Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hot Docs

Way back in 2003 (when cell phones were used mainly for phone calls and a 10 lb. laptop was considered "conveniently light"), I was serving as Executive Director of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. I was asked to write an article for Vancouver's Jewish newspaper in response to a controversy over a documentary film on the festival circuit called, "Palestine is Still the Issue." The subject is still relevant, and I've never posted the article so here it is, as it appeared in the April 11, 2003 edition of The Jewish Bulletin:

Is every documentary propaganda?

A filmmaker can use myriad techniques, including omission of facts, to support or refute practically anything.

Film analysis is a tricky business. As Greg Felton, in a letter to the editor ("An exercise in propaganda," Bulletin, March 14), suggests, even a review of a slanted film might itself be slanted. Such is the case with the provocative British documentary film Palestine is Still the Issue, Pat Johnson's problematic review and equally problematic rebuttal by Felton.

That the film Palestine is Still the Issue is propaganda should come as no surprise to anyone, even Felton. After all, propaganda is simply the dissemination of a particular view or outlook with the aim of altering other people's beliefs. A quick review of filmmaker's John Pilger's 25-year career in journalism provides ample evidence of his political leanings. His film simply reflects those opinions. Incidentally, his boss, the chairman of Carlton Television, Michael Green, has suggested even bigger problems with the film: "We do present programs that give differing points of view. It [Palestine is Still the Issue] was factually incorrect, historically incorrect. Unfortunately, you can't always agree with him [Pilger]." ("Carlton chairman criticizes its own documentary on Israel," Paul Peachey, the Independent, Sept. 20, 2002) But it should be noted that this opinion has been seriously challenged.

But, so what? It's not like this is the first propaganda film ever made. In fact, it could be argued that every documentary is propaganda of sorts. There is a certain misconception that a documentary film is, in fact, a document, with an obligation to be balanced. Although documentaries are expected to adhere to certain conventions – real people, real events – this is not always the case. Robert Flaherty, director of the landmark documentary Nanook of the North (1922), believed, "Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit." ("Robert Flaherty: Nanook of the North," by Derek Malcolm, the Guardian, April 13, 2000)

A skilful filmmaker can use myriad techniques, from selective omission of facts to a careful choice of quotes, to support or refute practically anything. Simply by diverting our attention towards or away from a subject, a filmmaker can alter our emotions and impressions. The camera sees only what it's supposed to see. Or not see.

But there's a big difference between works that are simply unbalanced as opposed to deliberately dishonest, despite Flaherty's admission. A good documentary must have a voice; otherwise it's merely a news story. No one could debate the ferocity of German pride celebrated in German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Using brilliant camera work, lighting and staging techniques, she created one of the most powerful political films ever made, but make no mistake; fine camera work doesn't make Triumph of the Will any less a propaganda film. In fact, it is what makes the film even more seductive and appealing.

The same could be said of any of the recent works of Oliver Stone. In films such as JFK and Nixon, Stone masterfully manipulates and even recreates actual events to support his particular visions of these political figures. Was JFK historically accurate? Of course not. But, it was damned entertaining.

All of these films are visually stunning and, without a doubt, unbalanced. But are they untruthful? In the case of Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl herself has revealed that "the preparations for the party convention were made in concert with the preparations for the camera work." In other words, the city of Nuremberg became a huge set for the film. All of the activities and movements were staged for the camera. It is this combination of purpose and technique, and not just the one-sidedness of the film, that makes it true propaganda, as we know the term.

It is also impossible to analyze propaganda without appreciating the context in which the film is created and exhibited. Palestine is Still the Issue was produced by a man with a record of imbalance (or strong opinion, depending on how you look at it). Since its original and highly controversial broadcast, the film has only been exhibited by political organizations whose mission is the distribution of information supportive of a very specific political belief, that is, the end of Israeli occupation of the disputed territories. These are relevant facts in any review. It might be true that the film is "propaganda" but the imbalance must be proven. This is especially true with a film that is defamatory and deceptive. Ultimately, the responsibility is on the journalist to choose words carefully, and back them up with facts and not just opinion.

Two recent films from Israel illustrate the subtleties that distinguish between films that are simply unbalanced as opposed to bona fide propaganda. Purity (Tehora) by Anat Tzuria examines some of the difficulties Orthodox women face in adhering to the Jewish purity laws. All of the women featured in the film are real. The film offers little in the way of rebuttal from religious authorities or even women who embrace the purity laws with pride. There is no question that the film is unbalanced, but is it dishonest? Well, in a sense. The director neglects to mention in the film that she interviewed more than 100 women who observe tehora until she found three willing to speak against it. Nor does she mention that she herself was raised in a secular Jewish home and only follows the purity laws to please her Orthodox husband. In a world of diverse opinion, it's possible to find three people to support or refute almost anything. Watch any episode of the Jerry Springer show if you don't believe me.

Jenin, Jenin is another matter altogether. The film looks at recent operations in the town of Jenin by the Israel Defence Forces and the allegations that a massacre took place there. The subject of a ban by the Israeli Film Censorship Board, the film is now being seen outside of Israel at various festivals and special screenings by pro-Palestinian organizations. The board banned the movie "because it presents the events in a distorted way under the guise of a 'documentary.' " In an interview in the Jerusalem Post, Muhammad Bakri, the director of the controversial film has said he hopes to "open eyes and minds and make people think about what's going on." Perhaps, but this hasn't stopped five reserve soldiers who served in Jenin from filing suit for libel against Bakri and the two Israeli theatres that screened the film. There is also some indication that the film has now been highly self-censored by the director (or distributor) before being released internationally, possibly to avoid having to defend the more obvious distortions of truth.

As the director of a Jewish film festival, I can tell you that these are the sorts of concerns that come up when we select films for the festival. To minimize bias, every submission is seen by at least four people. We then compare notes and make decisions based on the festival's mission and mandate. But even this process creates challenges. If we screen a film that explores a particular political position, are we irresponsible if we do not provide a forum for discussion following the film, or is it preferable to let viewers arrive at their own conclusions? What about films that are hurtful to only one segment of the audience? Can a film be useful for some but misleading for others? Whose responsibility is it to ensure the accuracy of the information in the films we screen? What role does a film festival play in the community? To entertain? To educate? To inform?

Although it's impossible to verify every detail of every film we screen, we do make a concerted effort to "background check" our films; it's not too difficult to find information on the more contentious ones. Since exhibitors can be held liable for their presentations, we don't screen films like Jenin, Jenin or Palestine is Still the Issue. On the other hand, we have shown controversial films like How I Learned to Overcome my Fear and Love Arik Sharon and Time of Favor (Ha-hesder), a film touchy enough to be dropped from the schedules of a number of other Jewish film festivals. For the record, we've also rejected films that are blatantly deceptive in favor of Israel. The goal is to avoid propaganda for either side and find films whose artistry and integrity speaks for itself.

But, as I've said, all of this is tricky business. The hope is that by educating ourselves, and challenging our biases, we can tell the difference between a documentary with a slant and a film that needs lies to support its argument, which makes it no documentary at all.

Morey Altman is director of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.


Anonymous said...

Of course selectively publishing an out of date article is not intentionally misleading. But it is sometimes worth checking and updating facts. Lest readers are unaware, Israel's Supreme Court lifted the ban on Mohammad Bakri's film, Jenin Jenin ruling that the film board had exceeded its authority in censoring the film. The attempt to bring a libel action failed. But seven years later there is still an air of persecution around this affair with the Attorney General declaring that although he would not pursue any criminal action, he would support an appeal on the libel case brought by the five IDF soldiers seeking to extract payment even though they were not mentioned and did not appear in the film. Quite simply Israel appears to be abusing legal process not only to make life unbearable for Bakri, the film maker, but to intimidate other film makers who might seek to reflect the true feelings of the people they film.

Morey Altman said...

A follow-up is a great idea. I was actually responding to an article on documentary films on another website. My point was that documentaries shouldn't be expected to be unbiased news stories. Jenin, Jenin still has its critics, as it should. Film censorship is another issue, and for the record, I'm generally against it especially as it actually tends to give more credence to biased works that would probably disappear on their own without the media attention.

As for your contention that Israel wishes to harass filmmakers they actually have an extraordinary degree of freedom here; you will see Israeli films far more critical of government and the military than you would in the US. And of course, it works both ways, Palestinian organizations also using the court system to harass Israeli officials and lawmakers. What can I say? We must have a lot of lawyers here ;)