Lessons in Fear

James Cullingham

Lessons in Fear

Directed by James Cullingham

The Cinema Guild, 2005, 55 minutes

What is interesting is the wide range of personalities this documentary covers, from the Palestinian school girl determined to get an education, to the Israeli college student who reaches beyond her assumptions to meet Palestinian college students halfway. The video visits people of various positions, including an American-born Israeli pharmacist as well as Palestinian teachers. As the documentary proceeds,  the positions are clearly polarized between the need for the other side to make peace (Israeli), to tempered optimism based on the restoration of rights (Palestinian), with a few Israeli moderates thrown in for good measure.It is a known fact that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has been deleterious to both sides. It is deeply resented by the Palestinians and seen as necessary by many Israelis – these points are also common knowledge. In that sense, James Cullingham’s “Lessons in Fear” is merely re-covering the old ground of mis-education and frustration on both sides, rarely going one or two layers below the surface.

From a technical standpoint, the soundman seems to have his own fears – mainly of natural sound, because it is either astonishingly low or maddeningly absent in some scenes. The film is accompanied by a manipulative musical score.

For those new to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Lessons” provides a good primer, delivered by compelling people on both sides. Hopefully, new viewers will be inspired to seek out additional documentaries on the conflict.

At the Green Line

Directed by Jesse Atlas

The Cinema Guild, 2005, 53 minutes

While he is primarily interested in the Courage to Resist movement, director Jesse Atlas tries to maintain balance between those who refuse to go and those who do go with the intent to defend Israel. In addition, the piece puts a human face on the occupied Palestinians by interviewing farmers whose livelihood has been damaged by the occupation, and the family of a female suicide bomber who feel the occupation has annihilated her future.In contrast, “At the Green Line” is a beautifully shot and crafted documentary. It isn’t often that one catches a glimpse of military life inside another country. “At the Green Line” offers this perspective and then some. The Green Line refers to the 1948 demarcation between Israel and the Occupied Territories. As the documentary explains, all Israelis must go into the military; to refuse is treason. “At The Green Line” is a fascinating look at the Courage to Resist movement, little known in the U.S., a movement of Israeli reservists and pilots who, for various reasons, refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.

The documentary possesses an immediacy rare in many pieces on the Occupied Territories. It takes the viewer into training camps, on raids and missions to destroy olive groves. At one point, there is even a short-lived panic over a possible night attack.

The documentary makes clear that many of the reservists experience growing doubts while serving in the Occupied Territories and seeing first hand how the IDF policies affect the people living there, showing that their position is both a moral and an organic one.

According to the documentary, the number is small, but growing; the movement has more than 600 members. This number will surely grow as Israel has re-occupied the West Bank and contemplates moves against other countries in the region.

Point of Attack

Directed by Kathleen Foster

The Cinema Guild, 2005, 46 minutes

From “Point of Attack,” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Imagine living in a foreign country and waking up one morning to find that your basic civil rights have been cancelled due to your origin and religion. In“Point of Attack,” director Kathleen Foster doesn’t need to imagine – she can choose among any of the 84,000 Arab and Muslim men arrested in the wake of 9/11 from New York to San Diego. None, as the documentary points out, were ever charged with terrorism.

 Done in a snappy, sometimes MTV-esque style, this documentary dives into the heart of the controversy over the  U.S. government’s detention, in the wake of 9/11, of thousands of men of Muslim or Arab descent. While the film could sound alarmist, raising the haunting specter of mass detentions, it is, in fact, carefully factual, clearly detailing what the ACLU and others believe is a systematic dismantling of constitutional and civil rights.

Stories such as that of Faisal Ulvie, a Pakistani married to an American, are enough to give the average citizen pause. This is exactly what Foster seeks to accomplish. Says one lawyer, “We’re in this lawless kind of system… where anything goes.” And, as Foster later points out, the suspension of civil rights and the secret detentions continue to this day, five years after 9/11.

“Point of Attack” is a sobering portrait of a nation in danger of turning into a police state. It is a must-have film in any collection pertaining to civil rights and the overstepping of governmental power in times of domestic and international crisis

Hide Your Words

Directed by Behnam Behzadi

The Cinema Guild, 2006, 27 minutes

From “Hide Your Words,” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Behnam Behzadi has created quite a name for himself in Iranian film circles, making short slice-of-life pieces. In “Hide Your Words,” Behzadi dallies behind a camera to talk to a Bakhtiari family of salt gatherers from a group of semi-nomads in the south of Iran.

The film opens with daughters Zahra and Shahnaz walking to the salt field and talking about a former classmate who was forced to marry at a very young age, a fate the two sisters would very much like to avoid, but likely won’t since their sisters have already married early.

As Behzadi interacts with the family, it becomes clear that there are four conversations taking place. Between themselves, the girls reveal deep-seated anxieties about early marriage and curiosity about their female teachers. With Behzadi, they discuss their aspirations: one wants to be a doctor and the other a teacher. In front of his daughters, their father gives somewhat non-committal answers, vaguely saying that the girls may not have to marry so early, but once they have left, the conversation takes on a more “among men” tone and he makes it clear that he follows the tradition that girls marry in their early teens.

Behzadi asks the visiting brother what he thinks, perhaps in hopes that since he lives in the city, he might see things differently. The brother agrees with his sisters, but accedes to the patriarch.

The last word belongs to one of the sisters: “Please, sir, can you talk to my father?”

“Hide Your Words” is simply yet elegantly shot. As an ethnographic study, it has charming moments, even when its subjects seem squirmingly aware of the camera.

The only flaw is the often grammatically inelegant subtitles.


These reviews appeared in Al Jadid magazine (Vol.  12, nos.54/55), Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid

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