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?
I avoid sentimental books and films at all costs and I have to say I thought this film might fall into that category telling, as it does, the story of a young man from difficult circumstances who finds glory in a talent competition. Hany Abu-Assad’s film ‘The Idol’ won me over, though, and at the end, when I saw real news footage that I remember seeing on Channel 4 News in Britain, I knew this was a film for my hinterland.
The film tells the true story of Mohammed Assaf from Gaza whose biggest asset is his singing voice. The first half of the film shows the Muhammed as a boy with his sister and friends. Their dream is to form a band and buy the musical instruments to make this happen. Various schemes go wrong but the determination of the children is clear to see. They find a niche when his voice is in big demand as a wedding singer. But, when his sister Nour becomes ill and needs a new kidney, we see the desperate situation of the population in Gaza. Muhammed is close to his sister and cannot contemplate life without her.
As we move into the second part of the film, Mohammed is now a young man driving a taxi to fund his university studies. His singing has not died away completely but there is less joy in it for him until he meets an old friend who used to have dialysis alongside his sister many years ago. She encourages him to sing for her and something in him awakens. An aborted attempt to sing by internet for a television show reminds us of the policies that keep many Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
The journey to ‘Arab Idol’ where the real Mohammed Assaf made his name begins with a need to get beyond his trapped location. Friends and family help and in a series of incidents which bring him good fortune he finds himself appearing on the programme. This is the only part of the film that seemed too good to be true but, by this stage, I was ready to accept that he needed the breaks.
The film ends with documentary footage from around the world as his story interested foreign news programmes. It is an inspiring story of a boy from Gaza who travels to Egypt to take part in a talent show on television and who wins. Scenes of joy around the Gaza strip and Palestine are shown from news footage; there is no need to recreate this part fo the story.
‘The Idol’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The 1972 Olympics were the first held in Germany since the 1936 Berlin Olympics which, many people thought, were misused by Hitler to promote Nazi ideals. There was a lot at stake for a country that was trying to overcome its past. It was at these games, though, that the Palestinian terror group, Black September, took Israeli athletes hostage.
This film from 1999 by director Kevin Macdonald has interviews from those involved or affected by the events of 5th September 1972. These include the widow of Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer and the surviving terrorist Jamal Al- Gashey. Eight members of the Black September terrorist group attempted to draw attention to the Palestinian plight by breaking in to the Olympic village, surprisingly easy to do, and taking the Israeli athletes hostage. Two were killed trying to prevent the terrorists gaining access to their apartments. Within 24 hours, all the hostages were dead along with five of the terrorists.
The West German authorities attempted a rescue attempt. The film makes clear that it was a badly thought out and poorly executed plan. It pulls no punches in placing the blame for the disaster firmly at the feet of the Germans. It is no wonder that the film was not well received in Germany. The footage shows that Israel offered to mount a rescue operation using their specially trained troops. They were, after all, skilled at this type of operation. The Israeli government was also determined not to give in to terrorists and relied on the German authorities to keep their athletes safe. Germany, meanwhile, was concerned about its image on the world stage and thought any show of military strength in terms of security at the games would remind people of an unfortunate past.
Most shocking of all, while Israeli athletes were held hostage, the games recommenced.
‘One Day in September’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I came across Guy Delisle when searching shelves for Joe Sacco books. This book by the Canadian artist was originally published in French; he is from Quebec. It follows a year in the city where his partner is posted by the charity Medecins sans Frontieres.
They arrived in Jerusalem in August 2008. While his partner goes off to work each day, Guy Delisle looks after the children, taking them to school or nursery or occupying them by visiting the city zoo. Around these duties he sketches and visits different parts of the city and surrounding countryside. By chronicling his family life over one year he also shows the complexity of life in the city that is holy to so many religions and religious groups.
At no time does he lecture us on the political situation. Instead he shows us the cultural and political fault lines through the daily reality of checkpoints, traffic jams, closed borders and a wall. This is show rather than tell and his clear, simple style aids the showing.
There is great beauty in this book as well. His neighbourhood may be deprived, not every taxi driver will go there, but the city is stunning and this comes across.
‘Jerusalem’ by Guy Delisle is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This graphic novel tells the story of the birth of the State of Israel through a family divided against itself. The subtitle is ‘A Family Portrait’ and it is through the branches of one family that we see the different paths that history could have taken. It was created by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi.
At the centre of ‘Jerusalem’ is Motti, a young boy who tries to understand what is going on around him and make sense of the tensions between the adults of his family. He is good friends with his cousin Jonathan but it soon becomes clear that there has been a rift between their fathers, brothers who refuse to communicate. While Jonathan lies in relative wealth, Motti and his family are on the bread line. Worse, Motti’s father is indebted to Jonathan’s. It is obvious that this situation will drive a wedge between the two boys but how is left for a devastating conclusion.
The story opens in 1946 at the end of the British Mandate and carries on through to the Arab- Israeli war of 1948. Each of Motti’s brothers find a different path through these troubled times: Avraham is a war hero who puts his energies into the Communist cause; David, helps Jews to enter Palestine; Ezra resorts to terrorism. His mother is cold and his father defeated by life.
As the State of Israel comes into being, the consequences of the choices made by each, are felt by the brothers. There seem to be few winners here and when, finally, Motti decides which side he is on, the denouement is both tragic and recognisable.
‘Jerusalem’ by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Ari Shavit is an Israeli writer. This book is a history of Israel told through key moments and key people from 1897 to the present day. As a columnist for Israeli publications, he describes himself as left wing. The secular left wing was responsible in large part for the movement to create a State of Israel so it is worth reading this book to assess what has become of the dream of the state builders.
Each chapter takes an important moment in the history of the country, going back to a time before the modern Israel was established. His first chapter, for instance, covers the 1897 journey of Rt. Hon Henry Bentwich, his British great- grandfather who led a group of Zionists to assess Palestine as a potential Jewish homeland. Subsequent chapters take equally important moments to explore different angles and answer the question, ‘how did we get to here?’.
Of most interest to me was the chapter about the idealistic young Kibbutz builders. I was struck, too, by the size of the enterprise of creating a Jewish homeland when you consider the numbers of immigrants that arrived in a short period. Yet, there are chapters about the removal of Palestinians from their homes and the creation of a nuclear project to provide Israel with a sense of security. There is an exploration of the failure of the peace movement. Idealism and disappointment are never far away from each other in this story.
Through it all, Shavit considers all shades of opinion. It is clear that a left- right split does not come close to explaining the complexity of the issues. He writes about the indignity of the expulsions of 1948 to create a Jewish homeland but he also writes about the desire for stability for a nation that he believes deserves to exist. History is personal; in this book, his ancestors, his own experiences and his children all feature.
This is an important book. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?