One by one, the actors face the camera. Each is filmed in a different place, against a different landscape. The landscapes are simultaneously threatening and stunning.
Though each actor tells a different story, each delivers it looking directly at the camera - directly at the viewer. And each recounts, in a precise and matter-of-fact way, a difficult incident experienced by the character he or she is portraying.
The film "Edut" ("Testimony"), directed by Shlomi Elkabetz, is a fascinating movie that walks the thin and thought-provoking line between feature and documentary. Elkabetz uses professional actors who deliver 22 genuine testimonies by Palestinian residents of the territories and Israeli soldiers. It seems he has intentionally turned his back on many of the most dramatic tales; in most cases he seems to prefer dry, almost minimalist testimonies.
The director's sister, actress-filmmaker Ronit Elkabetz, for example, describes in the film the way her character was beaten by a Border Policeman after she crossed the border without a permit. Keren Mor testifies about the female Israeli soldiers who detained her character at a crossing point and subjected her to a series of humiliations, including spitting and slaps. Roy Assaf relates the experience of befriending a Palestinian boy one day during his military service, only to enter the same child's home a few hours later to do a search. And Reymond Amsalem recounts being forced to help a group of soldiers search for a wanted man in her village.
Shlomi Elkabetz - who together with his sister also made the films "To Take a Wife" and "7 Days" - enlisted a large group of actors, including Menashe Noy, Albert Iluz, Esti Zakheim, Ofer Hayoun and Eyal Shechter, to deliver these testimonies in front of the camera. All of them participated on a volunteer basis.
"Testimony" premiered last spring at the Cinema South Film Festival in Sderot and was subsequently screened at the Venice Film Festival. It is now being shown at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
"Our aim in making this film was not to report news. We did not want to provide information or give a broad picture of human rights violations," explains the director. "Our aim was to make more people witnesses."
Eight years ago, Shlomi Elkabetz and actor Ofer Ein Gal, his co-writer on the screenplay, began reading testimonies by Palestinians, most of which they received from B'Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Over the course of two years the two read out hundreds of testimonies to each other.
"At a very early stage, I began to feel nauseated," recalls Elkabetz. "Instead of making me a more imperturbable listener, the reading of so many testimonies only increased my sense of revulsion, the disgust, and caused me to want to grapple less and less with those materials. But I quickly realized that when you read testimonies like those, you become a witness yourself. You're asking yourself all the time: Is this real? Is this correct? Who confirmed this? Again and again you go through this process of rejection."
Gradually he and Ein Gal accumulated a collection of stories. "We weren't looking for shocking testimonies and we didn't choose the painful testimonies about children being harmed, house demolitions, and strange and varied cases of deaths," says the director.
"The testimonies that were chosen in the end were the ones we felt we were most tired of hearing. For example, the testimony of a woman who was trying to go home, didn't succeed and got slapped around by soldiers - at a certain stage I said I can't stand hearing testimonies like this any more, because there are hundreds like it.
"The testimonies that appear in the film - there's nothing new in them," he stresses. "You can find them in the news, in collections of testimonies, with one click on the Internet. What we wanted was to take specifically the recycled, tiring, everyday materials and give them a stage, give them a voice. Beyond that, we brought in testimonies in which something caught our eye. For example, Menashe's testimony [Menashe Noy portrays a Palestinian who gives particularly shocking testimony about how soldiers tried to force him to have intimate relations with a female donkey], which simply hit me personally and confronted me with an image I couldn't get out of my mind. There's also the testimony of a young woman who exchanged glances with a young man during a dinner, but after he was forced to flee from soldiers, she never again laid eyes on him."
Elkabetz and Ein Gal chose to keep the testimonies as they were originally delivered, with only minimal editing. Sometimes they even managed to find accounts describing the same incident from different angles. The original screenplay, consisting of 10 statements by Palestinians, was submitted to a number of funds that offer support for experimental films, but was rejected time after time. Later, when the organization Breaking the Silence, which collects statements of Israeli soldiers who have served in the territories, hit the headlines, Elkabetz and Ein Gal decided to add testimonies from it as well. They ended up working some into the script alongside those of the Palestinians, bringing the number up.
"Throughout the research, I really didn't want to make this film," says Elkabetz. "That is, I did want to make it, but I asked myself a lot of questions. It was clear to me that grappling with this was exacting a lot of energy from me and I asked myself whether I was really ready for this or maybe I should stick with the stupid comfort of my everyday life. But in the end I felt I couldn't allow myself that.
"I made the film to quiet my conscience and I didn't do it in order to change something - because I don't believe it can change anything. I made it to confront this issue, to become one of the witnesses to what is happening in this place where I live."
The landscapes that separate one testimony from the next not only provide viewers air to breathe: They also show them the disputed land. Elkabetz traversed the whole country and chose to film in "places where there is nothing, a vacuum, just landscape pictures," he explains. "This was born out of a longing. A longing for that forgotten place, the place we dreamed about for thousands of years, the way it is described in the Bible and in Eastern poetry, in fantasy and in stories, the way Jews imagined it before they came here: a land flowing with milk and honey, a place of stunning beauty. I assume that this is also how the country looked in 1948, when the Palestinians were expelled from it. This is how we imagined it and this is how they remember it."
He chose photographer David Adika to shoot the film, though he had no experience as a cinematographer: "I loved his photography and I was looking for a portrait and nature photographer because I wanted to give presence to faces and I wanted someone who could find in the composition a balance between the persona and the place where he lives.
"In addition, I was looking for someone who speaks my language, who comes from the places I come from. It was important to me that the cinematographer be Mizrahi [with origins in Muslim countries], who would understand my nonsense and my jokes ... Someone who could tell me what image I was looking for and understand me in an immediate way because he comes from the same place. And David was there, in all those places."
Having the "witnesses" look straight into the camera, directly at the audience, was intended to serve as a statement.
"The idea of the movie," clarifies Elkabetz, "is not to depict the Palestinian as a humiliated victim, but rather as someone proud who is presenting his story as a warning sign - to give presence to his truth rather than to gain viewers' pity. From my perspective, the look the witness directs at viewers is not only a warning, but also an offer of reconciliation. This is because within the casting of accusations there is a kind of dialogue, and in the fact of the dialogue there is an option for reconciliation, the start of speech. It's a kind of declaration: I am speaking, not barricading myself."
Shlomi Elkabetz was born in 1972 in Be'er Sheva, but later moved with his parents and his two siblings to Kiryat Yam, outside Haifa. When his elder sister Ronit appeared in a film for the first time, he was a teenager.
"Ronit and I have always been very connected," he notes. "It's clear that her work in cinema did something to me, encouraged something in me, but I wasn't certain. I always thought that in fact I'd want to write. I started writing at 16."
After completing his military service, he decided he wanted to work in film. He traveled in the Far East and went on to New York, where he remained for seven years. He wrote prose and plays, and also acted; at a certain stage he and Ronit began to write the screenplay for "To Take a Wife," incorporating into it autobiographical elements. In 2000 he returned to Israel. The film, which came out five years later, won various prizes, including the Audience Award at the Venice Film Festival.
"Ronit and I work in a very strong symbiosis," he says. "We wrote the first draft of 'To Take' together in New York, at night, and right before the filming we even moved in together [in Tel Aviv]. So we rented a small rooftop apartment on Ibn Gabirol Street. We wrote intensively and together we [play-acted] the film dozens of times: Sometimes she played Viviane and I played Eliahou [the two main protagonists], and sometimes the other way around, and in fact each of us played all the roles."
The result was that they knew exactly what they wanted when they began filming. "Thanks to that, in the end there were hardly any rehearsals for the film," he says.
The next joint effort from the Elkabetz siblings was the film "7 Days," which came out in 2008 and was both a critical and a commercial success. It portrays a Moroccan family as its members gather in one home after the death of one of the siblings. It opened Critics Week at Cannes and won the Wolgin Prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival. About 240,000 people saw it in Israel and about 90,000 more in France.
"Ronit is one of my best friends, and the person I trust most and with whom I can share everything. She is also a very big source of inspiration for me," says Shlomi Elkabetz. 'Meeting up with her always stimulates me and sends me to other places. She is both my beloved and my sister. Sometimes we are a pair of artists, sometimes just siblings and sometimes we are two individuals.
"Because the relationship between us is very deep and strong, we are very influenced by each other, both artistically and on a personal level. If she comes to the set feeling depressed, then I am depressed; if she comes happy, I am happy and if I come broken-up this also affects her. She knows what heals me and what turns me on, and vice-versa. It's an unmediated relationship, a kind of hotline that is always open."
Nonetheless, after a number of years of intensive creative work together, which yielded two films, Shlomi and Ronit went their separate ways.
"In the two years after '7 Days,' she was acting intensively in France and I was here, working on a television series and on 'Testimony,'" explains Shlomi, "but it was clear to both of us that this was just a waiting period before the next encounter between us. We already knew what we were going to do."
Their next encounter, which was devoted to writing the screenplay for the third part (as yet unmade ) of their fictional cinematic trilogy, eventually took place last year in Paris.
"We spent a month there together," he says, "and we hardly left the house. When we work we cooperate entirely. We sit at the same table 10 hours a day and we do improvisations on the text together. Sometimes we get up in the morning, eat something, and each of us goes to sit in a different room. At noon we meet in the hallway with an idea that each of us brings; in the evening we collect everything and put it together into one thing. This relationship is something very strong, certainly for a director who is very alone in his work. When we do a film together of course each of us has places where he feels alone but the place where we meet is very empowering. There is a lot of strength in it."
The writing stage of the as-yet-untitled new movie should be finished soon, and Elkabetz says they hope to shoot it during the course of the year.
"Today both of us are in a place where each of us can make whatever film he wants by himself, but still, completely by choice, we look forward to the encounter in which we create something together," he explains. "This comes from a place where we stimulate each other .... After all, we've been together for nearly 40 years. Like every couple, there are things that belong only to us and I think the creative work tries to communicate our joint inside."
After "7 Days," Elkabetz turned to directing the second season of the "Ran Quadruplets" television series (and also wrote some of the episodes ) - a drama about Israel's first set of quadruplets. "That was a one-time experience. I enjoyed it greatly. I was given absolute freedom to do what I want and for me to go and direct 12 hours of screen time and accumulate so much experience - it was a treasure, a crazy exercise, an amusement park," he says. It also provided valued income that he could then invest in "Testimony."
Raising the funds for the movie (which had a budget of NIS 1 million and was supported in Israel by the Rabinowitz Foundation and Channel 8 ) was no simple task. Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz also invested their own money in the movie.
"When we got the money from the foundation, I told them that even if no one sees this film and it sits in a dark drawer, and only 50 years from now do they take it out and find a film that was made as part of the history of this place - then it [still] has value. To my delight, that didn't happen because relative to a small film it has had a lot of exposure. To my mind, though, there are films that have to be made, regardless of the price you're going to pay for them and the question of whether or not people are going to come to see them."
Ironically, the person who has most helped to bring the movie to the public's attention was Culture Minister Limor Livnat, who stirred up a media storm around it in the wake of the premiere last year. "Testimony" was chosen to open the Sderot festival and Livnat was invited. In her remarks before the screening, she declared it to be a film that presents a "one-sided and distorted position that is not congruent with the reality of life here." The minister was also critical of the fact that the suffering of Israeli terror victims and of the residents of Sderot is not depicted in the film, and said she was opposed to the decision to open the festival with it. And this was before seeing "Testimony."
"I was in the hall," recalls Elkabetz. "When I heard her, I thought about a lot of things - among other things, about hypocrisy, about the monopoly she's trying to claim in determining what is right and what is not, what is good and what is not, and about what art is, how it is supposed to look and what the artist's role is. At first I was amused that she had decided to come, but then it scared me and disgusted me. I wondered by what right she was saying she wants to boycott something she hasn't even seen, by what right is she coming and distorting the truth?
"I worked very hard on this film for seven years and then she came along, spoke for five minutes and for 10 days they talked about this, each time somewhere else, every day in a different newspaper, and each time her name was mentioned. And even when I was in Venice with the film they talked about this and when they wrote about it in English they mentioned this and two months later when I opened [the Haaretz culture section] Gallery, I saw a picture of her sitting on some chair and talking about it again.
"So thanks to this [Livnat] got an item and another item, but I'm the one who's been traveling to Sderot twice a week for nine years now [to teach film at Sapir College], even when there are Qassams. I'm the one who in the middle of a class runs to the shelter 15 times with my students. But she - I never saw her there during that whole period, nor have I in recent months. I still go there regularly, but where is she to see her distorted truth?"
Surprisingly, "Testimony" ends with two songs. The Israeli Andalusian Orchestra plays and the singer Dikla sings in Arabic. Her gaze, sometimes directed straight at the camera lens, is penetrating, almost accusatory. She radiates a combination of strength and sensuality as she performs one of her songs in Arabic.
"We translated the Arabic from the original testimonies, but music can't be translated," explains Elkabetz. "This song can be sung in any language but its music will always remain Arabic. These are the sounds of this place and this is something it's impossible to escape from, impossible to conceal, because it always arises at night, surreptitiously, from within the trees, from within the soil.
"And this is also the case with the actors in the film: You see them and you say 'Most of them are Mizrahim,' and a Palestinian who see it will say "All of them are Israelis,' but a European who sees it will say 'All of them are Arabs.' And that's true. We are Arabs. This is the sound of this place, this is its color and the separation we've been trying so hard to effect during all the years of our existence here, the attempt to sweep Arab culture under the rug - has failed.
"We have succeeded in occupying cities, occupying land, but we have not succeeded in conquering the culture. After all, Eastern music exists everywhere nowadays. It's impossible to defeat it because it will always rise out of the soil, out of the sun, out of the heat, out of the landscape - it will always be here. We can't change this and until we accept that - we will always be aliens here."
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