"On my father's grave I'll don a uniform," protests the recruit and the company commander responds in sharp army lingo that does not distinguish between past, present and future: "Everyone, and I mean everyone, is here at the time I specify. Am I clear?"
This conversation comes from a new show premiering Saturday on Channel Eight called "Yes, Ms. Commander." It is familiar, more or less, to anyone who served in the army. Everyone seems to have his designated role. This exchange took place at Havat Hashomer, a base for recruits with criminal records who don't fit into society. "Yes, Ms. Commander," a three-part series by Danny Siton and Itzik Lerner, follows a basic training course there.
It is interesting not only because it is a study in contrasts, but also because of its proximity to another show about the Israel Defense Forces, "Reserve Duty Soldiers" by Yaheli Gat and Yalon Gurevitch, which airs tonight on Channel One. Their show follows a battalion of reservists for eight half-hour episodes.
The proximity may or may not be coincidental. The shows were not created in response to the latest war in the south, but during and after the Second Lebanon War. Their armies are the same army - the people's army, even if one of the reserve soldiers in "Reserve Duty Soldiers" argues that we may be better off with a professional army of paid soldiers.
The shows' creators come from similar backgrounds: Lerner is a former kibbutznik who lives in Gan Yavneh, and Gurevitch lives on a moshav. One has a son in a combat unit; the other, himself injured in combat, has a son who plans to take a combat fitness course before enlisting.
Gurevitch talks about his relationship with his Holocaust-survivor father in the series; Lerner talks about "Yes, Ms. Commander" while at work editing a documentary series about the Exodus, which his father was on.
They also share a similar attitude toward the army, and perhaps similar worldviews, too. The promotional material for Gurevitch's show calls the reservists "the last of the righteous in Sodom." No less.
"I wouldn't use that description," says Gurevitch, "but I would call them fine people who represent a silent majority. Once this country had lots of good people, and now it is a country with the potential for good people."
In Gurevitch's show, the director reads a text dedicated to his father in the beginning of the fifth episode, and reminds him he said we must leave Judea and Samaria right after the Six-Day War. He believes his father was right.
Lerner says, "On the personal level, I would have liked Israel to be Switzerland. I'm angry that they spent NIS 60 million on the Kessem Interchange but practically nothing on the roads in the south and north."
His other documentary films were about heroes who did not serve in the army. "I live in Gan Yavneh, I was within range of the missiles during the latest operation and I found myself with the kids in the reinforced room," explains Lerner. "I have no desire to beat myself up over the army. I don't live in Tel Aviv," which he considers "the bubble." "The periphery is much more aware of the ability of the state and the army."
He is furious that no organization wanted to support the series, and that the director of a certain fund sent him to the IDF Spokesman to obtain support. The two creators argued with the "female soldiers" (both stress this, with some of the condescension of former soldiers) of the IDF Spokesman's office and reached an understanding.
"This series will have 50 days of filming, 150 shifts of editing, it will be distributed abroad," says Lerner, "but when I proposed it, they told me it was too similar to other things."
Lerner's show was made using the "fly on the wall technique, with no intervention, and was filmed using two cameras, with the subjects never facing them," he says. It does not address the success of projects known as "Raful's boys," which help troubled youth get through their compulsory army service. The film has no data about successes and failures. Lerner recounts that 75 percent of recruits complete basic training, and 70 percent of people who complete their army service serve for two years. Those who enter combat units serve for a third year.
Three soldiers from the group were injured during Operation Cast Lead, but for the most part, out of a class of 400 soldiers, only 15 became combat soldiers. "Yes, Ms. Commander," does not ask whether the welfare organizations failed in their role, does not question whether the army may not be the ideal place to rehabilitate these boys or whether after discharge, this project contributes to their integration into society. Instead, it describes a project that intrigued Lerner personally.
In the first episode, soldiers gather at the firing range. One shouts repeatedly that he doesn't want to be given a gun, prompting the viewer to agree that it might be wise to listen a person with a criminal record who does not want a weapon. For Lerner, this scene is interesting only for its drama, not for the basic underlying question.
Lerner decided to embark on this project after a shorter film he produced about Havat Hashomer sparked a lot of interest. "I came on my own," he says. "These people interested me, they agreed to the exposure. There are people here who most of the social welfare network did not manage to get on their own two feet. The dialogue between the commanders is poor, but their messages are untiring."
The film has a hierarchy, not just in the camp. The women commanders enjoy more privacy than the soldiers - the film does not mention their marital status, or whether they have children. The soldiers, however, tell all.
"Their problems are negligible," responds Lerner about the commanders. "I was interested in the dramatic structure, I wasn't looking for balance."
The commanders are the nightmare of anyone who served at an induction base, adamant and condescending. Nonetheless, their communication with the soldiers is good. Yitzhak, one of the series' protagonists, is a charismatic, nice-looking and polished soldier, who curses at an instructor. He is never heard addressing company commanders this way. Even in his meeting with the base commander, it is impossible to ignore the fact that this soldier with a bad background is smart, and at least as logical as his commander.
Lerner describes the company commanders in the series as mothering, even though they are the same age as the recruits. There also appears to be some form of attraction. The commanders are flattered by the men, even if the line separating the two groups is not crossed, at least not on camera.
The dynamics of the series is interesting, and the choice of characters is appropriate - after all, these are not people you meet every day. The series does grow and captures many dramatic moments. The final induction ceremony - with a copy of Scriptures in one hand, a rifle in the other and emotion-filled tears - if did not move you at the end of your basic training, it will not win hearts on screen, either.
This holy trinity - rifle, Bible and tears - appears in Gurevitch's series, too. One episode, made with the support of the Avichai Foundation, is titled "How I love you Land of Israel."
In the episodes sent for review, the second and fifth, we see Oz Kadmon, who was evicted from Yamit, setting off for reserve duty as his daughter cries and his wife recalls how the cruel soldiers tried to take her baby out of her arms. Amir Birnbaum, another reservist, complains, "There is not enough light from the Torah," and says it is necessary "to conquer the land."
"The episodes we screened really are typical in this respect," says Gurevitch. "But later on, in the pub of one of the reserve soldiers - Saar Eshel, a kibbutznik from Ein Harod who lives and works in Tel Aviv - there are discussions with all sorts of people, including a conscientious objector. I quote him. He may not be very convincing, but his father, who is proud of him, sounds perfectly reasonable. The series also features a bereaved mother who says her son died in vain."
When Yaheli Gat, a reserve battalion commander and an activist on behalf of the reserve duty law, approached Gurevitch and asked him to document reserve soldiers, he was glad to. Gurevitch, who was seriously injured in an IDF operation in Lebanon in 1980 ("The IDF would sting terrorists then," he explains) and was hospitalized for a year afterward, never did reserve duty.
"I saw it as a mirror of Israeli society," he says. But it reflects a distorted image. Ordinary citizens are pulled out of their daily routine - work, earning a living, bank loans, family life - don a uniform and find themselves in the middle of the night in Tulkarm, banging on the doors of wanted persons and arresting them while their mothers wail.
Like the conversation between the base commander and the recruit in "Yes, Ms. Commander," "Reserve Duty Soldiers" also presents things as they are, and lets the viewer pass judgment.
"My films don't have any commentary," says Gurevitch ("The Brothers Jonah"). "That's what the viewer is for. That's how it is. The subtext is fairly powerful. Whoever gets it, gets it. The trumpet also sounds off-key notes."
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