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Grappling with Israel: From Sontag to Lacan and the Maoists in Between

[Still image from [Still image from "Promised Lands."]

Susan Sontag, Promised Lands. Poland/France, 1974.

Groupe Cinéma Vincennes, L’Olivier. France/Palestine, 1976.

Mike Hoolboom, Lacan Palestine. Canada, 2012.

In 1973, Susan Sontag, the visual critic and essayist, traveled to the Middle East to film in Israel, just before the end of the October War that saw Egypt and Syria uniting to launch a surprise attack in retaliation for the colossal losses of the 1967 war. To watch Susan Sontag's Promised Lands in April 2012 as part of the London Palestine Film Festival, playing to a full house, is a testament to the changing mode of representing Israel in western cultural capitals. It is also probably an entirely different aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional experience than viewing the film when it first premiered in 1974 in New York City. It is impossible to engage this film today, along with others such as L’Olivier (1976) and Lacan Palestine (2012) that were shown at the same festival, without contextualizing them against the backdrop of the shifting dynamics of representation.

Against Interpretation? The Politics and Poetics of Israeli Trauma

Upon its release in 1974, Promised Lands was banned in Israel. This ban was not a result of a fear of the Palestinian perspective, for there is hardly any of this in the film. Sontag was more interested in capturing the vulnerability of Israel, as she and her liberal New York intellectual cohort understood it, during the period from the foundation of the state in 1948 to 1974, when the film was released. This was a period when the “Palestinian,” and the very idea of “Palestine,” was either non-existent or simply a synonym for “terrorist” in mainstream Western (especially American) society. Through a collage of images of a fearful, traumatized, and insecure nation, Promised Lands could be read as an early attempt to uncover the young Israeli state’s narrative of a heroic national liberation. This was a narrative resting on a deep belief—ironically held by many supporters of anti-colonial nationalist struggles prominent in the leftist intellectual New York circles of the 1960s and 1970s—that a civilized and western Jewish state was liberated from Arabs by Holocaust survivors against all odds, rather than forcefully expelled by colonial settlers armed with the latest in European military technology and racist ideology.

The film was barred from being shown in Israel for the very simple reason that it does not partake in what Ella Shohat has termed the ”heroic nationalist” genre of Israeli cinema: the genre defined by the representational framework through which the Israeli-Zionist ideology and narrative has been reproduced and perpetuated, both within Israel and outside of it by its supporters [1]. Rather, in what seems to be an attempt that is decidedly “Against Interpretation” (to quote the title of Sontag’s classic 1966 essay), the film sets out to observe Israel through a poetic lens—rather than offer commentary. The result is a Godard-influenced lamentation of the psychological effects of the multi-layered complexities binding the Israeli state. These include above all the collective consciousness of a beleaguered, paranoid, and terrified nation grappling with the traumas of persecution, war, pain, and death. Like the form used in Godard’s Ici et Ailleurs (1976), released a few years later and embodied in the images and sounds received by the television-watching French family from a far away place called “Palestine,” Sontag’s film also experiments with a similar formal language. This language is transmitted through what is received from another place, an exotic milieu, out of place and out of time from where she comes.

The camera’s silent surveying includes daily life in the marketplaces and on the streets, decorated with posters from Israeli popular culture and marked by American-style supermarket chains, which mirror the shift from the early socialist rhetoric to a growing capitalist consumer reality. Other shots portray prayers at the Wailing Wall, a service at the war cemetery, and a wax museum that memorializes the nation’s violent military history and concurrent socialist imaginary of the emancipated laborer building the nation. The camera pauses on the wreckage of cremated tanks and scorched corpses, surrounded by dried blood and swarming flies against a backdrop of vast arid earth, which interrupt these semblances of “normalcy” in a militarized society. Most disturbing of all is Sontag’s venture into a psychiatric ward for shell-shocked war veterans. Under her silent gaze, this closing scene of the experimental treatment that re-creates the battlefield stands as an allegory of a truly tormented nation. The veterans’ loud cries and squirming body movements embody the claustrophobia of a tragic nation caught between a rock and a hard place. “Israel fights because Israel cannot lose,” claims one of Sontag’s protagonists.

Yet by Sontag’s refusal to interpret or mediate what she sees, the film leaves one wondering about what is lost through the process and if it was in fact able to do what it set out to do. Sontag’s film could be about Israeli society in particular, or it could be a poetic approach to representing the absurdity of war through the use of Israel as a case study. In both cases, an attempt to enable the subjective interpretation of the object of study is made by employing only faint narrative, as in the genre of poetic modes of documentary more generally: events and characters are purposely kept underdeveloped, in order to generate affect. But in Promised Lands, narrative content is never abandoned altogether; it is there, albeit sporadically. More, the narrative is strategically drawn upon to explicate what the affective mode seamlessly transmits to the viewer about the absurdity of the violence Israel is “forced” to contend with.

No Palestinian or female voice is ever heard in the film. Save for one mundane shot of Palestinian men and women crossing the Allenby border from Jordan and having their luggage searched by Israeli Army border patrol, they are hardly seen, not even in the backdrop. But they are “spoken” about. Israel’s narrative of victimhood, and the subsequent justification for the siege mentality that results from it, is essentially represented by the deliberations of two Israeli Zionists that run intermittently throughout the length of the film. The first is Yuval Ne’eman, a physicist and a pioneer of Israel’s nuclear technology program, who presents his version of Arabs’ and Muslims’ supposedly deeply entrenched loathing of Jews by reading from Jordanian and Egyptian school books to prove his point. The second is Yoram Kanium, a liberal writer who expresses what he sees as the Palestinian narrative (“we are right, and they were right,” he observes) but who also bemoans the perpetual cycle of conflict as a deadlock from which there is no escape, precisely because of the tragic predicament of the Jews, which leaves them no alternative but the present one.

Sontag’s re-construction of fragments of sound reinforces both these narratives. The soundtrack of the film includes sounds of prayer, running footsteps, women wailing, radar beeps, explosions, machine-gun fire, and, most significantly, the Voice of Cairo’s English radio broadcasts addressing the question of Palestine and Israel’s role in the region in a propagandist tone. Yet despite the fact that the film relies more heavily on everyday sound and images than words, the words that are uttered reinforce the arresting mood of fear conveyed throughout the film, rather than interrogate it. More insidiously, Sontag’s decision to generally leave Palestinians outside her camera frame reinforces the Zionist claim that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

For all her insistence not to interpret, Sontag’s greatest achievement in Promised Lands was to document the fallacy of the heroic Israeli state through a poetic mode that (ironically) depended on her aesthetic and subjective visual interpretation of the political situation. Hence, while the emphasis is indeed on the film’s form—an approach that arouses the senses so that we ultimately “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more” as she explains—it is unable “to show how it [the subject matter] is what it is, even that it is what it is,” as she insists this technique might do.[2] This is because, as her own writing in On Photography (1977) and then Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) later insisted, images must be measured against the misperceptions they sometimes propagate as well as the restlessness they might provoke, the exploitation they might enable, and the latency they may engender. In other words, narrative and framing are central to the reception of images insofar as they ultimately confer meaning on what it is that we are looking at. In this light, Promised Lands is equally valuable as an archival document of the New York liberal intellectual elite’s historically sympathetic yet largely uninformed understanding of the Israeli state’s self-perpetuated predicament. The fact that the film steered clear of confronting, either aesthetically or through narrative, the role, place, and effect Israel’s paranoia has had on the Palestinians most implicated in it is symptomatic of what Joseph Massad has argued more generally about western liberal intellectuals’ inability to transgress the boundaries set out by the hegemonic Israeli and US discourse on victimhood and self-defense by refusing to disconnect the experience of the Holocaust from the racist and paradoxical nature of the concurrently Jewish and “secular” state. 

What may be interpreted here as a retrospective attack on Sontag’s inability (or unwillingness) to confront the complexity of the Israeli situation in its entirety should not be read as a dismissal of her contribution in terms of aesthetic experimentation and political inquiry, nor a lack of appreciation for how bound she was by her own cultural and political moment. What is being questioned, rather, is the way in which certain aesthetic conceptions of protest and dissent may end up being organized by hegemonic discourses. This convergence between protest and power is most obvious in Sontag’s attempt to visually critique the Israeli predicament through a supposedly neutral and silent lens. But in doing so, Sontag falls victim to the labyrinthine structure of deception that so defines the mainstream representation of the Palestinian version of history. This is a powerful reminder that the absorption of protest often holds most for the political forms that are most at ease in and most celebrated by circuits of global power.

Interpreting Israel Anew

When Sontag was in the process of editing her film, Maxime Rodinson had already broken a taboo against criticizing Israel with his seminal Israel: A Colonial Settler State? which first appeared in English in 1973. In this slim publication, based on an article initially published in Jean Paul Sartre’s Les temps modernes in 1967 as “Israel: Fait Colonial,” Rodison documented the racist logic that infused Zionist ideology and praxis (including even its socialist branch). The Zionist leadership, he argued, manipulated the Jewish people into identifying with a fabricated nationalist ideology and thus into Judaizing Arab land at the cost of expelling, excluding, and dominating the local Palestinian population.

Along these lines, and two years after the release of Promised Lands in 1974, the Parisian Maoist collective Groupe Cinéma Vincennes, formed after the events of 1968, released L’Olivier. Shot in sixteen millimeter and in formal documentary mode, this monochrome film, which was recently “re-discovered” by Subversive Film Ltd and shown for the first time by the London Palestine Film Festival, boldly locates the territorial dispute that defines the Palestine/Israel conflict within the history of European racism and shows that the two are inextricably intertwined. If Promised Lands, as described by Sontag, was an attempt to “present a condition rather than an action,” then L’Olivier, quite obviously influenced by French existentialism and specifically Jean Paul Sartre’s call for a l’art engagée, was very much an appeal to a rising revolutionary consciousness in order to counter the distortions produced by the twin effects of imperialism and capitalism.


[Still image from L'Olivier.]

Many of the issues raised in L’Olivier are not only still relevant, but also more consolidated by almost forty more years of occupation. The film reveals the systematic land confiscation, forced displacement, resource plundering, demolition of housing, collective punishment, arbitrary detention, and construction of illegal settlements occurring under the guise of Israeli self-defense, often with direct approval and support from western governments. None of what is represented in the film in terms of history or Zionist policy practice comes as news to those working in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance to Israel, whether in 1976 or today. In fact, films such as Mustafa Abu Ali’s No to a Peaceful Solution (1968), With Our Blood With Our Souls (1971), and They Do Not exist (1974)—as well as later features also produced by the PLO Film Unit, such as Iraqi director Kassem Hawal’s Return to Haifa (1982) and other independents like Heiny Srour’s feminist take on the Arab/Israel Conflict in Leila and the Wolves (1984)—are already part of an archive documenting the Palestinian version of history and the reasons for continued anti-colonial struggle. Often didactic in form and emphasizing linear representations of history, these compelling films rely heavily on narration and how the perceiver actually encounters it, as well as the use of stills, slogans, poetry, and songs as material; they are directed as much at the Arabic-speaking world as at anti-imperialist struggles elsewhere.

L’Olivier is similar in content and form to films like these. Yet what makes it all the more powerful as a historical document is its refusal to couch the Jewish experience (or even the Palestinian one that it is by extension imbricated in) in the universal language of suffering and pain without first interrogating it. Through its rhetorical content, the history of the territorial conflict is revised with the aim of provoking spectators into awareness of the existence and effectiveness of the dominant frames that represent the conflict in terms of Israel as passive victim and the Palestinian as mindless perpetrator of violence, and consequently to engender a critical attitude towards these frames. This contrasts starkly with Sontag’s film, which critiques through its affective language a state of paranoid psychosis resulting from being located in a historical moment that has victimized European Jews.

Despite its sometimes didactic narration, L’Olivier manages to avoid the traps that would lead it to merely sentimentalizing the story of a people, ruthlessly expelled and then occupied. It takes a different route and focuses instead on the existential crisis of European Jewry vis-à-vis notions of identity, the nation, memory, and how the question of Palestine is ultimately incriminated in the manifestations of this crisis. “What did it mean being a Zionist?” one man filmed at an anti-Zionist rally in Jerusalem asks. Pondering his own rhetorical question, he goes on: “It was very different to how the state interpreted it. It was based on an interpretation, in my opinion that the essential problem was a Jewish one. I want to say here that there wasn't a Jewish problem. However, everything was explained through this interpretation. The simple solution was for all Jews to go to Israel and there were people to arrange this. This brings me to the conclusion that I was played.”

Since the productions of Promised Lands and L’Olivier, the conflict has undergone some dramatic developments, with major consequences for Israel’s claims to victimhood and self-defense. These changes have witnessed the eruption of two Intifadas, the US-led sham “peace” process and its consequent collapse, the rise to power of Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud-dominated government, and the growing power of ethno-religious parties. The building of the illegal Segregation Wall and the rise of the international solidarity movement for the liberation of Palestine have posed previously unimaginable challenges to Israel. Against this backdrop, both films can be read as documentation of the conflict itself as well as its aesthetic representation during certain historical moments. The shot of Palestinians crossing an unthreatening-looking Allenby Bridge in 1973 in Promised Lands has today metamorphosed into a monstrous complex of security with airport-like terminals and machinery to filter out not only Palestinians, but anyone else deemed to threaten the state through pro-Palestinian sentiment or activity. Similarly, the narrative of the wives of prisoners held without trial in L’Olivier are no different than those of hunger strikers languishing without trial in Israeli jails today. This shows just how much more of the same there is when it comes to Zionist policies and practices. 

Yet because each film represents and uses the category of history differently, in political, conceptual, and cinematic terms, so each also conceives of and uses the concept of representation differently. Accordingly, we as spectators are able to look for our own causal, spatial, or temporal links to understand what we can of the conflict. It is here that the biggest challenge to the visual representation of the conflict lies. In the same way certain formal devices in filmmaking—such as closure, linearity, and objective narration—can serve ideological ends, so can diffuse strategies and fragmentary approaches. This matters a lot when it comes to visually documenting Israel’s historical subjugation of Palestinians on screen, for this particular conflict is as much about the exercise of military and economic imperial power as it is about narration, documentation, and representation.

Re-presenting History

It is thanks to the curatorial competence of the organizers of the London Palestine Film Festival that Mike Hoolboom’s Lacan Palestine may be read as an attempt to visually re-present past interpretations of Israel. Hoolboom’s striking skill in grappling with the birth of Israel in his stunning work is testament to cinema’s ability to deconstruct dominant cultural representations without compromising either political or aesthetic values. It is also a tribute to the world community’s growing recognition that the Palestinian plight is indeed valid, genuine, and justified, and that the call to revise the history of the conflict can no longer be ignored.


[Still image from Lacan Palestine.]

Using as a starting point Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of the “mirror stage” and the “alienation” it results in, which describes the early shaping of the ego in response to a clash between one’s self-perceived ideal visual appearance and one’s actual emotional experience, Hoolboom stunningly juxtaposes the trauma of the ancient Judaic experience against the contemporary pain of the Palestinian one. He hints throughout that while unraveling the layers of history does indeed put in perspective the momentous moments we experience, the moment of trauma when it occurs can never be reduced to mere historical occurrence, precisely because of what are ultimately our “singular” experiences. By stitching together visual imagery already etched into our minds and nestled into our subconscious, Hoolboom probes his spectators to reconstruct the layers that constitute our understanding of nation, community, and tribe. Central to his cinematic essay is the vast archive of visual material reassembled by him into a heart-wrenching story of human pain. Included in this are: epic American Civil War films, scenes from violent Crusader wars, Hollywood productions bursting with orientalist overtones, and even shots from more recent experimental films such as Sontag’s Promised Lands and video art works by Velcrow Ripper, Elle Flanders, and Dani Leventhal, sometimes superimposed over the voice of Edward Said and others. The dizzying pastiche of footage is interwoven with iconic images of Israel’s brutal occupation, such as the Israeli Army’s beating of Palestinians with truncheons dictated by Yitzhak Rabin’s “break the bones” policy in the first Intifada, and the horrifying destruction of Gaza in 2009. Ben Gurion’s proclamation of the establishment of the Jewish state standing under a statue of Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, and accompanying street jubilations are also part of the assembled footage. These images then metamorphose into scenes from films depicting the hedonistic celebrations of the Roman Empire’s ruling elite.

A large segment of the film is dedicated to uncovering Britain’s role in the violent inception of the state of Israel. In one sequence, Hoolboom takes his spectators on a journey through the passion, drama, secrecy, and tragedy of the inter-war mandate period. This is done through assembling maps, voice-overs, and news footage, such as that of King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan standing alongside British mandate officials, in a nod to the collusion between both over the carve up of Palestine. Other footage recalls BBC commentary from the inter-war period affirming British interest in ensuring a friendly (Jewish) population on the historical land of Palestine at the expense of marginalizing its original inhabitants (Palestinians).

This dizzying series of images is interspersed more than once with the quintessential British icon of drama and conspiracy: the Rolls Royce “spirit of ecstasy” mascot adorning one car driving freely against a backdrop of an ongoing British imperial pomp ceremony. As if adding insult to injury and in a breathtaking end to the sequence, Hoolboom presents us with a shot of two men, one naked, the other in a British army uniform, locked in a passionate embrace lying atop a Union flag. Hoolboom’s choice of footage here compellingly recalls British PM David Cameron’s suggestion that British aid be cut from those countries with anti-gay rights records, indicating, as sharp criticism warned, a contemporary repeat of imperial Britain’s civilizing mission.

“What are these guys doing in jazz combos?” asks filmmaker Mike Cartmell in a voice-over monologue reflecting on his painful personal life experiences by mapping them on to collective ones. He goes on: “Coltrane, no one could play like that. Elvin Jones, nobody could drive a band like that. Each one of these guys is playing something different, but together there is a coalescing of these quite discreet, quite radically different singular expressions.” There is a mismatch between what the British Empire, and the violent birth of Israel it helped bring in to being, perceive of themselves, and the reality of the “singular” painful experiences they engendered as a result, Hoolboom seems to be saying. His point is movingly driven home through his Lacanian visual interpretation of the manly outer demeanor of a fearful and timid young Palestinian boy woken up in the early hours of the morning by his mother and forced to mount a bus full of adults to see his imprisoned father in an Israeli jail.

Despite what may be interpreted as his collapsing of the collective and the singular into a morass of parity through his choice of visualizing ancient and near history, the sheer brilliance of Hoolboom’s film lies in the fact that he never once loses sight of the reality of the conflict today. Despite never stating it, he is clear on who the perpetrators are and who the victims are in the contemporary conflict in Palestine. He reminds us throughout that history is always part of a living consciousness that pulls together past and present as a way of remaking, reclaiming, and reimagining what we think we already know. And that he does without ever shying away from interpreting the history of a conflict that is in dire need of being re-read and re-told, if it is ever to end.  
____________________

NOTES

[1] Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation. New Edition. New York and London: I. B. Tauris, 2010.

[2] Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation. New York: Dell Publishing, 1961, 23.

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