May 29, 2003
Looking for Truth in Documentaries
A Palestinian boy, about 8 years old, dressed in a red T-shirt and missing his two front teeth, is yelling in Arabic: "I foresee my death and I run toward it. On your life, this is a hero's death and he who seeks the death of a suicide warrior, this is it."
The scene, which aired on Palestinian Authority television in 1998 appears again in "Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in Israel," a documentary recently released by the media watchdog organization Honest Reporting. The documentary, which examines both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and evaluates each side's commitment to the peace process by comparing how each held to its obligations as outlined by the Oslo accords, addresses the perpetuation of incitement as only one Palestinian violation.
Based on a PowerPoint presentation that the film's executive producer, Raphael Shore, developed while teaching a political science class in Israel, "Relentless" uses TV clips, polls, analysis and newspaper articles to make Israel's case.
Adopted by Jewish organizations, including American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Jewish National Fund, Aish HaTorah, and various JCCs, "Relentless" has been viewed by more than 10,000 people (both Jewish and non-Jewish) since its February release. As such, it is one in a slew of recent films that organizations and individuals have developed in order to promote the Jewish State, offer insight into Israel's position in the conflict, and ultimately, "to get Jews behind Israel," Shore told The Journal.
The question of whether such films can be considered documentary or propaganda largely depends upon whom you ask.
"We feel, and I don't think we're unique, that Israel is going to be facing a lot of international pressure in coming years," Shore said. "The Palestinian and Arab world has won the media battle and, as a result, Jews are finding it difficult to come to the support of Israel. Our goal is to get Jews back supporting Israel and understanding that Israel has a higher moral ground."
While the filmmakers hope that their documentaries will initiate further support for Israel, they insist that their motivation for making their film was not to push a particular political agenda. Instead, each felt it was important to show a side of the story that had been left untold.
In "Jenin: The Battle for Truth," scheduled for completion in July, writer and political commentator Avi Davis attempts to set the record straight regarding the controversial battle of Jenin.
"The headline that stays in people's minds when they hear the word 'Jenin' is 'massacre,'" Davis said. "It's very difficult to take that word back."
Through interviews with media experts, eyewitnesses and reporters that covered the event, Davis hopes his documentary will create awareness of the partiality that exists in reporting today.
AIPAC and the Jewish Television Network (JTN) have taken a more emotional approach. Limited only to private showings, AIPAC's "A Soldier's Story" and "When War Is in Your Backyard" attempt to give a voice to those individuals on the front line of the conflict. Through personal interviews, AIPAC's "A Soldier's Story" examines the moral conflict that Israeli soldiers face on a daily basis, while "When War Is in Your Backyard," tells the stories of individuals struggling for normalcy despite the constant threat of terror.
In the JTN production, "No Safe Place: Six Lives Forever Changed," executive producer Jay Sanderson and producer Harvey Lehrer have set out to acknowledge the human toll of terror.
"We felt there wasn't a human face on the suffering of innocent Israelis," Sanderson said, adding that the film is expected to be picked up by major television networks in the near future. "We wanted to put a human face on this side of the struggle because we didn't feel it existed." "No Safe Place" does that through six heart-wrenching testimonials of Israelis whose lives have been drastically altered by acts of terror, including that of a woman whose mother and 5-year-old daughter were murdered in a suicide bombing attack, a boy who suffers from extreme trauma as a result of witnessing the murder of his father during the Passover massacre and a bus driver who lives in fear as a result of the high risk involved in riding buses in Israel today. Lehrer hopes the documentary motivates people to action.
Some, however, question how a documentary will be accepted in the mainstream when it is affiliated with an organization or individual that is known to support Jewish causes. Richard Trank, executive producer of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's film division, Moriah Films, encounters such a problem on a regular basis. He believes that it is more likely that independent filmmakers and media outlets will be taken seriously in the mainstream than an organization or individual who has a known political agenda.
"It could be a great film, totally balanced, but there's this hump they have to get over," said Trank, who produced "The Long Way Home," the 1997 Academy Award-winner for Best Documentary Feature.
Davis paid particular attention to the challenge of objectivity, he said.
"I went to Jenin as a journalist and I am very pro-Israel, but I went there to conduct a documentary that is balanced and fair. I wanted to present both sides of the story," Davis said. "I made great pains to give everybody a fair shake which is why I allowed the correspondents to defend themselves."
Trank acknowledges the challenges that those like Davis encounter in addressing such controversial subjects and supports any efforts being made to educate and to support Israel.
"The reason why organizations are coming out with these is that there's been a concern about how Israel's position has been portrayed during the intifada -- people should be upset," Trank said.
While Jewish documentarians seem to be concerned about appearing overly sympathetic, Jewish leaders are concerned that notoriously provocative director Oliver Stone's new documentary on the Middle East, "Persona Non Grata," will not be sympathetic enough (see story, above).
Mark J. Harris, professor at the USC School of Cinema-Television, realizes that one man's propaganda may be another man's truth, and he applies a rule of thumb to films concerning the controversial situation in Middle East:
"Any film that attempts to demonize the other side would, in my view, be propaganda," Harris said. "But if people are sympathetic to the point of view expressed in these films, they may be more inclined to see them as documentary truth."
To order a personal copy of "Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in Israel," visit www.honestreporting.com .