The line linking two films: Foxtrot and The Attack

I have not seen Shmulik Maoz’s film Foxtrot, nor his earlier one Lebanon, but that won’t prevent me from talking about them because after all, we are dealing here exclusively with politics. Nor have I seen the last two films by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, The Insult, which has just been released, and The Attack from 2012. The four films – two in Hebrew and two in Arabic – are much more connected than we think.

Two directors of the same age, one born in Beirut and the other in Tel Aviv. Maoz took part in the First Lebanon War as a tank gunner. Doueiri lived through the siege of Beirut. Destiny brought them together at the recent Venice Film Festival, where Maoz received the Grand Jury Prize and Kamel El Basha won the best actor award for his role in Doueiri’s The Insult. I do not know whether the two directors spoke to each other (nothing was published about it), and I assume their positions in their respective communities do not allow them to engage in emotive displays of Jewish-Arab brotherhood.

As a result of Maoz’s win, which brings great honor to the Israel film industry, he was slammed by Minister of Culture (and censorship) Miri Regev. Like me, she had not seen the film, but she says that scenes showing IDF soldiers mistreating Palestinians at a checkpoint blur reality and, according to her, “defame” the IDF. The minister said, “The makers of the film Foxtrot chose to trash the greatest celebration of the 20th century, and that is the State of Israel.” Moreover, Regev repeatedly calls to withdraw state funding for films and plays she doesn’t approve. Nonetheless, this banal story does not end here. What boggles the mind is that at about the same time, Doueiri— no doubt happy with his prize for The Insult, which brought great esteem for Lebanese cinema—returned from Venice to Beirut, where he was detained at the airport, interrogated on suspicion of treason (not because of The Insult, rather because of his older film, The Attack! ), and told to expect a trial before a military tribunal. (The charges have since been dropped, but the intimidation is clear.)

For Maoz, the making of Lebanon was perhaps a form of therapy. The film deals with the troubles of a young soldier who experiences the Lebanon War through the barrel of a tank. Doueiri, on the other hand, grappled with his fears by walking into the lion’s den and examining the innards of the Jewish state. His film The Attack deals with a Palestinian doctor who is stunned that his wife commits a terror attack in which 11 Israelis are killed, and he tries to understand her motive.

As I said, I cannot testify to the artistic quality of either film. Like me, most of the Arab public hasn’t seen Doueiri’s earlier film, The Attack, because it was banned when it came out in 2012. Whoever decided to boycott Doueiri in Lebanon (like our culture minister) did not see the film, and was not interested in its content or quality. What interested him was that Doueiri chose to shoot it in Tel Aviv. This immediately made him a traitor: Doueiri breached the cultural and economic boycott that Lebanon imposes on Israel. Moreover, he had deigned to visit an enemy country without explicit permission from the state.

The visit to Israel did indeed help Doueiri, as he attests, to wrestle with a complex reality. He discovered that the Israeli demon was not as had been as depicted to him since childhood. He met the occupation in all its cruelty, but also encountered “leftist” and “liberal” Israelis, as he called them in one of his interviews. Among them, he found actors who agreed to be a part of his film. Of course, in the eyes of the Lebanese fundamentalists, he automatically became a “Jew-lover.” After all, every Jew, by virtue of living in Zion, must be an Occupation-lover, and therefore contacts between Lebanese and Israelis are absolutely forbidden.

Doueiri defended his right to separate art from politics, arguing that reality is more complex than what meets the eye of people who disdain to read Chekhov either in Arabic or Hebrew (like Minister Miri Regev, who boasts of the omission)—people who have clear-cut ideas about what is allowed and what is forbidden in the field of culture. Regarding Maoz, on the other hand, it is clear that, according to Regev and her supporters, he is tainted by “love for Arabs.” In their opinion, all Arabs, and especially Palestinians, are Da’esh or Hamas.

In the eyes of Lebanese fundamentalists, the national role of artists such as Doueiri is unambiguous: Lebanese films must glorify martyrs and Hezbollah soldiers who are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the homeland. According to Israeli nationalists, Maoz must make films uncritical of the IDF and its morality. In light of the unbalanced negative view of Israel around the world, Maoz must oppose the boycott of Israel, while in Lebanon Doueiri must endorse that boycott. The Arab public cannot see Doueiri’s The Attack, and Israelis are advised not to watch Maoz’s Foxtrot, because the national morale is at stake. Artists are not allowed to doubt the justness of the sacred national struggle.

Doueiri and other Arab artists seek to free themselves from the nationalist and religious conceptions that suffocate their society. Ironically, when Arabs who back the anti-Israel boycott oppose such artists, they are tacitly acknowledging art’s great power to bring about the social change they fear.

As for our culture minister, whose worldview is as narrow as an ant’s, her attempts to muzzle Israeli artists, bending them to the national consensus as she defines it, create cultural poverty and intensify prejudice. Just a few months ago, the former Israel Defense Minister, Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, warned that Israeli society is undergoing a process of brutalization.

The enormous damage caused by the Arab boycott is not necessarily hurting Israel, but it is damaging Arab society itself. It serves as a weapon against those seeking to break through the walls of religion and tradition, a weapon not just against nudity and eroticism, but also against scientific knowledge, from Darwin to Einstein. It should be pointed out that the fight against eroticism and nudity is not the exclusive domain of the Arab world. Regev would like to impose censorship on works that display nudity, referring to them as acts of promiscuity.

I do not have the tools to judge the decisions of judges at the Venice Film Festival in terms of the artistic value of the films that won prizes, but I have no doubt that the very encounter between Israeli and Arab artists on one stage sends a message that spans borders and boycotts. Art is an international language. It is vital, and it criticizes, and that is what frightens nationalists and fundamentalists. There is no doubt in my mind that Israel’s culture minister is doing a great service to her counterparts in Lebanon who support boycotting Israel, just as the supporters of the Arab boycott against Israel are doing a great service to the minister of culture and her friends.

Those standing in the middle are Ziad Doueiri and Shmulik Maoz. They want to create whatever art they choose. They force people to think and they break stereotypes. Through their films, these two artists bring to our attention the frightening price we pay for the complicated reality we live in. And this is the danger they pose to all who prey on conflict and hatred.

I have not see these films, but I learned from these two artists a lesson in creative freedom, and its importance in shaping a just and enlightened society. Lebanon separated them, and for a moment, Venice united them. In their lives and works they convey the terrible tragedy we live in, a tragedy fueled by an Israeli culture minister on one side and a boycott imposed by the Arab world on the other.

* Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman

About Yacov Ben Efrat