Sunday, September 18, 2005

The “Live Frei or Die” Film critic’s corner – “Kedma”

In our continuing quest to view and discuss cinema with Jewish content, your LFOD film critic has, for the first time, found a film that was actually produced by a Jew and has explicit Jewish Content. (The Ten Commandments (1956 version) doesn’t count, because Cecil B. DeMille was an Episcopalian.) This film is Kedma, produced and directed by the well-known Israeli auteur Amos Gitai. Kedma was a “2002 Cannes Film Festival Selection,” whatever that means, though the critical reviews I’ve seen on the Web were mostly negative. My opinion? Some good visuals, but the director overused the long shots (“long” as in elapsed time), thus putting the viewer at risk of falling asleep from boredom. One very good and exciting combat scene, which I think does a good job at debunking those who praise the glory of military action. And, the climactic scene, a soliloquy that expresses a very wrongheaded view of the Jewish condition. Unfortunately, the director’s final product is so opaque that it’s difficult to say whether this final rant is Mr. Gitai’s opinion or whether he’s dissing that particular view.

Nonetheless, I would recommend renting this flawed product, because it does raise some interesting issues. After all, for a $4 rental, what can you lose? Besides, the dialogue is simple enough that it’s a good way to practice your Hebrew comprehension. Just be prepared for the occasional lapse into Polish (or Russian) and Yiddish, all translated into the same English subtitles.

The plot, such as it is, goes as follows: A bunch of illegal Jewish immigrants are offloaded from the clandestine refugee ship “Kedma” sometime in late April or early May 1948. The operation is interrupted by a patrol of British troops, and the refugees scatter across the countryside (which seems to be the southern Israeli Coastal Plain inland from Ashkelon.) The different groups of refugees discuss with their Hagana (Palmach?) guides what motivated them to come to Israel rather than remain safe and warm in a DP camp in Germany. They finally all reassemble at a fairly well equipped Hagana camp where they are instructed in the use of Sten guns (a sort of home-made Uzi) and then issued single-shot bolt-action rifles. [It’s nice to know that even in Israel, there’s the “right way,” the “wrong way,” and the “Army way.”] They are then sent into battle with no explanation of the objective, which seems to be the capture of an old Arab farmhouse. The resulting firefight, which is the most convincing scene in the movie, leaves a few Israeli soldiers dead, 2 or 3 of the main characters wounded, and a middle-aged Arab noncombatant relieved of his donkey and set off wandering. As the Hagana is efficiently processing the wounded and evacuating everybody one of the refugees, who saw a close frined die or get seriously wounded, gets a sudden attack if PSTD and performs his rant/soliloquy regarding the Jewish experience. At the end, the Hagana commander hauls him into the jeep, and off they go into the sunset. Finis.

The main premise of the story is supposedly taken from an actual event. There were a bunch of illegal refugees attacked by the British a few days before the British left and the State of Israel declared its Independence. If that’s so, it’s hard to say which side was stupider: The Hagana for not waiting a week and bringing the refugees in legally with no British interference, or the British, who knew they were leaving, so why bother to stop some refugees who would just immigrate legally a week later. If that’s a point that Mr. Gitai was trying to make, I wish he’s be more explicit. Israelis are supposed to have a reputation for being plain-spoken and direct, not tolerating BS and beating around the bush.

Now we get to the Hagana. Of course, I grew up with tales of superhuman Hagana heroism. This movie is a bit of a revisionist downgrade of that reputation without trashing them too harshly. They certainly looked cool in their non-uniform khaki halutzik-wear. The commander led the sartorial pack with his piratical black bandanna. But he could have used some leadership lessons – he was unable to get the people under his command to put out a campfire properly. There was also a female radio operator who was a real hottie, but, unfortunately, she got hit in the firefight.

Nex, we turn to the Arabs. I’m glad that Mr. Gitai resisted the revisionist urge to have Black Bandanna brutalize that poor middle-aged Arab guy, driven from his home and relieved of his donkey. This guy, Youssef, concludes with a rant of his own about how the Arabs weren't going to let the Jews drive them out of theior land, and, by Allah, they were going to stay and be a pain in the tuches for the Jews, even if it meant they would end up doing all the menial work. The guy actually sounded very Jewish, if you get my drift. Especially when he explained to Black Bandanna that the reason the Arabs weren't better fighters was because (1) they had junky old weapons, and (2) too many chiefs and not enough Indians. It was a little disconcerting, to say the least, to learn that my shul has a lot in common with the Palestinian fighters of 1948, at least with regards to item (2).

Now we turn to the refugees. I appreciate the difficulty of trying to flesh out a character who is a Holocaust survivor, though I expect that most of the survivors who found themselves on an Aliya Bet ship were the kind of toughies whose trauma revolves more about what they saw happening rather than what happened to them. The “war stories” that they tell each other seem to have that sort of flavor. It makes sense that they weren’t too fazed by the battle they were thrust into. However, I do have some problems with one guy, Menachem, who in less than 30 seconds is transformed from a yingele Hazzan (with doubts abut religion, nonetheless) into a raving killer full of bloodlust, and expressing a singular desire to terminate the lives of his Semitic Ishmaelite brethren. This transformation needed a wee by more character development, which could have easily come from another scene where Janusz, another refugee, spends about 5 minutes hugging his girlfriend while Black Bandanna is practically jumping up and down telling them they have to leave. Another example of Black Bandana’s need for leadership training; any random Parriss Island USMC DI would have had that couple moving their butts double-time in less than 5 seconds. As I said, Mr. Gitai would have been better off holding the long shots and explaining things better.

In the end, the final rant of Janusz seems to make no sense. Yes, he saw a friend die (or at least get seriously wounded) in a confusing battle whose purpose wasn't properly explained to him (or us). But he must of seen much worse in Europe. (alternatively, this battle might have been "the straw the broke the camel's back.") But his rant, aside from being factually wrong, doesn't reasonably flow from what has happened to him:

The Jews are "without history."
They do not control their destiny.
Other people "write Jewish History."
The Jews "cant't exist" without being martyrs.

These assertions are factually wrong. Jewish history, while indeed full of persecutions typical of a minority nationality living in intolerant societies, was not an example of passivity. Jews most certainly did what they could to "control their destiny," even if it was simply to move when things got too hot. Jews also fought back, even during the depths of the Middle Ages. They usually were unsuccessful only becuase they were outnumbered, not be cuase they were passive sheep. Most of Jewish history was not martyrdom. That was reserved for a few nasty episodes during a long periods of simple second-class citizenship and several "golden ages." The Jews had it bad in the Middle Ages, but the average goy also had it bad. Virulent anti-semitism got jump-started during the First Crusade (circa 1100 CE) and remained endemic, farling and subsiding until the Nazis made use of it. But all along, the Jews were not acting passively.

I'll give Janusz the benefit of the doubt. All this historical detail mignt not be the first thing on the mind of a Holocaust survivor. But there seems to be no good reason why Janusz should be spouting what are essentially the Zionist platitudes of the Hagana folks who displayed a pronounced lack of competence witht he people they "rescued":

  • They insisted on bringing the refugees illegally at risk when they could have waited a week until the British left;
  • They drafted them into the army without even giving them a chance to get organized or understand the situation, or evenlearn some Hebrew;
  • They didn't explain the purpose of the military action they were being sent to perform; and
  • they weren't properly trained for what was expected of them.

Hell, if I had been Janusz, I'd have ranted and raved about the incomptetent nudniks who sent me and my friends to die for no apparent reason. But I wouldn't have have had a meltdown over a military operattion that was the exact opposite of Janusz' rant. In other words, if Janusz was bothered about Jewish passivity, the Hagana was doing exactly what he wanted. So why be upset at the end of the battle. The Jews are apparently victorious, they're taking charge of their destiny, and let's go ride off into the sunset, or to be geographically correct, the sunrise. The words are, of course, not really those of a Holocaust survivor, but more likely, those of Mr. Gitai. They're confusing, and I wonder what he really meant.


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