27 July 2012

Israeli Cinema and the Politics of Representation

Israeli cinema, while achieving a certain measure of success and accomplishment, is often overshadowed by the other giants of the Middle Eastern film industry. The remarkable thing about Ella Shohat's Israeli Cinema (University of Texas Press, 1989) is that it manages to not only sustain but even pique our interest in films we might not necessarily want or even have the opportunity to see. She accomplishes this by using the films as raw material for the subtext (and subtitle) of her book: 'East/West and the Politics of Representation.' By doing this, Shohat has produced an impressively 'representative' work, one whose ostensible subject--Israeli film itself--by no means limits its significance. With its combination of condensed plot analysis deftly exposing the ideological significance of recurring images, and its skillful weaving of social, cultural, and political history, the book serves as a model for the intelligible presentation of any national cinema.

This effect in no way detracts from the very specific imagery and problematic that Israeli film, and Shohat's presentation of it, encompasses. The very real implications of these representational battles, in political and human terms, make Shohat's book an essential guide to ground constantly being pulled out from under us as the conglomerate image-making machine relentlessly reduces the ever dwindling pool of reality available to a larger audience. Serving as a virtual warehouse of no less loaded but larger issues, the scene from which Israeli film emerges is much more dense and textured than the films would ever intimate. As Shohat points out in her introduction:
'A veritable palimpsest of historical influences, Israel stands at the point of convergence of multiple cultures, languages, traditions, and political tendencies. Israeli cinema, as the mediated expression of multiplicity, is necessarily marked by the struggle of competing class and ethnic discourses, of conflicting ideological impulses and political visions, most obviously by the conflict with Arabs generally and the Palestinians in particular, as well as tensions between Oriental Sephardic Jews and Europe-origin Ashkenazi Jews, between religious and secular, between the "left" and "right." Geographically set in the East, the dominant Israeli imaginary constantly inclines toward the West.'
It is precisely this constant interplay between the finished images and the scene from which they emerge, often seen through the eyes of the audience, that marks the sensitivity and range of Shohat's project. Beginning with film itself (the fascination with 'exotic' footage of the Orient, an intriguing look at the development of movie theaters in Palestine, and conflicting attitudes toward cinema), the book ends with a detailed survey of the latest group of Israeli movies, 'the Palestinian wave.' Between these two poles, Shohat manages to categorize virtually all the Israeli films extant (at the time of her writing) in groupings that are never reductive but always provide the reader with a context that serves to illuminate both the films themselves and the particular circumstances that have dictated the choices and strategies employed to frame their subjects. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from her analysis of 'Hill 24 Does Not Answer' (1955), one of the films from what Shohat dubs 'The Heroic-Nationalist Genre':
'Seen largely within combat circumstances, the Arabs are almost always presented in long shot. When the battles take place at night, the spectator is completely distanced from their humanity. Their great numbers, in soldiers and tanks, contrast with their minimal impact on the spectator... Although set during the British Mandate over Palestine, when the British were seen as enemies and violently resisted by Jewish underground movements, the film has British soldiers exert more presence than the Arabs and treats them more sympathetically. This appointing of sympathy and interest reflects a broader attention given to European history and culture, completely marginalizing that of the Arabs, an orientation continuous with policies outside of the cinema.'
The issues raised by Shohat here and elsewhere, however particular they might in each case (whether relating to the conflict between Arabs and Jews, tensions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi/Oriental Jews, or the formation of a national ethos), all come back to the question of power and control, imagery and its intended audience. The continued relationship between production and consumption makes Israeli Cinema not only an accurate social history but a remarkably nuanced look at history in the making, a trip, as it were, into the editing room of officialdom, to see both the outtakes as well as the frames banished from consciousness.

A most cogent example of this can be seen in an extremely powerful chapter recounting the representation and misrepresentation of Oriental Jews on the Israeli screen. Here, Shohat has forged an approach that any critic or scholar dealing with popular culture, its stereotypes, and the reception of that culture by the very subjects of it imagery would find worthy of emulation. Reading her descriptions of the 'bourekas' genre, a particular form of Israeli kitsch aimed at the Sephardi/Oriental Jewish public I was reminded again and again of the African American painter Robert Colescott's stunning depicting of a Black family attentively listening to the 'Amos 'n' Andy Show' at the same time spellbound and horror-struck at the notion of participating in their own degradation. The readings Shohat offers of these films are both humorous and moving without ever losing sight of either the intent of the imagery or the humanity of their viewers. In fact, it is the generosity of all of Shohat's interpretations--sometimes for films one would almost feel a moral obligation to vent spleen at--that makes the utopian allusions concluding her book all the more powerful and credible:
'The filmmakers take for granted the Zionist rejection of the Diaspora without offering any deeper analysis of the Israeli Jew as a multidimensional precipitate of millennia of rich, labyrinthine syncretic history lived in scores of countries. One is struck by a kind of cultural superficiality in Israeli cinema, a lack of reflection concerning issues that have preoccupied Jews over the centuries, issues which often have cinematic resonances... True cinematic polyphony will emerge, most probably, only with the advent of political equality and cultural reciprocity among the three major groups within Israel--European Jews, Oriental Jews, and Palestinian Arabs. But until the advent of such a utopian moment, cultural and political polyphony might be cinematically evoked, at least, through the proleptic procedures of 'anticipatory' texts, texts at once militantly imaginative and resonantly multivoiced.'
Having applied an unyielding gaze, Shohat seems to have cleared the ground for these highly evocative suggestions. The very thoroughness of the project, and the fact that such few films emerge untainted by the ideological consensus, adds a whole other dimension to her intent--that of artistic possibility within the boundaries of seemingly unyielding constraints.

As Shohat whittles away at received ideas to recuperate and construct an alternative history, she stands neither inside (as a polemical partisan) nor outside (in a vacuum of supposed 'objectivity'), but alongside her subjects, always ready to point out avenues of possibility, to delineate the space available for a critique (and a self-critique) that can lead to empowerment, and to reassert the value--in an all too bookish world--of the book as tool and weapon. It i only at this point that both filmmakers and film viewers can finally begin to see, and then construct, that whole plethora of images so conspicuously absent from these particular collective screens. Placing herself smack within those vast regions (the never metaphysical but always concrete geo-political, economic, and cultural relations between the 'central' and the 'marginal,' whether under the rubric of the Promised Land and the Diaspora, East and West, North and South, Israel and Palestine) that have become the forbidden territory of a dominant mode of contemporary Jewish discourse whose influence often stretches for beyond its means, Shohat has established a reading that should cause film critics, scholars, and viewers to rethink their own politics regarding the accepted imagery of the contemporary Middle East.

[This is a slightly edited version of Ammiel Alcalay's review of Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation by Ella Shohat (1989). It was originally published in the film and video monthly journal The Independent, Vol. 12, No. 10 (December 1989), pp. 19-20.]

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