both internally and on the borders, highlighted some of the main features of this conflict: controls at border posts, stone throwing against the occupation army in the territories, forced expulsions in the face of Israeli colonization…

In this regard, like other committed documentary filmmakers, the work of director Avi Mograbi, an active anti-war, if not pro-Palestinian, activist has stood out for almost forty years. For example, he painted a controversial portrait of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Happy Birthday Mr Mograbi (1999), using a complex filmic device, the filmmaker revisits the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Israel in a joint reflection on the Nakba Palestine and the 1948 war, using personal memories to deconstruct the official discourse.

Em Z 32 (2008), continued his decades-long work on the consequences of the militarization of Israeli society, based on archives and testimonies from Tsahal soldiers. In The first 54 years (2021), takes up these questions, using interviews with soldiers to understand the logic of military occupation in occupied territories. Another documentary, Femmes in combat (2023), by director Lee Nechustan, addresses the post-traumatic stress syndrome of four traumatized women who served in the Israeli Defense Forces. The war is relatively off-screen. But cinema remains a domain in which Israelis and Palestinians collaborate quite regularly..[4] Israel helped finance productions by Palestinian filmmakers (Michel Khleifi, Rashid Masharawi, Elia Suleiman, etc.).

Palestinian cinema is frequently shown in Israel, although it is mostly a documentary film made in precarious conditions. Five Broken Cameras (2011) by Emad Burnat and Guy David, a French-Israeli-Palestinian documentary that won several awards, traces the common history of violence.

In the field of fiction, Fanfare Visit (2007) by Eran Kolirin, a huge popular and comedic success at the time, portrays an Israeli brass band lost in Egypt; the film features Israeli and Palestinian actors, alternating between Arabic and Hebrew, with a clear desire, after the Oslo Accords (1993), to reinvest Arabic as a common ancestral culture in the face of a young Israeli culture. His last film, Et il y eut un matin (2022), focuses on the trials and tribulations of an Israeli Arab and highlights the absurdity of war.

But here too, despite the divisions, the issue of coexistence returns to the forefront of the scene, reviving the success of satirical comedies about the army. Drive (2009), directed by Palestinian Scandar Copti and Israeli Yaron Shani, shot in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, shows the multiple facets of the conflict. But the film describes a complex and heterogeneous reality of an Arab world divided between Muslims and Christians, between Israeli Arabs and Arabs from the territories, between Arab citizens and prohibited Arabs, far from the simplistic schemes of good guys and bad guys. Long absent from this cinema, the Arab Bedouins, who also serve in the Israeli army, are reappearing.[5]

But cinema can also celebrate the desire for unity, as in Jaffa (2009), by Keren Yedaya, a secret love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. Such as Sabaya Cinema (2021), by Om Fouks Rotem, which focuses on portraits of Jewish and Arab women and their daily lives. In turn, several other films developed these lines of investigation at the heart of current conflicts, focusing on the dissolution (or miscegenation) of Jewish identity, such as Feriez-vous l'amour avec un arabe? (2012), filmed in Israel between Israelis and Palestinians by French documentary filmmaker Yolande Zauberman with Selim Nassib.

Media wars at stake

The cinematic war, although often anticipating the images shown by the media, now seems to have been overtaken by the horror of other images that have been multiplied tenfold. We think here of those that were used as propaganda on social networks from the moment of the Hamas terrorist attack, on October 7th, and that were disseminated throughout the world. Also in this case, the immediacy of the images surpasses any fiction.

The use of images in Islamic lands, which prohibits that of the Prophet, must, on the other hand, expand those used in the shahid who He became an adulated martyr without fear of death. On October 7, Hamas groups also took the opportunity to film their atrocities with their cell phones, posing in front of live murders, dead and terrified hostages, around the policy of scorched earth and devastated villages, where the majority of victims were in favor of the movement Peace Now.

Inspired by the methods of Daesh, Hamas, by taking civilian hostages to kill them and filming them live on their social networks, prolongs, in its own way, the effects of September 11th, with the almost Hollywood broadcast of the fall of the Manhattan towers . With the global circulation of images, for Islamist organizations, war has become a spectacle that must be managed and shown well on all types of television. Both upstream and downstream. The reality of the naked and raw images staged on television, around propaganda series filmed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza or Hezbollah in Beirut, showing impressive parades of military militias flanked by children armed to the teeth, with the backdrop of background anti-Zionist slogans and blind hatred.

These images are intended to reinforce and convey the demonstrations of joy filmed on repeat across the Middle East in reaction to the events of October 7th. Along with the Israeli military response, the images are an opportunity for Hamas to remember the expulsion and wounded identity of the Palestinians after 1948, but also to reactivate historical references for the impoverished populations fleeing Gaza, without a real way out, faced with the incessant bombings by the Israeli air force.

Denominated Al-Aqsa, in reference to the Jerusalem mosque, the Hamas operation of October 7th became a kind of ideological reference for remobilizing a Palestinian population worn down by decades of conflict, in order to inflame the region with suicidal policies. The looped images of the destructions on both sides, the controversies over mistakes, are followed by numerous videos recorded here and there by different Islamist groups to commemorate their acts: videos of injured hostages asking for their release, beheadings.

But there are also disinformation videos, such as that of the missile fired on October 17, which landed on a Gaza hospital and was blamed on Israel, despite subsequent expert reports showing that Hamas was directly responsible.[6] Since then, there have been other controversies over Hamas weapons caches in hospitals and the destruction caused by Israeli bombings. On October 7, the Hamas operation sought to nullify the ongoing peace negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, while the missile case and its media repercussions throughout the Middle East sought to cancel President Biden's visit to Amman.

These images follow those of the knife terrorism of the poor man, isolated in the suburbs of Europe, but trained in war video games and able to use an amateur camera to show live the murder of innocent people. Echoing the various media wars in the Middle East, broadcast professionally by most television stations in the Arab world, these amateur videos published on social media broadcast and glorify the murder live. The amateur model of terrorism of the poor is contrasted with that of a professional and well-organized system of social media in the rich Gulf countries, some of which fuel this terrorism and repeat it in loops in the El Jazeera and others, horror images to maximize their impact.

Far from Israeli fiction cinema, which is constructed and scripted, and which tends to be balanced and critical in relation to war, we see the new dominant themes of media violence and globalized war, shown repeatedly and without restrictions. In these media wars, which are also based on disinformation, Israel does not appear to have won this latest battle of images. In Israeli media, contrary to what happens in cinema, Palestinians tend to be invisible. But overall, the media shows the public what they need to see, especially since it is impossible to visit war zones.

Impact of images

What can cinema really do in the face of wars that continue to be considered unjust around the world? Although essential to understanding many of the issues at stake in the Middle East, these images show only some aspects of these wars. And not always the essential or invisible aspects (corruption, the depreciated legitimacy of Palestinian organizations, the almost total absence of freedom of expression in the territories and the daily lives of millions of Palestinians subject to religious fundamentalism and totalitarian terrorism, where peace is always accused of favoring Israel…).

Unlike much of the media, Israeli cinema, for the most part, avoids quite conventional ways of portraying war. In a dark reality and with no real perspective other than the horizon of these wars, this cinema continues to be a place of possible exchange as a counter-mirror of a wounded Middle East.[7]

*Kristian Feigelson He is a professor of cinema at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle. Author, among other books, of La fabrique filmique: Métiers et professions (Armand Colin). []


[1] Yaron Peleg and Miri Talon, Israeli Cinema: Identities in Motion, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2011. []. See also our collective work with Boaz Hagin, Sandra Meiri, Raz, Yosef and Anat Zanger, Just Images: Ethics and the Cinematic, Cambridge, Cambridge Publishers, 2011.

[2] Janine Euvrard, “Palestinians, Israelis: what can cinema do?”, movements, 27-28, 2003/3.

[3] In 2018, I was president of the jury at the Duhok International Film Festival, in Iraq, 40 kilometers from Mosul, then destroyed by Daesh. We awarded the first ex-aequo prize to an Israeli film and an Iranian film in competition, both symbols of the vitality of a certain current cinema. The awarding of the prize by our jury triggered a war of media reprisals in Arab countries, forcing us, faced with threats of ban from Baghdad, to reduce the list of winners to preserve the festival.

[4] Nurith Gertz and Georges Khlefi, Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2008. []

[5] Ariel Schweitzer, The new Israeli cinema, Liège, Yellow Now, 2013. []

[6] VIEW the investigation of the New York Times. Consultei also Jérôme Bourdon “Lesmédias israéliens invisibilisent les Palestiniens” in Le Monde, April 8, 2004.

[7] I would like to thank Achinoam Berger, PhD student in cinema, for the careful review of this article, published in French in the magazine Telos of 9 November and which follows several recent seminars held at the universities of Beirut and Tel Aviv.

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