The Film that Wasn't
In the early 1960s, I acted in the Student's Theater at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In a performance of Sartre's Men Without Shadows ("Morts sans sépulture"), I played the role of a French resistance fighter who was tortured by the Vichy regime. The interrogator tied my hands to the chair, inserted a piece of wood between the back of the chair and the rope, and twisted it. And twisted it. The pain was supposed to be unbearable. I was silent. I tried not to respond. I restrained myself. And then, after a long silence, a horrible wail burst from me.
The audience laughed.
I didn't understand why. Was I such a bad actor? Did my cry sound fake? The late Reuven Morgan, who directed the play—a very special man, who I loved dearly—calmed me down. "Laughter is a typical response to terror. It's well known." I had my doubts. I considered it to be way that Reuven—such a warm-hearted, kindly man—attempted to calm a terrible actor.
On the other hand, maybe someone watching from the side really can't confront torture directly. Maybe people have to find alternatives …
I remembered this event twenty years later, during the First Intifada. Information about torture during interrogations, mainly of Palestinians, appeared regularly in the Hebrew press. I was shocked by what was written in the papers. It was a time of frequent terrorist attacks. I was aware of the need to interrogate suspects in order to prevent attacks. But I was horrified by the description and scope of the torture. In some way they reminded me of what we learned about the tortures committed by the Inquisition.
Israeli Television, where I worked, was silent on the subject, so I went to Yoseph Barel, the Manager of Israeli Television at the time, and proposed to do a series on the topic. I was rejected. I was stupid for even bringing it up.
About a year later, in 1992, immediately after the elections that brought the Labor Party to power, I was surprised to be notified by Natan Caspi, director of the Documentary Department at Israeli Television, that the project was approved. I could make the series.
I was joined on the project by the long-time producer Liora Amir Barmatz. She was a good friend and a very responsible and experienced person who had produced and would yet produce many outstanding projects. We plowed across the country, the West Bank, and Gaza, interviewing dozens of people. We tried to corroborate every bit of information. We realized that an enormous responsibility was placed upon us. We rejected testimonies that had the slightest scent of forgery, exaggeration, propaganda, or falsehood about them.
We made a number of significant decisions:
- The film would include many testimonies, so that it would be clear that we are talking about a common phenomenon.
- If we couldn’t interview the interrogators in each specific instance, we would make do with presenting the cases as described by the subjects of the interrogation, and we would make it perfectly clear that we cannot be sure whether what we are presenting is the entire truth. We did not want the authorities that conducted the interrogations to offer us generalities, whitewashed explanations, or anything that we could not corroborate.
- The series would consist of two episodes: the first episode would deal with criminal investigations conducted by the police within the Green Line; and the second episode with interrogations in the Occupied Territories. We thought that there was a connection between the way the interrogations were conducted, and the idea was that the two films would be screened consecutively, so that this connection would be apparent.
- The film would be called The Film that Wasn't.
We spent several months filming and a long time editing. The cinematographer was Yehiel Cohen; Eyal Vermous did sound; Yaakov Bukai did lighting; research was done by Liora Amir Barmatz and Anat Saragusti; Yaakov Yanai did the mix; the editors were Tzippi Raz and Liora Katziri; Liora Amir Barmatz was the producer. Most of the crew were fulltime staff of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
There were many turbulent arguments between us. We knew that this would not be just another film.
While the film was underway, we were informed that I had been awarded the Israel Prize. The headline on the front page of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper read, "Israel Prize Winner Making Film about the Secret Service's 'Torture Chambers.'" I was stunned by how it was worded. The use of the term "torture chambers" was ironic. Perhaps it was intended to harm the film, and perhaps even to suggest that the State of Israel's highest prize would be given to a traitor.
After many months of tedious work, we presented the film about interrogations in the Occupied Territories to the directors of Israel Television. Yoseph Barel, who headed Israeli Television. Two other managers also approved the film. On the other hand, Motti Kirschenbaum, who had recently been appointed Director General of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, delayed it. He wanted to get the response of the authorities. We were happy with the idea as long as we got the responses of the interrogators themselves. We were prepared to interview them behind a screen, without any identification markers, just as we did with some of the subjects who were interrogated. This was impossible. Deadlock.
To pull the whole project out of the mire, we compromised on a written response by the interrogating authorities. The only condition was that they address each instance individually. There was to be no general answer.
The Secret Service and the Police responded with regarded to the specific instances relevant to them. The IDF refused to respond. The case involving them was the most serious of all.
A Jewish Israeli soldier (a reservist in the Military Police) described shocking cases of abuse in which he personally was involved. He was filmed anonymously, and his identity and voice were obscured beyond recognition. He had since come to regret what he had done, and was ready to provide the IDF with all the details so that they could launch an investigation: the prison, the dates, the identity of the commanders. He was also prepared to be interrogated by the Advocate General of the Military on condition that his name would not be released. He was afraid of vengeance by the people he had abused. The IDF refused to ensure that it would prevent his name from being released. Another deadlock.
Motti [Kirschenbaum], Liora [Amir Barmatz] and I met again and again with IDF representatives, but to no avail. Nothing moved. The whole thing was stuck.
I was getting desperate. We didn’t stop pestering them. We placed dozens of calls to the IDF Spokesman, to the office of the Director General of the Israel Broadcast Authority, but to no avail. The idea of cutting the soldier from the film so that it could be broadcast was unacceptable to us. We used many different ways to verify his testimony and were convinced that it was reliable.
I asked Motti to broadcast the film and to announce that the IDF refused to comment. He opposed this. I told him that if we were talking about any other body, that is exactly what we would do and that it was unacceptable that a public body whose activity is coming under criticism would dictate to an independent broadcasting authority what it could air and what it could not. It is within its rights not to respond simply by refusing to respond to the charges, and it is our duty to broadcast the film. But Motti was persistent—without a response from the IDF, there would be no broadcast.
The first episode, which dealt with criminal investigations conducted by the police within the Green Line, was aired in the fall of 1993. The second episode, about interrogations in the Occupied Territories, was not aired the following week as planned.
After several long months of ceaseless pestering by us, the Advocate General of the Military responded to our request. He or his delegate would interrogate the soldier who had expressed his regrets without publicizing his identity. In the evening, under cover of darkness, that soldier, Liora the producer, and I made our way made our way out, along the path in the Kirya [Israel's government and military headquarters] from the huts that housed Israel Television to the conference room in the Advocate General's office. It was a short walk, but on the way I pondered the physical proximity—and perhaps even the emotional proximity—between the Establishment and the organ that was going to critique it. The soldier provided a lengthy deposition to the interrogator (I believe it was the Deputy Advocate General). It was identical to what he had said on camera.
A few days later, the Advocate General's Office provided us with the response that enabled us to proceed with the broadcast. Among other things it stated that the IDF would launch an investigation into the matter. To the best of my knowledge, that investigation has yet to be conducted. Fifteen years have passed.
The film aired on 14 June 2004.
Looking back on the entire incident, I now find it fascinating and somehow uplifting that the public broadcasting network in Israel agreed to finance and broadcast a film that investigated the horrors inflicted by Israeli forces on the Palestinians. I wonder how many other countries would have agreed to do that.
I was naïve in my belief that a public outcry would ensue. Critics praised the film, but with regard to the topic itself, there was absolute silence. It was as if the events described in the film had taken place somewhere far away. It was as if we bear no responsibility.
I was once young, and have since grown old, and I have yet to understand the apathy with which the issues raised in the film were received, just as I do not yet understand the laughter that erupted in the audience when I was suffering on stage in that student production.
I think of the women who knitted in the shadow of the guillotine during the French Revolution, while they watched the severed heads tumble into the basket. Maybe there is no direct way to contend with the horror.