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French Version

Oscar nominations and Arab representations

Israel's film visions of its neighbors are informative of the state of cultural dialogue in the region

A little later this month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles will present its annual Oscar awards. Among them will be the prize for best foreign-language film. No Lebanese film has ever been nominated for the prize.

It was seriously hoped that Nadine Labaki's "Caramel (Sikkar al-Banat)" would be the first. But the academy snubbed Labaki's film, perhaps dismissing it as an Arabic-language redux of Tonie Marshall's 1999 film "Venice Beauty Institute." "Caramel" assiduously averts its gaze from the politics of global, regional and sectarian conflict in favor of a candy-coated tale of the travails of a few attractive women clustered around a beauty parlor.

So a strong whiff of irony issued from the announcement that Lebanon is among the Oscar nominees, as portrayed in the war picture of an Israeli filmmaker. "Beaufort," by the improbably named writer and director Joseph Cedar, is set in the eponymous 12th-century castle that's long been prized by various military and paramilitary forces fighting in South Lebanon.

The nomination of "Beaufort" didn't come in a vacuum. The film's domestic release last March was propitious, seeming to speak to the crisis of confidence among Israelis following their army's humiliating, if deadly, 34-day war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006. This time last year, "Beaufort" won Cedar the Silver Bear for best director at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Based on the novel by Ron Leshem, "Beaufort" is set in the spring of 2000, in the final weeks of Israel's 22-year-long South Lebanon occupation. Cedar's introductory text informs the audience that, after 18 years occupying Beaufort, "popular protest" had compelled the Israeli Army to evacuate. The film thus casts the Lebanon occupation as Israel's Vietnam, and the Vietnam-movie template favored here is Oliver Stone's 1986 work "Platoon."

The "new kid" - channeling Charlie Sheen's well-educated young volunteer - is a sapper named Ziv (Ohad Knoller), dispatched to disarm and retrieve a roadside bomb Hizbullah has planted near the entrance of the Beaufort installation. Unlike Sheen's character, Ziv doesn't get a chance to be tempted to the army's "light" and "dark" sides, since the bomb in question is detonated before he can defuse it, killing him.

The camera lingers among one squad of the garrison occupying Beaufort. Its soldiers exhibit the range of caricatures found in all war movies - the funny guy, the somber guy, the guy who can't wait to finish his tour and be with his girlfriend. The film's focus is Liraz (Oshri Cohen), the young officer who serves as garrison commander.

While most of his men greet rumors of their impending retreat with enthusiasm, Liraz is ambivalent. He knows this hilltop was one of the Israeli invasion's first prizes. He's frustrated his invincible army has been cowed into defensive cowering by "four old ladies" - the Four Mothers Movement, an Israeli grassroots organization that campaigned for military withdrawal from Lebanon.

That retreat is never in doubt. The film's dramatic tension is composed of Liraz' struggle - both within himself and with his commanders - and the men's growing dread as more of them die from the resistance's increasingly accurate and deadly weapons.

It's always intriguing to see how foreign film depicts the people of this region and Israeli film is no exception, particularly in an age when EU policy is bent on encouraging dialogue among artists whose countries are separated by decades of war and animosity. "Beaufort" is particularly interesting, because it has attracted critical and popular acclaim inside and outside of Israel.

In a sense, there simply is no depiction, since there are no Lebanese in the film. It suits Cedar's purpose - in rendering the soldiers' claustrophobia and dread - that the enemy be invisible and silent, save for the whiz-bang of mortar and missile concussions. At one point a soldier even expresses a grudging respect (at least in the film's English subtitles), remarking that the resistance has planted a roadside bomb "right under our noses. Ballsy bastards." Cedar is also careful to have him note that the bomb's camouflage was devised in Israel.

But the story persistently works to undermine the conventional wisdom in the Arab world, that the Lebanese resistance defeated the Israeli occupation.

Cedar informs the audience that Israel left Lebanon in response to popular discontent, but the Four Mothers' campaign wasn't spurred by bad conscience about the Israeli Army's sordid activities in its two-decade-long occupation. Impartial analysts tend to agree that Israel left South Lebanon in 2000 because it was too much of a drain, both in terms of budgetary expenditure and lives lost.

Knowledgeable audience members may find themselves chuckling derisively at Cedar's depiction of the retreat as an expression of Israeli democracy rather than military defeat.

Later in the film, after one of Liraz's men has been killed by an American-made TOW missile, a senior officer flies in to tell the garrison the missile was fired by what is described as an Iranian-trained "Russian sniper." The officer's intelligence reinforces an Israeli national motif - one shared by some Apartheid-era Afrikaners - that enemies surround the nation on all sides. Why the film cannot admit that the American-made missile might have been launched by a Lebanese, Iranian-trained or not, is mysteriously gratuitous.

The moral heart of the film comes when Ziv's father appears on television, speaking on behalf of the Four Mothers. He claims responsibility for the death of his son, because he didn't teach him the value of his own life, failing to instill in him an innate sense of fear. It's a peculiar formulation, one that will seem alien to anyone outside Israel's warrior culture. The fearlessness of Israel's citizen-soldiers, Cedar suggests, has stripped them of their humanity.

For those unmoved by its soul-searching apologia for Israeli soldiery, Cedar's film will reiterate an oft-repeated argument. From "Exodus" (1960) to "Munich" (2005), film - along with other mass media - has insisted unrelentingly upon the humanism at the heart of the Zionist enterprise. The practice stems from the Nazi Holocaust, which so systematically sought to erase the humanity of European Jewry.

The irony here is two-fold. It is one thing to invoke humanism to condemn the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust but something else to make the same appeals on behalf of soldiers who enforce the policies of an oppressive, militarist state - even if that state is ideologically harnessed to the unspeakable injustice of the Holocaust.

The humanity of Israelis has never been in doubt, at least in mainstream Western representations. The same cannot be said of the people whose human rights are restricted and denied by the Israeli Army on a daily basis. "Beaufort" excises their story, that of the brutal occupation that preceded the Lebanon retreat, from its reality.

"Beaufort" is a feature film designed to speak to Israelis and sympathetic Westerners and, as such, it abides by the restrictions facing commercial cinema everywhere. It requires uncommon detachment and talent for a war movie to manage an even-handed depiction of both sides of a conflict - witness "Aleksandra," Alexander Sokurov's understated new film about the Russian military intervention in Chechnya. It should be no surprise that Cedar lacks such balance.

"Beaufort" was not the first film selected to represent Israel at the Oscars. That was Eran Kolirin's comedy "The Band's Visit." The Academy disqualified this film, saying there was too much English in the dialogue, ironic since the need for a third language is integral to the plot. It was also barred from screening at the Cairo International Film Festival as a violation of the so-called anti-normalization policy that informally prohibits cultural traffic between Israel and the Arab world, peace treaty or not. The organizers of the International Film Festival in Rotterdam still chose "Visit" to be their closing film.

More light-hearted and even-handed than Cedar's movie, "Visit" is a document of the dialogue some on the Israeli left would like to have with their Arab foes (in the case of Egypt, former foes). The eight-man Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives at Ben Gurion Airport, en route to a gig at the Arab Cultural Center of Petah Tikva. A bus station miscommunication lands the band in the desolate desert town of Bet Hatikva, unable to escape until the next day.

The grim-faced bandleader, Lieutenant Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), reluctantly avails upon Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), an Israeli cafe owner, for assistance. She offers him and his young violinist Khaled (Saleh Bakri) a bed and the three spend the evening bonding - Dina and Tawfiq furtively sharing the details of their loneliness while Khaled, a bit of a rake, accompanies an inept young man on a roller-skating double date, offering him some tips on how to approach women. There's an honesty in Kolirin's depiction of Egyptians and Israelis, quite alien to Cedar's representation.

Like "Beaufort," though, "Visit" is premised on overlooking the political roots of the decades-old animosity between Israelis and Egyptians, which has kept their relationship cool despite the peace treaty between the two states. Perhaps this persistent aloofness - driven at a popular level by Israel's policies toward the Palestinians - saw the role of Tawfiq go to a Mizrahi from Iraq rather than an Egyptian actor.

It is details such as these - more than Oscar nominations - that are the nuts and bolts of cultural dialogue. As long as Kolirin's humane vision of dialogue is superseded by images of the mundane brutality of his state's polices, it will remain wishful thinking. Cedar's collective monologue will remain the rule.

Joseph Cedar's "Beaufort" is unlikely to be picked up for distribution in Lebanon, as is Eran Kolirin's "The Band's Visit."

Marseille,02 18 2008
The Daily Star
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