Saturday, August 9, 2014

Policeman (Ha-shoter)

POLICEMAN (Ha-shoter)       B                    
Israel  (100 mi)  2011  d:  Nadav Lapid

While analysts may view the Arab-Israeli dispute and conflicts between Muslim and non-Muslim communities through political grievances, the roots of such conflicts lie as much in culture and Arab tribalism.  Seventh-century Arab tribal culture influenced Islam and its believers’ attitudes toward non-Muslims, where today, the embodiment of Arab culture and tribalism within Islam impacts everything from family relations, to governance, to conflict.  According to Philip Carl Salzman from The Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2008, The Middle East's Tribal DNA :: Middle East Quarterly - Middle, for Arab Muslims confronting Jews, the opposition is between the dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, and the dar al-harb, the land of the infidels, where the Muslim is obliged to advance God’s true way, Islam, in the face of the ignominy of the Jew’s false religion.  Islamic doctrine holds that all non-Muslims, whether Christian or Jewish dhimmi or infidel pagans, must be subordinate to Muslims.  Jews under Qur’anic doctrine are inferior by virtue of their false religion and must not be allowed to be equal to Muslims.  For Muslim Arabs, the conceit of Jews establishing their own state, Israel, and on territory conquered by Muslims and, since Muhammad, under Muslim control is outrageous and intolerable.  In a 2006 interview, Pierre Heumann, a journalist with the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, asked Al-Jazeera editor-in-chief Ahmed Sheikh whether enmity toward Israel is motivated by self-esteem.  Sheikh explained, "Exactly.  It’s because we always lose to Israel.  It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants. can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million.”  The Arab situation, compared to Israel’s, is bleak.  In all spheres of life except for religion, Arab society and culture has declined in importance and influence.  Muslim Middle Eastern countries, from Morocco to Iran, are dictatorships, where the propensity of Arab states and Iran to dictatorship also has roots in tribal culture.  There is an inherent conflict between peasants and nomads.  Peasants are sedentary, tied to their land, water, and crops while tribesmen are nomadic, moving around remote regions.  Peasants tend to be densely concentrated in water-rich areas around rivers or irrigation systems while pastoral tribesmen, in contrast, are spread thinly across plains, deserts, and mountains.  In global competition with other societies and cultures, Arabs have for centuries been losers.  Israel, on the other hand, is a parliamentary democracy with established civil liberties.  It is perhaps the most multiracial and multicultural state in the world, gathering as it has Jews from all corners of the world.  It has also accepted and, albeit imperfectly, incorporated a substantial population of Arab Bedouin and Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian.  Throughout the span of Middle East history, tribes have often posed a credible threat to central governments, and have played an important role in the making and dismantling of ruling dynasties.

The Romans, the Persians, the Ottomans, the French, the British, the Italians, Arab kings, Imams, Sultans and the post independence Arab military officers, have all attempted, with various degrees of success and failure, to destroy, co-opt, subordinate and manipulate tribes. The Romans, for instance, allocated payments to tribes in the region to guard the frontiers against external intrusion. The Persians, on the other hand, used tribes as buffers against emerging powerful neighbouring dynasties, while western colonial forces promoted tribalism as a counterbalance to the rising urban sentiments of nationalism. Tribes, however, posed the most serious challenge to the political elites of the post-colonial independent Arab states. At the heart of this threat lies the obsessive preoccupation of the 20th century political regimes in the region with the total confiscation of the political arena, and the forcible submission of all social actors to the will of political leadership.

By looking through the wrong end of the telescope, many in the Western world think of tribal people as nomads, riding camels and living in harsh and remote desert areas. This is not the reality in the Arab Middle East, where the distinction between tribal and non-tribal does not correspond in any significant way between nomadic and settled populations. The majority of Middle Eastern tribes do not move. Tribal populations, for instance, in Iraq and Yemen are settled farmers, who plant fruits and vegetables beside their sorghum and millet. Remarkably, tribal identity in the region is still alive in the socio-political consciousness of millions of Arabs residing in modern globalising cities. This unique phenomenon is one of the excellent mirrors to reflect how tribalism in the Arab world is not a way of life.  Rather, it is an identity, which is grounded in cultural psychology and politics. In other words, tribalism in the Middle East is culturally rooted and politically shaped. It’s uneven development and strength in the region is the outcome of the divergent and changing types of state formation, colonial penetration, economic growth and societal changes.

One does not normally associate tribalism when speaking of Israel except as the traditional divisions of the ancient Jewish people as depicted in The Old Testament.  Yet what’s interesting about this film is how it depicts modern Israeli society through a tribal context, where layered within the fabric of ordinary life are various subset groups, each containing their own shared rituals and beliefs with other members that seem to express their unique identity.  What’s perhaps most surprising is how these rival groups vie for power and are often at odds with one another, becoming part of the continuing struggle to define what it means to be an Israeli.  It’s not often one sees this degree of self-analysis and criticism coming from within Israel itself, where it would be hard to imagine a similar film attacking the inner fabric of American society, particularly one winning awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival before being exported around the world.  The key is the understated tone, where this is not some exaggerated farce or overblown melodrama making claims on a particular point of view in order to pacify the ardent believers, instead it is the meticulous attention to detail that likely raises eyebrows here, and the changing shift of the story.  From the outset, the viewer is taken inside the ritualistic mindset of an elite anti-terrorism police unit of the Israeli government, something akin to the American Navy Seals, as these are the guys that specialize in only the most difficult operations, normally against Arab terrorists.  Through the eyes of Yaron (Yiftach Klein), perhaps the Alpha-male of the all-male group, these are highly trained experts whose close-knit camaraderie is essential, as they lay their lives on the line for each other on a daily basis, seeing themselves as true patriots, looking out over the vast emptiness of the desert to exclaim, “This is the most beautiful country in the world,” where they greet one another with hugs and loud pats on the back, always expressing a physicality in their interactions that borders on the homoerotic, though not as exaggerated as Claire Denis’s sublime imagery in Beau Travail (1999).  They maintain this same bond of affection during their down time, extended to each other’s wives and children, where love of country, family, and each other are the building blocks for an impregnable nation, all believing they live in the greatest nation on earth.  Alone with his pregnant wife, Yaron has a fairly bland personality, where his ambitions of building a safe home for his family are no different than anyone elses.  What’s interesting is how the individual is sublimated for a group mentality of cohesiveness and seeming invincibility, where these men are used to succeeding when working as a collective group. 

After spending nearly an hour with this Israeli commando unit when they’re not on duty, where the camera simply observes their behavior, the scene inexplicably shifts to a group of neo-Nazi’s roaming the streets, aggressively kicking in cars they pass along the way, finally smashing one car to bits, purely at random, where we see the car owner staring in disbelief, helpless to do anything about it.  Shira (Yaara Pelzig) is then seen as part of another group of college age kids walking along the outskirts of the desert when simultaneously they pull guns out of their knapsacks and fire at a lone tree on the road ahead, unleashing their rage as they use it for target practice.  We see them again meeting in the plush upscale confines of Shira’s parent’s home rehearsing some revolutionary message they intend to deliver, trying to reduce their manifesto to its bare essence, “It is time for the poor to get rich, and the rich to start dying…”  While their leader Nathanael (Michael Aloni) approves or disapproves various recommendations, they are a band of Jewish radicals who naively plot class warfare through violent means, part of the Israeli bourgeois, raised in middle or upper class homes, from good schools and universities.  In a momentary diversion, Shira is seen visiting a lesbian nightclub spouting plenty of musical rage, but when someone actually tries to talk to her, she instantly despises them and all that they stand for.  These fanatics infiltrate the Jerusalem wedding of a billionaire’s daughter, taking three Israeli billionaires as hostages, using the moment to air their anti-capitalist grievances through the national media, allowing a film crew to take pictures of each of them pointing guns to the heads of the hostages, like some sort of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) outlaw group.  Yaron’s anti-terrorist group is called in to restore order, as these capitalists are near heads of state in their own industries, Israeli success stories, and are to be protected at all costs, where in a preliminary review, each terrorist is targeted in a planned raid.  In the first hour of the film, one would never have anticipated this kind of outcome, but what grabs one’s attention is how none of these radicals would be pulling off this kind of gun-toting violence on their own, but are acting as a group collective, seemingly with one voice and one purpose.  Likewise, so is the police unit, who perform their duties flawlessly.  In reviewing the ensuing carnage, Yaron stares in disbelief at what he sees, young Jewish terrorists who are little more than kids themselves, children of privilege raised to be the future of the nation, both groups fighting for the “collective soul” of Israel.  It’s an interesting comment on the power of tribal collectives, where people can become lost in the dream-like utopia of a better world, falling in love with the idea, even dying for it, even as reality proves far more complicated. 

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