“West of the Jordan River”
Continuing the Discussion
Amos Gitai goes to the West Bank to better understand the efforts of the citizens, both Israelis and Palestinians, to try to overcome the consequences of the 50-year occupation. Interspersing footage of his interviews with Yitzhak Rabin from the 1990s with the contemporary interviews of everyday citizens. It seems that what we see are a collection of outtakes from Gitai’s earlier film, “Rabin, The Last Day”. In this aspect it becomes problematic because the documentary never coheres into a solid whole, leaving viewers with only the vaguest of sketches of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is, however, a message and that is Gitai seeing the peace process as being over after hitting a dead end in the wake of Rabin’s death. The film is bookended by interviews with Rabin from 1994 on the subject of the Oslo Accords, and we get the implication that the bilateral situation has steadily deteriorated since then but without providing the context to verify such a claim. Gitai suggests early on that his film will provide a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however the series of short interviews that he conducts with various political and civil figures involved in the conflict fail to deliver on this.
The roughly five-minute interview segments that make up the entirety of the film go back and forth between talks with Israeli and Palestinian organizations, journalists, politicians, and regular people on the street. This diversity of views on display gives the film the appearance of having a broad overview of the conflict yet the final product nevertheless feels shallow. Gitai makes no attempt to bridge the gap between Rabin’s assassination and the present day regarding the manifold changes in the conflict that have taken place in the meantime. The result is a work that feels like an introduction to a larger statement that the filmmaker can’t manage to put into words.
Early in the film, a member of Hamas states plainly that he doesn’t believe in the peace process. Later, a Palestinian boy says to Gitai that he wants to die as a martyr, while simultaneously admitting that his life is actually quite good. If there’s a thesis here, we get it when Gitai says that such Palestinian extremism triggers an equal response on the Israeli side. Yet, he offers no concrete examples of this equivalent Israeli response to such ingrained behavior under the assumption that his audience will take his word for it. We hear from the leftist Israeli organization “Breaking the Silence” that claims to speak out against Israeli abuses in the West Bank but we see as paranoid and unconvincing in its time on screen. The group’s promise to reveal the outsized ethical toll of Israel’s presence in the West Bank is simply the assertion that “it’s difficult to be a soldier in a place where the parents of child soldiers are one’s everyday acquaintances.”
We see an Israeli-Palestinian women’s association doing the practical work of reconciliation by bringing mothers from both sides of the conflict together to share their grief and this is a glimmer of hope. This scene works to fundamentally undercut the rest of the film by showing that coexistence here is possible when people are willing to listen to one another.
Gitai often takes incidents and anecdotes out of context, making it difficult for viewers who lack intimate knowledge of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to follow the proceedings. He never concretely defines the nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and provides almost no historical back-story for the views and assertions we see on the screen.
At the heart of the documentary is a 1994 interview with Israeli Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination. At one point, Rabin says: “We must first make intermediate steps which would bring, by their success, evidence that peaceful coexistence is possible.” With this ideal of reconciliation
between Israel and Palestine, Gitai joins a meeting of The Parents Circle, a gathering of parents from both sides who lost children in the conflict. He attends a meeting of B’Tselem, a human rights organization that assists Palestinian women to film violations in occupied territories. He talks with two women living in a Jewish settlement about their desire to get along with their neighbors. He also listens to veteran activists who show the harshness of everyday life in the occupied territories. And then there is the young Palestinian boy whose dreams and wants to die as a martyr.
Gitai tells us in his press notes that this documentary is a tribute to the civil courage of individuals who feel disappointed by the lack of political action to resolve the problem. “Because of this, we are all forced to act individually in our own way. This is the optimistic side of the film. We see a large collection of people of different backgrounds who take action in their own hands.”