Udi Aloni is to Israeli cinema what Kubrick was to America. His first narrative feature, FORGIVENESS,is reminiscent of not just A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and PATHS OF GLORY but also bears obvious elements from THE SHINING, EYES WIDE SHUT, and even FULL METAL JACKET. Furthermore, I would be remiss to not also recall a similar Israeli film, Ari Folman's WALTZ WITH BASHIR. Throughout his book WHAT DOES A JEW WANT? - ON BINATIONALISM AND OTHER SPECTERS, the contrast between the two films is highlighted by multiple essayists, and the two in fact have striking parallels. My thought is to first re-position the understanding we derive from Kubrick, particularly THE SHINING, and place it before these two films, so to see the underlying tension revealed.
Kubrick himself was a Freudian in the most honest way, and both films grapple with the phenomenon of trauma in war psychologically. THE SHINING carries within it many sub-textual details in the mise-en-scene that suggest a deeper narrative. Indeed, the final shot of the film is a mere emphasis on one certain aspect of the mise-en-scene, the photos on the wall. The experience of the Overlook itself is the true narrative of that film, the humans indeed are less alive than the ghosts. One of the major elements is an ongoing motif around the Native American genocide and parallels with the Nazi holocaust. During pre-production, the director read Raoul Hildberg's THE DESTRUCTION OF THE EUROPEAN JEWS and imbued the film with multiple images relevant to the Nazi regime, such as German typewriters, large eagles, and even numerological clues. The invocation of genocide in that modern sense was Kubrick's first shot at contemplating the war, and he indeed dedicated whole decades to preparing a later film that would more directly confront it.
Kubrick was known for his infamous 'Works In Production', films he spent decades developing but never actualizing. AI ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE was one of these, along with a biographical epic about Napoleon Bonaparte, but the one that haunted him most, many say, was his ARYAN PAPERS project about the Nazi holocaust, as told through the eyes of a young boy. On seeing Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST, he remarked "SCHINDLER'S LIST? The Holocaust was about six million people dying, SCHINDLER'S LIST is about twelve hundred surviving!" However, it is thought by some he chose to focus on producing EYES WIDE SHUT instead of his ARYAN PAPERS after Spielberg's film, leaving THE SHINING as his only film to subtly grapple with the topic.
This reading can extend in two directions that result in a variety of meanings for the film, which can compliment each other and understanding Aloni's work. First, there is the obvious textual level. But then also there is a sub-text and negotiation of the meanings these elements take on, based on personal grasp and experience of the viewers of the film. This synthesis results in a view through which we can properly deal with Aloni and Folman as artists.
The machinery of genocide itself seems to be Kubrick's primary goal in the presentation of the self-destruction of Jack Torrance. It is the story of a man who is infected by the genocidal evil that built the hotel on top of an Indian graveyard. His madness is more a reaction by a sensitive but good man like Mr. Torrance to the absolute horror and abomination that is genocide. The visual cues to the Native Americans throughout the hotel, his German type-writer, and the Auschwitz-like mechanized death of elevators full of blood all evoke the notions of genocide.
Aloni sets his own film on a sort-of Indian graveyard, a mental hospital built on the ruins of an ethnically cleansed village called Deir Yassin. The Palestinian village was attacked by Lehi and Irgun militias on April 9, 1948, with 4 militia men and 107 Palestinians dead, only 11 villagers armed. Following the razing of the ruins, Gival Shaul Bet was built as a neighborhood, and Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center established in 1951. Legend has it that the patients still interact with the village ghosts, and from these coordinates the film explores the eventual forgiveness of David (Itay Tiran). The film is primarily another psycho-analytic one, akin to Kubrick, because the emphasis on perception and ideology (Aloni has a dog named for his friend Slavoj Zizek, try to spot it!)
The film essentially portrays three narratives based on David's emotional and psychological maturity around acknowledging his own guilt as an IDF soldier who shoots a Palestinian girl. The first sequence, Repentance, prevents him from reaching closure, as does the second, based in Reparation. Only in the final case, Forgiveness, can David begin to truly grasp the consequences of his actions and move forward.
In the case of WALTZ WITH BASHIR, a much different ideological orientation is evident. As Zizek notes, the film spends no time interviewing Palestinians who survived Sabra and Shatilla, instead focusing on fellow war vets and the wisdom of a his psychiatrist. In his view, the film grants Ari a reprieve for his role in the massacre, with the psychiatrist assuaging him of any real guilt.
But I would also prefer to propose my own view of the film, especially considering its place in Israeli animation history. WALTZ WITH BASHIR, along with $9.99 in 2008, were the first Israeli animated features produced since 1962. In that time span, Israeli and Palestinian film consumption habits were obviously shaped by an import market from the West, especially with regards to films by Disney. Accordingly, it is fair to claim that, as with most Western animation markets, Disney animation itself becomes a type of quality standard for international markets. Regardless of ideological allegiance, it is objectively true that Disney has, for nearly a century now, continually released animated films which are seen as a pinnacle of both animation in technological and esthetic refinement. In this sense, perhaps this notion seems possible. If Disney films serve as a marker of quality, can we not also propose that the Disney judgements and ideas about narrative define our own final judgements on the film? Does a viewer ask not just "Will this film look as good as a Disney one?" Could the viewer also insert his judgments on characters according to archetypes clearly established by Disney films?
In this sense, is Ari positioning himself as the erstwhile Sorcerer's Apprentice who needs the psychological Wizard to make things right? This presents a truly problematic vision of the film's final moments, where the animation is replaced by gory footage of wailing Palestinian women exiting the camps. In this passage, as a final blow, Folman exploits a certain pornography of grief so to assuage himself as a film maker. The use of weeping widows and dead bodies is dis-concerting and ultimately causes the viewer to reflect more about the reality of the event. However, because Folman is not actually apologizing for the role he played, as opposed to Aloni, it is worthwhile to see his use of the emblematic shrieking Muslim woman as objectively crude and demeaning. The entire point of Folman's 'journey' is more centered on self-affirmation rather than seeking honest forgiveness. Here he merely utilizes the stock imagery of victims for a final emotional slam.
It is David's final proclamation, "I'm a murderer!", that differentiates the morality of Aloni from Folman. In this sense, they also bear a certain relevance to the project of binationalism that Aloni describes in his book, featuring imagery from his film on the cover. Couching his ideas in a theology of messianic Judaism, Aloni creates a radically Leftist theology of atonement and reconciliation based in readings from the Torah, the Talmud, and Jewish mysticism, as well as Franz Rosenweig's THE STAR OF REDEMPTION, radically re-interpreting that text as a tikkun olam to create what he calls the "star of geula (redemption)...without the aleph [God]". Aloni's theology of secular Judaism is obviously marked by his friendship with Slavoj Zizek, but takes on a character all its own. He uses the language of Messianic Judaism, especially in regards to the coming of the Messiah, to propose an ideological binationalism wherein such a community would actualize his prayers.
Perhaps one of the obvious points to raise, in recalling Kubrick, is the point that, morbid as it may be, the genocide of Indians was complete when the Torrance family entered the Overlook. By that point, all chances for such forgiveness had passed. Indeed, throughout the film are totems of American Indian knick-knacks and designs to emphasize the completion of the act. By contrast, Aloni's film emphasizes the living possibility of his binationalism in the relationship between David and Lila (Clara Khoury). In each termination of his romances, it is the murder-suicide act of intense nationalism with a German Luger pistol that ends the sequence. By contrast, Jack Torrance is sucked into the past because Torrance cannot engage in the rite of forgiveness that David does. This is because he remains unrepentant, from the beginning, in his own racism and sexism. In this way, the ghosts of the Overlook embody ethos of a pre-Civil Rights era, with codes enforcing segregation and racism. The two dead young girls are symbolic of WASP race myths about purity, while their father, the butler Grady, enforces notions of bourgeois order in regards to the pyramid of the social order placing African-Americans and other people of color as second-class. In this framework, archetypes can also be seen in Aloni and Folman.
The overwhelming issue at hand, therefore, becomes a dissection of the political economy of these two films. Folman targets his blame, his Mr. Moneybags, on Ariel Sharon in a brief moment. The blame is therefore externalized, whereas Aloni takes on the role of the repentant member of the society. But, to modify Marx, it is important to define a new set of parameters to define this state of affairs by.
It is worthwhile to remember Stalin's policy towards the Party in Palestine was perhaps the smartest line taken by all the world powers. Because of his cruel and manipulative use of the Orthodox Church, the Russian-aligned Orthodox Churches ended up finding a political space to operate binational resistance to oppression. Furthermore, Stalin did in fact write about Zionism, however crudely, during the Bund era.
We said above that Bauer, while granting the necessity of national autonomy for the Czechs, Poles, and so on, nevertheless opposes similar autonomy for the Jews. In answer to the question, "Should the working class demand autonomy for the Jewish people?" Bauer says that "national autonomy cannot be demanded by the Jewish workers." According to Bauer, the reason is that "capitalist society makes it impossible for them (the Jews – J. St.) to continue as a nation."Stalin's writings here only diagnose the pre-Nazi condition of anti-Semitism with a rather technical and mechanistic view. However, this was written in 1913, and first published in March, sixteen months prior to the death of Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I.
In brief, the Jewish nation is coming to an end, and hence there is nobody to demand national autonomy for. The Jews are being assimilated.
This view of the fate of the Jews as a nation is not a new one. It was expressed by Marx as early as the 'forties, in reference chiefly to the German Jews. It was repeated by Kautsky in 1903, in reference to the Russian Jews. It is now being repeated by Bauer in reference to the Austrian Jews, with the difference, however, that he denies not the present but the future of the Jewish nation.
Bauer explains the impossibility of preserving the existence of the Jews as a nation by the fact that "the Jews have no closed territory of settlement." This explanation, in the main a correct one, does not however express the whole truth. The fact of the matter is primarily that among the Jews there is no large and stable stratum connected with the land, which would naturally rivet the nation together, serving not only as its framework but also as a "national" market. Of the five or six million Russian Jews, only three to four per cent are connected with agriculture in any way. The remaining ninety-six per cent are employed in trade, industry, in urban institutions, and in general are town dwellers; moreover, they are spread all over Russia and do not constitute a majority in a single guberniya [Russian Imperial administrative province].
Thus, interspersed as national minorities in areas inhabited by other nationalities, the Jews as a rule serve "foreign" nations as manufacturers and traders and as members of the liberal professions, naturally adapting themselves to the "foreign nations" in respect to language and so forth. All this, taken together with the increasing re-shuffling of nationalities characteristic of developed forms of capitalism, leads to the assimilation of the Jews. The abolition of the "Pale of Settlement" would only serve to hasten this process of assimilation.
In this sense, it is the work of a Stalin 'yet-to-be'. The trauma of World War I did change Adolf Hitler, and also the exiled Georgian agitator. By seeing NATIONAL QUESTION in this light, we acknowledge the coordinates also of Stalinist ideas about Zionism, writing:
It may be said that the Bund itself regards the establishment of democracy in Russia as a preliminary condition for the "creation of institutions" and guarantees of freedom. But this is not the case. From the report of the Eighth Conference of the Bund it will be seen that the Bund thinks it can secure "institutions" on the basis of the present system in Russia, by "reforming" the Jewish community.Stalin addresses the Bund in this work about general nationalisms he observed in the 'border regions' of the world-wide Social Democratic party. In this way, he diagnoses both the forthcoming schism in the Party that turned into the German vote for war a year later, as well as the issues of anti-Semitism and Zionism as an element of the Holocaust.
"The community," one of the leaders of the Bund said at this conference, "may become the nucleus of future cultural-national autonomy. Cultural-national autonomy is a form of self-service on the part of nations, a form of satisfying national needs. The community form conceals within itself a similar content. They are links in the same chain, stages in the same evolution."
On this basis, the conference decided that it was necessary to strive "for reforming the Jewish community and transforming it by legislative means into a secular institution," democratically organized (our italics – J. St.).
It is evident that the Bund considers as the condition and guarantee not the democratization of Russia, but some future "secular institution" of the Jews, obtained by "reforming the Jewish community," so to speak, by "legislative" means, through the Duma:
But we have already seen that "institutions" in themselves cannot serve as "guarantees" if the regime in the state generally is not a democratic one.
But, he fails to provide any mention of colonialism and its effects on both the development of capitalism in pre-industrial societies and the issue of race. Stalin does address Russian Islamic minorities, especially the turn towards religion by the Tartars, but he fails to grasp, for obvious reasons, that what he refers to as 'Turkish' culture is far more complex than he can begin to imagine. Indeed, this is the gateway to understanding Stalin's deficit: he fails to totally understand the notion of multi-culturalism as opposed to strict assimilation. In his own habits, Stalin the Georgian always used the Russian language and was known for his heavy accent. This sense of persecution and also of praxis suggests insights into such ideas observed in our own social codes. For example, the sort of shaming involved in using English instead of Spanish in a Latino business is a unique compliment to the bullied Stalin, muttering bad Russian while Trotsky rebukes him.
What Aloni's work does is crosses this bridge and invests the mechanistic with the mystic, a primal response symbolized by Zionist-Palestinian coitus and a constant reminder of American theories of nationality in contrast. By setting his film primarily in New York, Aloni is able to offer a template to his binationalist ideal that might be called overly optimistic in realms other than cinema. But, New York, as the setting of 9/11. also takes on a rhetorical point. In this way, the film is truly Israeli-American-Palestinian cinema, a unique hybrid.
As Israeli film, it represents a unique and powerful counter to popular cinema and cultural norms about both religious and secular Zionism. Its message of binationalism is powerful and challenges hierarchical ideologies about race and gender.
As an American film, it is a powerful psychological film, contemplating this nation's issues with race in a way that allows for reconciliation. The entire sequence of hallucination David experiences is based in New York, not the Middle East, and the sensibility of binationalism Aloni seeks is on clear display. His vision is an American one of attempted harmony, less South African and more Jeffersonian by default. As such, despite the fact that the idea of an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian activist making love is revolting in the other two contexts, on the plane of American ethos the two characters operate in, they are not being Revolutionary in a European sense but in one based in metropolitan New York ethos. Obviously it is still a moment of enlightenment for David, but it also bears with it the coordinates of cultural imperialism. Indeed, David's entire relationship is based on a lie, his refusal via drug intervention to admit to his crimes as a member of the IDF. The position is therefore even more Jeffersonian in this context, much similar to the narrative of Sally Hemings.
Only as a Palestinian film, seen as a film featuring Palestinians playing both nationalities and the message of redemption they offer through honest dialogue, does the true value shine. This film is one which encourages the deepest sort of thinking, using codes and norms that are funny, much akin to Monty Python's humor, but also thoughtful. Aloni's ability to create such a narrative on his first effort is notable, and the comparison to WALTZ WITH BASHIR bears particular insight.
Below is my own version of SHINING-FORWARDS AND BACKWARDS, which juxtaposes symmetrical points in the Kubrick film. I post it here now.