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part 5
Tue Dec 23, 2008 08:31
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Gitaï's film expresses a lack of confidence in leadership and, in this way, Kedma can be understood as a reading (and viewing) of Exodus. There is, in fact, a remarkable parallel development of the two films. What is absent from Preminger's film—the moral misery, the existential despair, the doubts and confusion of the survivors of the Judeocide—is focused upon in Gitaï's film. Conversely, what is absent from Gitaï's film—the expression of Zionist ideals, aspirations and dogma, the glorifications of one ethnic group at the expense of others—is the very point of Preminger's.

This thematic inversion is particularly evident in reference to two aspect of the films: firstly, in the use of names and, secondly, in the dramatic monologues or soliloquies which end both films.

In Exodus, the use of names for symbolic purposes is immediately evident. “Exodus” refers to the biblical return of the Jews from slavery to the Holy Land—their god-given territory, a sacred site. This sacred site is necessary to Jewish religious observance and identity. Only here, it is explained in Exodus, can Jews be safe. Only here, it is asserted, can they throw-off invidious self-perceptions, imposed by anti-Semitism and assimilationist pressures, and become the strong, self-reliant and confident people they really are.

The vision of Jewish identity propagated by Zionism is implicitly challenged in Amos Gitaï’s Kedma. Again, the title of the film is symbolically significant. “Kedma” means the “East” or “Orient”, or “going towards the East.” The people on the Kedma—Jewish refugees from Europe, speaking European languages and Yiddish—were arriving in another cultural world an alien one, in the East. The result would be more existential disorientation and another ethnically conflictual environment.

The difference in perspective manifest in the two films is found also in the names given to the protagonists. In Kedma, an example is given of the abrupt Hebraizing of names as the passengers arrived in the new land, thus highlighting the cultural transformation central to the Zionist project. In Exodus, there is much explicit discussion of this aspect of Zionism, and some of the names given to central characters reveal the heavy-handedness of its message.

It is, of course, a well-established convention to give evocative names to the protagonists of a literary or cinematographic work. Where would be, for example, Jack London's The Iron Hell, without his hero, Ernest Everhard? The answer is that the novel might be more impressive without such readily apparent propagandistic trappings. And the same is true for Exodus. Leon Uris's chief protagonist is Ari Ben Canaan, Hebrew for “Lion, son of Canaan.” This role model for Jewish people everywhere is thusly the direct heir of the ancient Canaanites, precursors of the Jewish community in the land of Palestine. This historical legacy and patrimony established, Paul Newman had only to play the strong fighter—ferocious, hard and wily—with his blond mane cut short, in the military style.

The object of Ari's affections, however ambivalent they may be, is Kitty Fremont, played by Eva Marie Saint. Not only does the pairing of the earnest and ever-hard Ari, the “Lion,” and the compliant but faithful “Kitty” imply a classic gender relationship, but the coupling of this prickly Sabra and the cuddly American symbolizes the special relationship between the United States and nascent state of Israel that has come to be called the “fifty-first state” of the USA.

The other major character, played by the baby-faced Sal Mineo, is “Dov Landau,” the 17-year-old survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz. This name evokes the dove of peace and the infancy indirectly evoked by the term “landau” (baby carriage?). The irony is that the angelic Dov, alights on Palestinian soil with the fury of a maddened bird of prey. He is the consummate terrorist—angry and bloodthirsty. Dov's conversion to Zionism as a collective project, as opposed to a vehicle for his personal vengeance, comes at the end of the story when peace has been (temporarily) achieved through unrelenting combat. Dov then leaves Israel for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he will perfect the engineering skills learned building bombs in Warsaw and in Palestine. Peace means refining the technical capacity for the new nation's defense. In the meantime, the Arabs have cruelly murdered Dov’s fiancée, the soft and sweet Karen.

Exodus and Kedma differ most notably in the latter's avoidance of the kind of crude propaganda that Leon Uris and Otto Preminger so heavily developed. Rather than forcing his viewers to accept a vision of the birth of Israel founded upon caricatures, distortions and omissions from historical reality, Amos Gitaï chose to simply place characters (who we see briefly) in a specific situation, which is the real focus of the film. Whereas Preminger symbolized the destiny of a people in a story of strong characters, Gitaï illustrated the tragedy of an historical conjuncture in which the historical actors were largely incidental. We see this aspect of Gitaï's thematic inversion of Preminger's film in the soliloquies delivered in both films.

At the very end of Exodus, Ari Ben Canaan delivers a speech at Karen's graveside, in which he justifies the Zionist project as the just and prophesized return of a people forced to err in a hostile world for 2000 years. The resistance encountered to this project, he explains, is only the result of evil, self-interested individuals (such as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem) who are afraid of losing their privileges once the Arabs learn that Jewish settlement is in their interest. Ari concludes: “I swear that the day will come when Arab and Jew will live in Peace together.” This said, the film ends with a military convoy receding into the distance, towards a new battle in the just cause.

In Kedma, there are two soliloquies, delivered not by strong and self-composed leaders, but rather by distraught, frightened people, caught in a web woven by the apprentice sorcerers in the background—the real architects of the situations in which destinies are sealed and lives are broken. A middle-aged, Polish Jew makes the first speech. Appalled by the new cycle of suffering he witnessed upon arrival in Palestine, he shouts that suffering, guilt and martyrdom have become essential to the Jewish character. Without it, he cries, the Jewish people “cannot exist.” This is their tragedy.

An aged Palestinian peasant, pushed off his land, fleeing the combat, makes the second expression of despair. Disregarding the danger, he says: “we will stay here in spite of you. Like a wall, and we will fill the streets with demonstrations, generation after generation.”

How to reconcile the fascist judeocide and the Nakba (the Palestinian « disaster » caused the Zionist ethnic cleansing)? Gitaï's Kedma places the contemporary dilemma within its historical and existential context. Preminger's Exodus did everything not to provide moviegoers with the elements necessary to informed understanding. This is the difference between, on the one hand, demagogy and propaganda and, on the other hand, a call to reason and justice.

Elie Chouraki's O Jerusalem!

The War of 1948 as seen in Otto Preminger's Exodus, Amos Gitaï's Kedma and Elie Chouraki’s O Jerusalem!

Representations of leadership in Exodus were carefully contrived to create support, in the United States and elsewhere for the State of Israel. It is for this reason that the plots and stratagems of world leaders who created the situation are conspicuously absent from the story. In Kedma, on the contrary, the absence of leaders and any characterization of leadership is designed to have an entirely different effect: namely the evocation of the hatred and human suffering caused when people are transformed into instruments in the service of political and ideological projects.

Other depictions of the war between the Zionists and those who fought them have been less successful either as exercises in propaganda or as calls to reason. In the first category would have to be placed the myriad of films that prepared the public for the racist prejudices underlying the Exodus screenplay. We can be grateful to Jack G. Shaheen whose research on anti-Arab stereotypes in the US cinema appears to be conclusive. For over a period of twenty years, Shaheen viewed most of the more than 900 films or television series produced in the United States in which Arabs played a role. Although he found a few in which Arabs were portrayed in a positive way, Shaheen found that on this theme the cinema in the United States has been primarily a vector for the transmission of invidious stereotypes: “I came to discover that Hollywood has projected Arabs as villains in more than 900 feature films. The vast majority of villains are notorious sheikhs, maidens, Egyptians, and Palestinians. The rest are devious dark-complexioned baddies from other Arab countries, such as Algerians, Iraquis, Jordanians, Lebanese, Libyans, Moroccans, Syrians, Tunisians, and Yemeni.” What we do not see in these films is perhaps even more important: “Missing from the vast majority of scenarios are images of ordinary Arab men, women and children; living ordinary lives. Movies fail to project exchanges between friends, social and family events.”

These images are entirely logical given the orientalist heritage of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Shaheen points out, Orientalism in the arts and letters performed a long-lasting service to those who wished to dominate Arab regions. “European artists and writers,” he says, “helped reduce the region to colony. They presented images of desolate deserts, corrupt palaces and slimy souks inhabited by the cultural ‘other’ – the lazy, bearded heathen Arab Muslim.”

It was, therefore, natural for United-Statesian filmmakers to indulge in such blatantly racist stereotyping. The “orientalist” notions that defined Arabs are part of a generalized conventional wisdom, of a now strongly rooted ideology that flatters “national” pretensions and justifies patterns of domination on all levels of human existence.

In the United States, receptivity to culturist and racist perceptions of “Arabs” has been facilitated by a kind of historical memory concerning the Native Americans. Clearly, an “Arab” was somehow akin to an American Indian, even if the differences could not be entirely ignored. Although the Arabs, it could not be denied, had managed to conquer much of the territory that had been the Roman Empire, they nonetheless had not developed the “rationalistic” culture that would eventually lead the “West” to achieve a higher civilization. Just as the plains Indians became the archetype for American Indians in general, so did the image of the nomadic Bedouin typify the Arab in the popular imagination.

In effect, there are a series of related historical conjunctures that seem to have called contemporary Arabophobia into existence. The “closing” of the “frontier” in the United States, officially announced in 1890, coincided with the virtual end of the military campaigns against the Native American tribes in the West in the 1890s. In was then that motion picture technology was invented and, by the end of the decade, began to be commercialized. Simultaneously, the Zionist movement was conceived and organized by Theodore Herzl during these years.

Another element in this picture is the European preoccupation with establishing, and justifying its presence in North Africa and elsewhere in the Arab countries. If France, where cinema was invented, had a special interest in Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere in this regard, all the industrialized European countries were obliged to intrigue for influence in the Middle East because of the pressing need for petroleum resources so sorely lacking in Europe during the high tide of industrialization and the run-up to the First World War. Is it surprising, in this context, that Georges Méliès should have, during the first years of the twentieth century, pioneered the standard “orientalist” movies featuring cruel and dishonest Arab men and sexually provocative Arab women?

From the 1890s and throughout the 1920s, at the very time that Zionist propaganda was successfully imposing a new set of terms for referring to the residents of Palestine, the cinema cultivated cultural stereotypes which justified imperial ambitions. A revealing example is that mentioned by Allen Gevinson. Eleanor Roosevelt, the cultivated and (relatively) politically progressive wife of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, was receptive to the Zionist project for the judaicization of Palestine because a nomadic people – the Palestinian “Arabs” – could be displaced without causing them significant hardship.

This is the general historical context in which we must understand the Exodus project and why it was so successful. The success of Otto Preminger’s Exodus can be explained by the cultural predispositions of the (Western) populations that it was intended to inform and entertain and the tremendous financial and technical resources devoted to its production and distribution. Amos Gitaï’s Kedma could never hope to compete on these terms.

Even after the emergence of Israel as the most powerful political and military entity in the Middle East, the idea that the Jewish state is vulnerable because of its neighbors, and not because of the consequences of the ethnic cleansing that is essential to the Zionist project, is seriously accepted by millions of people.

Still, there have been changes in the way the Zionist state has been perceived. The most important event in provoking a reassessment of Israel is probably the “preventive war” launched in June 1967. The “Six-Day War” came as a surprise to people who had come to think of Israel as a small and vulnerable country whose very existence is a miracle given the ruthless leaders and masses of Arabs surrounding it. The events of 1948 and the audacious attack on Suez in 1956 had not modified this image. Exodus as film and novel are in great part responsible.

In the wake of the 1967 war, more critical attention was drawn to the reality to the Zionist state. Logically, this new interest was often expressed as interest in the population of Palestine before and after 1948. For the first time in the popular communications media, the Israeli state was placed on the ideological defensive, especially in that the major consequence of this war conquering and occupation of the rest of historical Palestine, including East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights on Syrian territory. Suddenly, certain questions were asked by increasing numbers of people. Who were the Palestinians? What had happened to them? In 1969, the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, aroused controversy by suggesting that the “Palestinians” have never existed. During the same period, the Palestine Liberation Organization gained notoriety by its difficult struggle inside and outside Palestine itself.

For all but the ideologically blind, it was difficult to deny the legitimacy of the Palestinian grievances against the Zionist movement and state. The existence and suffering of Palestinians became a fact to be dealt with, and the only question was how to deal with it. In 1973, the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization voted a resolution proclaiming, “Zionism is racism”.

In 1972, the publication of a book, O Jerusalem!, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre recounting the battle for Jerusalem in the 1948 war responded to the new situation. The authors were two journalists, one United-Statesian, the other French. In this impressive historical account, based upon interviews of dozens of participants and survivors of the War, we discover the existence of Palestinian people of all social classes and religious confessions. Many prominent leaders, on both sides of the War, granted access to private and public archives, along with large amounts of time, thus enabling the authors’ investigations. The result is an undoubtedly impressive and useful study.

The implicit thesis of their commercially successful, “bestselling” book

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