Thursday, May 13, 2010

Around the World in 48 Hours, Part 2

Not to be confused with Shortbus (2006), Anat Zuria's critical documentary Black Bus (2010) begins with a title informing us that the women profiled in the film grew up in Israel's ultra-orthodox community, against the backdrop of its "modesty revolution," which places appalling restrictions on the freedom of Hasidic women. For instance, there are special buses for orthodox Jews, in which women are required to sit in the back third of the bus. Even for a woman to enter by the front doors is forbidden.

The film is about two women who've left the Hasidic community: A blogger, Sara, who writes about her own experiences, as well as those of a few informants still on the inside; and an amateur photographer, Shulamit, who confronts the orthodox community more directly by taking pictures on the street and on the bus. As she no longer has any contact with the community, including her own family, the only arena in which Shulamit (and Zuria) can engage the Hasidic community is in the public sphere.

Because the film views the orthodox community entirely from the outside, it requires in spots a leap of imagination. In one sequence, Shulamit is lying on her bed, uploading some photos to Facebook, and Zuria frames her face in close-up. After a while, Zuria inquires from offscreen if any of Shulamit's friends have also left the Hasidic community. She answers that one did, but it's a sad story and she's not ready to talk about it. Zuria keeps recording, at one point panning down to show that Shulamit is fiddling with her glasses, and then back up to her face as, gradually, tears begin to form. It's a very long shot, and there's something shockingly intimate about it (especially if you're watching the film in a theatre, as I was, sitting in the second row), yet at the same time, something is being withheld, and the tension between intimacy and mystery is really intriguing.

In so many words, the film shows us only the tip of the iceberg and asks us to imagine its depths. In the film, we see Hasidic men and women as they appear in public, while the recollections of Shulamit, Sara, and her informants (whose faces are blurred so they can't be identified) invite us to envisage what goes on behind closed doors. Incidentally, one of the things we learn is that the orthodox community is obsessed with appearances above all else. Sara recalls how, when she was living with her parents, if her clothes were acceptable, that meant she was acceptable. Her family never really saw her, just her clothes. I'm reminded of a quote from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1925): "In reality, they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs."

There is at least one thing I agree on with the orthodox community: couples kissing in public. I don't want to see that, but by doing it out in public, it's like they're forcing me to look at it. And if I do look, then I'm the one who's creepy. Have some shame, people.

David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier's American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein (2009) is an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying documentary about Norman Finkelstein, an American political scientist of Jewish descent who's become a pariah for his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his book The Holocaust Industry (2000). Using talking head interviews, and video of Finkelstein giving talks at various universities and in Palestine, the film traces Finkelstein's life from his childhood in Coney Island to the controversy around his writings, and in particular, his feud with Alan Dershowitz, but it leaves the substance of his writings largely untouched.

From what I've read on Wikipedia, the crux of Finkelstein's writings is that Israel has one of the worst human rights records in the world, and that a powerful Jewish lobby has exploited the memory of the Holocaust to portray Israel as a victim state, while at the same time, shaking down western Europe for huge legal settlements, which ultimately go to the lobby and its lawyers rather than Holocaust survivors. In Dershowitz's book, The Case for Israel (2003), he argues that Israel has done more to obey the rule of law than any country with comparable security risks (a thesis he succinctly reiterates in the film), and Finkelstein refutes this claim in his book, Beyond Chutzpah (2005).

What do we see in the film? Finkelstein goes on a speaking tour of Canadian universities, and when one student challenges him on his likening of Israel to the Nazis, he shouts at her until she cries (something roundly applauded by most of the students in attendance), while a vocal minority tries, in turn, to shout him down. On a radio debate with Dershowitz, Finkelstein not only argues that The Case for Israel leans heavily on Joan Peters' From Time Immemorial (1984) as a source--a book which Finkelstein himself is credited with discrediting--but goes on to accuse Dershowitz of outright plagiarism. Dershowitz, in response, accuses Finkelstein of being an anti-Semitic Jew, and leads a campaign against his receiving tenure, which is ultimately successful.

More than once in the film, Finkelstein says that--though he's been smeared as a self-hating Jew, and his writings marginalized by mainstream academia--no one has actually challenged his research or his conclusions. I'm not a political scientist, but after reading the article on Israel's human rights record on Wikipedia, my impression is that the country has the best human rights record in the region by far, so long as you don't live in the occupied territories. Obviously it's a complicated issue, more so than either Finkelstein or his critics appear willing to concede. On the one hand, Finkelstein demonizes Israel by likening it to Nazi Germany (while at the same time uncritically endorsing Hamas and Hezbollah), which leads his detractors to demonize him in turn as an anti-Semitic Jew.

Rather than interrogating the factual claims of either side even a little bit, the documentary wants to teach the controversy with the result that it winds up confirming the viewer's pre-conceived ideas on the subject, no matter which side you happen to be on. Despite their attempts to keep it fair and balanced, Ridgen and Rossier are obviously sympathetic to Finkelstein; simply by making a documentary on him, they help to legitimize his work, and they make no attempt to debunk his theories. However, waiting in line for Black Bus, I overheard the guy in front of me say that Finkelstein had an Oedipus complex and was sexually frustrated. Like an afternoon of watching cable news, American Radical is entertaining but not particularly edifying.

1 comment:

  1. "there are special buses for orthodox Jews, in which women are required to sit in the back third of the bus."

    Please note that these buses are public buses and are not specifically for ultra-Orthodox Jewish passengers -- although they usually originate or pass through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

    See Katz ordered to explain gender-separation decision and Religion and State in Israel for more on this issue.