Amos Gitai, Field Diary (1984).
Rarely has the cinema verité technique, with its false naiveté, been deployed so strategically as in Field Diary. It looks as if it could have been made by your little brother with the family toy camera, and it is even hard to credit filmmaker Amos Gitai with the earlier filmmaking experience that his House testifies to. But Field Diary, gracelessness and all, refuses to leave you when you leave the theater.
Gitai, his brother and some scruffy friends, all young Israelis concerned about the rightward thrust of Israeli politics, took a 16mm camera and, over a course of weeks, traveled a regular route from Tel Aviv to Nablus Road and then to Ramallah. They also entered south Lebanon, and filmed in improvised refugee camps with a smuggled camera, garnering murky images of what no outsider was supposed to see. They visited the dense shambles that is the Gaza Strip. And then they came back and edited their footage — minimally, in about 50 long takes — and showed what they saw, who they met and, most significantly, how they talked with those people. It is the startling, painful and insightful record of denied relationships.
The film has built-in audience appeal, because it shows that what we had not known we had refused to look at. The political crisis in Israel has come to us in headlines, in scare rhetoric, and in runaway military spending that adds up to federal deficit. The felt reality of social crisis has been masked behind a curtain labeled “Arab,” “Palestinian” and “PLO.” This special thrill of approaching the forbidden subject — like opening a door in a house and discovering someone in a state of undress — is in fact an accident of international distribution.
This film was not made for us. Gitai made it for his own people, not as a hostile or rebellious act, but as a contribution to dialogue. The subject matter is patent, going variously under the rubric “the Palestinian problem,” “Eretz Israel” and “the Occupied Territories.” The object was to confront Israeli Jews with what they seem unable to see: the existence of a relationship with Palestinians, and the link between political crisis and the denial of that relationship. For Gitai, more than political security is at stake; at risk is the integrity of the most basic social relationships. As he puts it, the film chronicles “the occupier’s inability to face up to his own actions, taking refuge in abstractions (God, the nation, security) and turning that into a mechanism for legitimating what he does.”
But the film, which has already had wide distribution on European television, was not shown in Israel. (Gitai’s earlier film was also censored in Israel, although it was produced by Israeli TV.) And so its secondary audience carries into the theater a double voyeurism: not only that of peering into a domestic conflict, but one that is stifled at home.
What we see is both ordinary and extraordinary. As the film begins, the filmmakers are in the thick of an argument with Israeli soldiers trying to stop them from filming their approach to the home of a West Bank mayor, Bassam Shakaa, who had his legs amputated after a bomb attack. The home is under perpetual guard. Its inhabitants welcome the visitors and shake their heads ruefully at the awkwardness of the encounter. A simple interview becomes, under the terms of daily life in Israel today, a military action. Other interviews — with Israeli soldiers picnicking in occupied territories, or patrolling West Bank city streets, with Israeli settlers standing proudly on a newly razed hillside, with Palestinian families harvesting wheat, with Palestinian workers who every day commute from occupied territory to Israel to find work — are also highly charged.
By asking about the obvious, the filmmakers are violating an unspoken agreement. Their simplest queries expose widespread anxiety about the terms of occupation and coexistence. For instance, one Israeli soldier — a boy, really — instantly pronounces what he thinks is tough realism: the Arabs should be forced out of Israel. Another soldier contradicts him sharply, calling for negotiations. Suddenly the first soldier retracts his statement, and squirms before the steady camera. Even for people who think their minds are made up, it is clear options are not closed, although they are denied until challenged.
The film’s technique makes manifest that fact without preaching it. The steady perusal of the camera, stuck stubbornly out a car window or aimed calmly at eye level, forces its subjects to reassess their remarks, reconsider their posture — to regard themselves, in short, as subjects. It also enforces an uncomfortable realization: They are being watched. This is clearest in the final sequence, when soldiers on patrol try to shake off the camera crew after they finish dismissing the crew’s questions, but find the crew quietly continuing to film. After trying to intimidate them, they radio their superiors for advice and finally trudge off, ostentatiously ignoring the crew that trails them on a long walk through the city. It is a normal day.
The stance of Jews and Palestinians in front of this insistent camera is revealingly different. While the former assert themselves with bravado, or genial pragmatism, or semi-hostile dismissal, the Palestinians return a steady gaze. It is not just there in the eyes and body language of depressed refugees, huddling in the inadequate protection of plastic-sheet makeshift tents, but also in the look of men rolling into Tel Aviv in overcrowded cars at 4:30 in the morning, and in the quiet explanations of a soon-to-be-dispossessed farmer of why he thinks the PLO is an organization with dignity and sense. The difference is not between oppressor and victim, because it is not clear which group here is the greater victim. The difference is between those who cannot afford to look at themselves and those who live with surveillance and who must consciously shape their own attitudes in relation to it. And so Field Diary demonstrates that the simple act of looking — in the process asserting one’s right to look and that one will, not look away — is a profoundly political act.
There is another, perhaps even more obvious fact delivered by the traveling long shot that is this film’s staple. Land is at stake. Blocks and blocks of it in the city, which we measure off as children run alongside the camera. Acres and acres of it in the country, which the filmmakers somberly take stock of while traversing wheat fields or surveying bare land for a new settlement.
No doubt Gitai and his friends have proposals for a solution to this nightmare by daylight. But the film does not undertake anything so definitive. There is a clear warning here, however, in this portrait of deformed and deforming relationships. The cost of not looking is higher than the pain of seeing; people who ignore irreducible human needs make themselves less than human. This is not a new observation, but it is becoming a twentieth-century theme. In another generation, the cost to those in charge of living in bad faith was expressed eloquently by George Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant,” an essay about his experience as a colonial administrator. The acclaimed novel by the white South African writer J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, addresses the same problem. The novel is told from the viewpoint of a conscientious administrator on an outpost of empire. Told to round up “barbarians,” he must find people who fit the description. Having found them, he tries to understand who they are in order to understand who he is. His futile struggle hints at the society-wide devastation resulting from unequal relationships that must be mystified in order to be justified. The films Hearts and Minds, Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, among other Vietnam films, all express, in different ways, the price to Americans of American involvement in Vietnam.
Can a 16mm camera be a cure for blindness? The passionate conviction that it can fuels Gitai’s work. Even in its international context, the film does not lose its urgency. Indeed, its warning is extended to us. The US is far too implicated in the fate of Israel, and Middle East politics are far too important internationally, for any of us to ignore the evidence of a crisis this grave.
Further, when we experience the shock of seeing this militarized society living in fear of itself, something else is registered — a shock of recognition. Denial, paranoia, pervasive and corroding anxiety masked by tough talk — all this echoes sentiments and postures familiar from our own society, ones that thread through our evening news and the alarums of our administration. Gitai may be speaking to and looking at Israelis, but his gaze penetrates a more than local problem.