Novels by David Grossman build layer upon layer until all becomes clear. It takes time for the fog to clear and to see the essential point of one of his novels and this latest story is no exception. ‘Fog’ is not the right metaphor, though, because Grossman writes with great clarity. In this case, a comedian takes the stage to perform his act and a special guest in the audience watches and comments on what can be seen.
The comedian, Dovaleh Greenstein, is telling jokes and stringing the audience along with a story from his youth. The story is more tragic than funny and the audience has its patience stretched at times. This is where the insights of the invited guest come in. We see how other audience members react.
There are jokes here, some of them effective but the main point is to watch the stand-up comedian use the forum for a confessional about an event that proved pivotal in his life. The book must be read to gain the experience and it is for readers to assess how far this story is also the story of a nation.
David Grossman’s novels are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Jeremy Bowen is something of a BBC star as far as I am concerned. His level headed reporting from one of the world’s hottest regions is always worth listening to. He seems to get across complex ideas with clarity and he is not prone to that modern journalistic disease which rates feelings over facts and imagery over clarity.
This series of short (fifteen minute) radio programmes, broadcast by BBC Radio Four, allows him the opportunity to reflect on his twenty five years of reporting from the Middle East. I remember most of the stories the covered even if many of them were long forgotten to me. He carefully crafts a modern history of the region through returning to his news reports.
The series is not without feeling, how could it be, when as a journalist, he has seen some terrible things? Yet, while showing his humanity he never forgets that his job is to report the facts and get the stories out. There are brief glimpses behind the scene as well, though. He tells the story of his dinner party for fellow journalists on the night Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.
‘Our Man in the Middle East’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This slight film from Michael Lucas is an exploration of what it means to be gay in modern Israel. Despite being slightly arch in its central conceit that the audience will be shocked by the idea that Israel is a modern country, welcoming to gay people, there are some interesting moments and the people featured come across as well adjusted individuals.
The two men getting married, surrounded by their family, were my favourites but there was also the couple parenting two boys, an Arab- Israeli journalist, and a host of talking heads all explaining that it was a wonderful country in which to be gay. The film director Eytam Fox was interviewed and he is always worth listening to. Most attention is given to Tel Aviv and there are many questions left unanswered by this film such as what is it like to be gay in a rural community or far away from the vibrant party scene?
An openly gay MP hosted a Pride event in the parliament near the start of the film and talked about the progress already made but the steps still needed. The film provides an entirely positive look at gay life in Israel which is no bad thing when most films in this arena have issues to face.
I loved the novella by Amos Oz called ‘Panther in the Basement’. This film is based on that book and, even though the title is a touch too ‘cute’ for my taste, it is an interesting transposition of the story to film. The wonderful Alfred Molina is terrific as Sergeant Stephen Crabtree, the British soldier posted to Palestine during the British Mandate. He is a man fascinated by this land of the Bible and delighted to meet a young boy who looks able to help him understand the language. They strike up a friendship which is odd since the boy, Proffy to his friends, is brought up to hate the British and declares himself a sworn enemy.
The political is personal, though, and soon Proffy is conflicted by the difference between what he has been told about the British and what he likes about Sergeant Crabtree. The two spend time together, usually at the British mess, and Proffy helps the sergeant with Hebrew while Crabtree teaches Proffy English.
Proffy’s friendship with two friends of the same age as him is based on their sense of fighting back against the British Mandate. They plot ways of attacking the enemy as young boys do, oblivious to the dangers involved. Proffy sees an opportunity to use Crabtree as a source of military information to further their freedom fighting cause but things do not turn out that way and when he is followed by his friends his secret visits to the British mess are misinterpreted.
The resulting interrogation of Proffy by a Jewish group was confusing to me: who were they and on what authority did Proffy’s parents subject their son to such treatment? A sub-plot showing their involvement in the Haganah might explain this. In any case, Proffy is branded a traitor in his community and he questions the nature of friendship; learning too late that Sergeant Stephen Crabtree was more of a friend than he realised at the time. The final scene is worth waiting for since it brings a resolution not found in the book.
On balance, the book is far better than the film, even with the presence of Alfred Molina, but the location filming adds a dimension that I could not see in my mind’s eye when reading. The sense of Jerusalem in the 1940s is brought to life. For this reason, the film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This documentary by film- maker Yariv Mozer is a sad portrait of the lives of three gay men adrift in Israel. The Palestinians are there because their lives are in danger if they stay at home. The danger comes, mostly, from their own families. In some cases the men came out to family members but it is also the case that exposure came from perceptions about their personalities or because they were caught with boyfriends.
There is a sadness to this story of men living under the radar in Tel Aviv, a city chosen because it is the most accepting of their lifestyles. Louie is an illegal, though, and he is regularly deported back to the border even though this places him in great danger each time. Fares enters the film when Louie is asked to help him. His family is actively searching for him, possibly to kill him, and it falls to other gay men to rescue him.
The third person in this film is Abdou, an out and proud Arab who believes his future lies in Europe where he may be better accepted. The gay rights group supporting the men believe this is the best route for young gay men who are not given permission to stay in Israel.
The film follows two of the three to Europe where they, individually, hope to build new lives but they can’t escape the idea that this is not the homeland they would have chosen. The rejection from their families still stings and probably always will. One of the saddest parts of the film was when Louie looked over the valley to his home village before departing for Europe. He dared not visit and he longed to return.
‘The Invisible Men’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This drama, broadcast by the BBC, tells an important story in an understated but powerful way. When Adolf Eichmann was captured by the Israeli’s and put on trial in 1961, there was a move to televise the trial so that the world could learn what had taken place in the Holocaust. Not everyone was keen on the idea but Milton Fruchtman was convinced that the world had to hear (and see) the court proceedings. He hired Leo Hurwitz to direct, a move that was brave and bold as Hurwitz had been blacklisted in the USA in the 50s for his strong left-wing views.
The judges had to agree to the plan to televise the plan and did so because the producer and director had the idea to hide the cameras in false walls and behind screens.
Throughout this drama, real footage from the actual trial is blended with the colour of the dramatised film so that the viewer also feels present at the making of the programme.
I had no idea that Jewish refugees from Europe at the end of the war felt like outsiders in the land that became Israel. The message many of them received was that they were an embarrassment for not having fought back. For some, relating their experiences in court was the first time they had told of the horrific crimes perpetrated against them and their families.
The drama shows the effect on the crew of capturing this testimony and in an exchange that should not have surprised, the television company complains that the trial is being beaten in ratings wars by events in Cuba and in space.
The motivating factor for Milton Fruchtman and Leo Hurwitz was holding fascism to account. Telling the truth and reminding people about what happened is an effective way of making sure it does not happen again. In the most moving scene in the film Anthony LaPaglia as Hurwitz listens while his hotelier, played by Rebecca Front, says to him that nobody believed her when she told them what happened before she came to Israel. As a result she, and others like her, stopped talking about it. “They are listening now!” she says.
‘The Eichmann Show’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by David Grossman is an amazing work of art. The story of a relationship between three friends and the families they build is explored against the backdrop of a walk through the land of Israel. It was translated to English by Jessica Cohen.
Ora, Avram and Ilan met as teenagers when all three were confined in hospital. Ora fell in love with both boys and the boys remained firm friends as they grew up. In the present, we learn that Ilan and Ora married but have split up. They have two sons from this marriage. Adam, the older, is abroad with Ilan. Ofer, the younger son is due to trek through Israel with his mother to celebrate the end of his period of compulsory service.
There is a military emergency, though, and Ofer volunteers to extend his service, much to his mother’s dismay. Fearing a visit from the notifiers that her son has fallen in battle, she decides to take the trek anyway and she insists that her old friend Avram comes too. The original Hebrew title translates as ‘A Woman Escapes from a Message’. This expresses more closely the sense of doom Ora feels at her son’s return to the army.
As she and Avram walk, we learn the story of the complicated relationships between the three friends and the even more complicated way their family was constructed. The story is also a story of key moments in the history of the country. Battles for survival, imprisonment, peace campaigns and the dilemmas faced when dealing with Palestinians all form part of this story.
Part of the power of the book comes from the sense of doom that Ora feels. The fate of her son, off fighting, hovers over the novel as you read. The experiences of the older generation led to a hope that things would be better and that their children would not have to go through the same things.
‘To the End of the Land’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?