Sept. 22, 2006
Out there on the front line
Soldiers, legal teams battle for what they feel is right in films.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Vancouver International
Film Festival. As ever, there are several films of Jewish interest
playing from the necessary toughness of Israel Defence Forces
(IDF) soldiers to the vagaries of the American justice system. Here
is a selection of some of those titles.
Closer to Home is the story of an unlikely friendship between
two IDF soldiers.
Mirit, played by Naama Schendar, and Smadar, played by Smadar Sayar,
are paired up as new recruits in a female-only unit headed by a
no-nonsense, hard-line commander who takes her job very seriously.
The unit is assigned to patrol Jerusalem streets and buses and to
request and record identification information from "Arab-looking"
Mirit is disappointed in her post and in her partner. She was hoping
to be positioned further from home for her obligatory army service;
instead she is still able to live under her parents' roof
and their watchful eyes. Her partner, Smadar, is a smoking, shoplifting,
contrary "bad girl" whose parents are abroad and who takes
every opportunity she can to flout her duties.
Yet Mirit comes to see something compelling in Smadar's cool demeanor
and reluctantly admires her, even if she is unwilling, or unable,
to allow herself to let loose like Smadar.
However, the tables are turned when Smadar's world is rocked, literally
and figuratively, by a bomb that detonates just feet from Mirit.
At the time, Smadar had just refused to ID an Arab-looking man and,
in contravention of orders, was sitting down to eat while her partner
pursued the man. Although Mirit was not hurt in the blast, Smadar
is contrite and we become privy to her softer side, the vulnerability
beneath her bravado.
Writers and directors Vidi (Vardit) Bilu and Dalia Hager have crafted
a well-paced, compelling story of a complex friendship against the
backdrop of the realities of living in a society where everyday
activities are tinged with the constant, bubbling awareness of possible
Closer to Home is in Hebrew with English subtitles. It plays
at Granville 7 Cinemas at 6:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 3, and 11:30
p.m. on Monday, Oct. 9.
Justice not served
It is, unfortunately, a story we in Canada are all too familiar
with: a man is convicted of a murder he didn't commit and spends
20 years in prison before he is finally exonerated.
In The Trials of Darryl Hunt, filmmakers Ricki Stern and
Annie Sundberg follow Darryl Hunt and his tireless defence team
for the final 10 years of Hunt's incarceration, until his eventual
release in 2004.
unt was originally convicted of the slaying and sexual assault of
newspaper editor Deborah Sykes. He was black, she was white. The
two had never met and there was no physical evidence to link Hunt
to the crime. The police work and judicial process were shoddy at
best, yet on the evidence of a few tainted witnesses, including
one who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the jury of 11 whites
and one Hispanic condemned Hunt to life in prison.
The case became a lightning rod for the issues of injustice and
prejudice in the black community of Winston-Salem, N.C., who, along
with Hunt's defence team, seemingly never wavered from their contention
that Hunt was innocent.
Hunt's defence team called that decision an "old story"
that amounted to a "judicial lynching" in a southern American
city that had a long history of racism.
Throughout the film, Hunt's white defence attorney, James Ferguson,
remained steadfast in his view that the only way to free his client
was to solve the murder and that's what finally happened. In 2003,
with the help of an investigative journalist, the real killer was
found through America's national DNA database. Hunt was finally
exonerated in 2004. He received almost $400,000 US in compensation
for the 20 years he spent in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
The film is a Biography-style documentary, with a series
of talking heads augmented by close-ups of old photographs, video
and audio file footage. Hunt's is a compelling story of almost unbelievably
bad police work and injustice after injustice.
Unfortunately, while the filmmakers had the opportunity to follow
the case for 10 years while Hunt was incarcerated, they did not
use this access to provide us with much more than pure facts. While
we can see and hear the emotion in the disappointments of Hunt and
his defence team, we are never really provided with much beyond
the surface. We are not enlightened as to what drove Ferguson to
dedicate his career to Hunt's defence, or what toll that may have
put on his personal life. For that matter, with the exceptions of
a few veiled comments, we really have no idea about Hunt's life
in prison. In the end, we are left with no idea of how Hunt will
cope with his freedom.
While the American judicial system stripped Hunt of 20 years of
his life, this film could have been an opportunity to humanize him,
beyond just the plight of a wrongly convicted man. It does not.
The Trials of Darryl Hunt plays at Granville 7 Cinemas at 8:45
p.m. on Monday, Oct. 9, and 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 10
How are IDF soldiers who serve in the occupied territories different
from the German soldiers who patrolled the Nazi ghettos? This is
one of the inflammatory and difficult questions asked in a daring
and some might say one-sided documentary film by writer/director
In the National Film Board's Raised to Be Heroes, Silberman
questions our assumptions about the IDF's role in the occupied territories
through the voices of refuseniks, soldiers who are willing to serve
time in military jail rather than serve in the lands that Israel
has occupied since the 1967 war.
There are at least 1,600 such soldiers in Israel including
many who have fulfilled their obligatory three years of armed service
but refuse to serve in the West Bank or Gaza as reservists. The
film also profiles five young men who refuse to even enlist in the
army and are sentenced to a year in jail for their decision.
The stories of these refuseniks are interspersed with a brief history
lesson on the creation of the Jewish state and the subsequent 1948
and 1967 wars. Silberman uses some powerful, if provocative, imagery
to illustrate the plight of the Palestinians living in the occupied
lands. For example, when the narrator explains the early years of
the intifada, we see a photo of a young Palestinian boy, rock in
hand. When the camera pans back on this image, we see the muzzle
of an Israel tank bearing down on the boy.
The refuseniks in the film are proudly Israeli and are willing to
fight and die for their country, but they draw the line at working
in the occupied territories because they believe that Israel's occupation
is immoral and even destructive to the very state they are devoted
A soldier talks about witnessing a 14-year-old Palestinian boy being
tortured and dying during an Israeli interrogation. Another explains
what he calls the "madness" of arbitrary arrests and demolishing
of Palestinian homes.
A third states that after serving in the occupied territories, "Suddenly
I realized that occupying Palestinians has nothing to do with Zionism.
What we are doing to the Palestinians goes against the very essence
of Judaism and Zionism."
Call them honorable or misguided; there is no denying the courage
of these men in speaking their minds and being willing to endure
the punishment for their decisions. While one grandfather, himself
a former army officer, advises his refusenik grandson to either
obey orders or emigrate, the grandson repudiates his grandfather's
advice; deciding instead to confront his commanding officer about
what he sees as the immoral acts being perpetrated in the occupied
lands. The commanding officer agrees that the occupation is flawed,
but explains the importance of following orders. Herein is the essence
of this film, and perhaps of the issue itself: the competing demands
between the absolute requirement for soldiers to follow orders in
order to have a successful military versus the individual soldier's
right to exercise free will.
While the director does not delve too deeply into the reactions
of the Israeli public to the refuseniks, from the few street interviews
of average Israelis, it is obvious that they are seen as pariahs.
Nevertheless, there is no denying the impact of the refusenik's
message, nor of the fact that, in Israel, they have the right to
Raised to Be Heroes plays at Granville 7 Cinemas at 8:45
p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 10, and 10:30 a.m., Thursday, Oct. 12.
Kelley Korbin is a freelance writer living in West Vancouver.