‘The Present’ – On Netflix – Makes Apartheid Visible

This year at the Oscars ‘The Present,’ directed by Farah Nabulsi, represented Palestine in the short live-action film category. It did not win. It did win, however, the best short film at the ‘British Academy for Films and Television,’ as well as at the Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Palm Springs Film Festivals. Incidentally, an Israeli film in the same Oscar category, ‘White Eye,’ also didn’t win. Maybe the two films had simply canceled each other out (more about it later).

What brings me to write about the film, which I recently watched on Netflix, is the question of Apartheid in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in regard to the Palestinian people, very much in the news lately. Just earlier this month, according to the Times of Israel: “Poll finds a quarter of US Jews think Israel is ‘apartheid state’.” These numbers are higher in Europe and elsewhere, while Israel keeps rejecting this label as libel. However, for Israelis and Jews worldwide to bury our heads in the sand regarding this escalating sentiment won’t help matters, or change the terrible situation on the ground. Which is what the short film ‘The Present” had set out to show.

With limited success, in my view. As for the plot: The film centered on a father and daughter in the Palestinian enclaves of the Israeli-occupied West Bank who are trying to buy a wedding anniversary gift. From their small village they travel to Beitunia, a Palestinian town near Ramallah, where they buy some groceries and a new refrigerator. Their progress in both directions is impeded by roadblocks and checkpoints, culminating in a harrowing scene when at a checkpoint near their home, a group of young Israeli soldiers tries to prevent them from passing through with their present back home.

As for the film itself, I do understand why the Academy voters hadn’t selected it the winner. While as the story of the father and daughter (Saleh Bakri and  Maryam Kanj) rings true, is well-acted, and very emotionally engaging, some of what they go through—especially at the end—doesn’t make sense at all. In the beginning there is a scene at a real checkpoint, when the father goes to work in the morning, which is very real and horrifying. But the checkpoint near their small village is utterly ridiculous and cartoonish.

Yes, checkpoints are placed in the West Bank in strategic locations where Palestinians cross into Israel and coming back from Israel. There are roadblocks and such when military situations demand them. But no checkpoint, quite an elaborate one at that, is placed near a small Palestinian village of a few houses, separating that village from a nearby Palestinian town where the father goes to buy the groceries and the present. No Palestinian in the West Bank leaves his village to buy milk and toilet paper and has to pass through a checkpoint in order to do that. Checkpoints are bad, absolutely so, but this one was placed there artificially by the director just to score a point. She misses. *

The ‘bad’ Israeli soldiers (speaking Hebrew with an Arabic accent) aren’t real, just as the whole situation isn’t real. To make things worse, the little girl (who earlier peed in her pants just seeing the Israeli soldiers and their threatening behavior towards her father) now saves the day by wheeling the trolley with the refrigerator on the road. It’s no more plausible than if I’ll try to push an elephant off the road. For no apparent reason—another artificial plot point—the truck that brought the fridge had to stop, so that the father will continue his journey by wheeling his fridge back home on a trolley. Sympathetic as I am to the Palestinians’ plight and aspirations, the last scene at the “checkpoint” stretches the imagination big time, and it is just about ludicrous. It’s a pity that such a good idea, and overall a good film at its core, gets a propagandistic treatment at times, especially at the end. **

However, regarding the larger point the film tries to make (including, I assume, female empowerment), it is more successful. That the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own, was pointed out here in this blog plenty of times. That the occupation must end, likewise. The inhumanity of it all, of course. But concerning Apartheid, it was a close call for me so far. In fact, in my April post—”What’s Behind the Latest Buzzwords: ‘Israeli-Palestinian Confederation’?”—I termed it “an Apartheid-in-progress.” I stick by this definition, for now, though no doubt every day that passes without a solution brings the situation on the ground closer to a real Apartheid.

What Israel doesn’t get, not only regarding the Palestinian people and conflict but also about the increasing discomfort and doubts spreading among American Jews, is that the current situation is unsustainable. Just ‘managing the situation’ won’t solve anything and doesn’t work anymore. Calling it ‘unfeasible’ and ‘unsolvable,’ likewise. The last flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has shown, at least as to the ‘media wars’ and the opinions of most people around the world, that Israel is losing that war. And rightly so. A film like ‘The Present’ most definitely underscores this point, and helps spread the word. 

* According to the IDF, a Palestinian civilian in the West Bank can travel from the northern city of Jenin to Bethlehem just south of Jerusalem, without encountering a single military checkpoint. (Wikipedia.)

** According to program director Col. Triber Bezalel, the IDF employs humanitarian officers at various checkpoints. These officers are tasked with making life easier for those who cross the borders and aiding the elderly and sick. (Wikipedia.)

*** The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

The Jewish Cultural World: Best of 2018

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Say it ain’t so, but here we go again: The end of one year and the beginning of another. And since I just finished watching the second season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” I thought to myself, why not say something abut this most ‘Jewishly,’ most successful of television shows. Even more so: Why don’t I give you a short, selective list of the best artistic, cultural outputs I read or watched this year.

A few words in advance, though: I chose six outstanding works to recommend to you from six different fields—most but not all—artistic fields. Some of them, may have been published, or screened first in an earlier year, but I read or watched it this year. And so, it would be a selective list, with the caveat that it was created by Jews, and was mostly about the Jewish world, even if not entirely. One last thing: I’m not going to give you links to the works I write about, or information where to buy or watch them. It’s very easy to find that out with a click or two online.

First on my list is the Book of the Year: ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar,’ by the Israeli author David Grossman, which last year had won the ‘International Man Booker Prize.’ Now, even though I used the word ‘best’ at the top, I don’t really like to use that word in regard to literary works. Though this short work of fiction with its unique title, is indeed unique. And entertaining and innovative as hell. It takes place in only one night, in only one bar in the Israeli city of Netanya, and centered on a down-on-his-luck ‘standup comic,’ who is so painfully bad, just as he’s sometimes brilliantly mesmerizing. Through his comic routine, his endless stream of words—with a special invited childhood friend present there—and his tormenting flashbacks, we not only learn so much about his sad life—he actually swears he’s going to kill himself at the end of the night—but about human nature, our own childhood, and a no-holds-barred observations on the political situation in Israel. Truly a small masterpiece.

Second on my list is the Film of the Year: ‘The Angel,” directed by Arial Vromen. This film is an Israeli-American production, a spy-thriller-drama, based on the book ‘The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel,’ written by Uri bar-Joseph. It tells the true story of Ashraf Marwan (played wonderfully by Marwan Kenzari), who was the son-in-law of Gamal Nasser, the Egyptian president during the Six-Day War, and later became an assistant to Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, as well as a double-agent, working for the Israeli Mossad. This being a thriller, and a limited space here besides, I won’t go into the plot in details. What was so fascinating, and portrayed so masterfully by the star actor, was how this young man—who if to believe the story, and I tend to believe it—had saved Israel from even worse disaster in the Yom Kippur War. And all because, with great personal costs, he really was, well—believe it or not—an idealist at heart, who desired peace for both nations.

Third on my list is the Documentary film of the Year: ‘Forever Pure,’ directed by the Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinstein, which had won an Emmy in the ‘Outstanding Politics’ documentary category. The film centers on the ‘Beitar Jerusalem’ Football Club; the most popular, ardent, and controversial soccer team in Israel, long associated with the rightwing Likud political party. It was the only club in the Israeli Premier League without an Arab/Muslim player at the time. Its core fans are zealots, fanatics, and core supporters of both PM Netanyahu and President Rivlin; whom they carried—literally so—to power on their shoulders. And so, when the Russian owner of the club hired two players of muslin origin from Chechnya, all hell broke loose. So much so that their season, the team, the owner all collapsed. But the fans, with their ‘pure’ hatred of all Arabs—their favorite chant is: “Death to the Arabs!”—had won the day. If one want to understand the raw emotions fermenting the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, making it unsolvable, you’d do no better than watch this excellent film.

Fourth on my list is the TV Show of the Year: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” created by Amy Sherman-Palladino. As I mentioned above, I just finished watching its second season. And even though the quality is somewhat inferior comparing to the first season, it’s still ‘marvelous.” And so very Jewish, taking place in Manhattan in the late 1950s, and centered on Miriam “Midge” Maisel—Rachel Brosnahan, beautiful and fantastic—and her transformation from an Upper West Side housewife to a standup comedian (yes, a standup comedian again.) It had swept, well deserved, all the Emmys last year in all the major categories. I say this, even if dramatically, story-wise, the second season is somewhat lacking, the sheer beauty of it, the life of these two Jewish families, the entertainment business back then, with sometimes laugh-out funny Jewish humor is so charming that it’s simply hard to take your eyes off it.

Fifth on my list is Song of the Year: “Don’t Lie to Me,” by Barbara Streisand. Now, while I was never a particular big fan of her singing, acting and directing; and while this song, on her new album, is not a song for the ages; there’s something about its raw emotions, its timeliness, even its naiveté that is so very moving. She sings “You can build towers of bronze and gold. You can make castles in the sky. You can use smoke and mirrors and old clichés … don’t lie to me.” In the chorus, she brings it home: “How do you sleep when the world keeps turning? All that we built has come undone / How do you sleep when the world is burning?” It gives you chills when she blurts: “don’t lie to me!” Obviously, the appeal is for President Trump. Who of course, will never stop lying.

Sixth on my list is the Op-Ed piece of the Year: “Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as Anti-Semitism,” by Michelle Goldberg in the NY Times. I chose this piece, out of the many great articles and opinions I’ve read this year for the fact that it deals with the always important topic, acutely lately, of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and the chorus of lies it generates in the Jewish world and in Israel. And Michelle Goldberg deals with it with the precision of a brain surgeon, and with the bravery of a soldier going to a battle he believes in. Because the crowded forces on the Jewish right, marched on by AIPAC, are stuck against her. “Indeed, it’s increasingly absurd to treat the Israeli state as a stand-in for Jews writ large,” she writes, “given the way the current Israeli government has aligned itself with far-right European movements that have anti-Semitic roots.”
Amen to that, and to the many other artists, writers, journalists and bloggers, who stand—in America, in Israel, and the world at large—against the tyranny of criminal leader trying to become dictators.

* The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

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