Snapshot: A West Bank Settlement Through the Eyes of Wild Dogs

Education Ministry technocrats can ban a book because it depicts an affair between a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman, but they can't prohibit display of art that depicts stray dogs.

Still shot from 'Dogs,' a video installation by Itay Marom (2015). Becomes darker and deeper the more it is viewed.
Itay Marom

Over 11 minutes, the viewer sees a pack of street dogs wandering about in the settlement of Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron. This is a video installation by Itay Marom, a cinematographer and artist. The dogs are a somewhat mixed bunch, some of them light in color, like the one in the photograph here. Among them are a female and her puppy, near the fences, the cars, the flags, the National Insurance Institute building. Eating whatever comes their way. Getting along among themselves. It’s a night film, shot in the dark, without any forced anthropomorphizing of the dogs or a well-made story created from their perspective, with character traits associated to some of them or the suggestion of conflicts or crises between them.

In other words, the “animalistic” rhetoric, as the Israel Museum’s curator of photography, Noam Gal, describes it, does not permit hasty formulations in which the human is seen in the animal, in order to say something about the non-human in the people around us. It doesn’t work like that, because this is not a nature film of that kind (despite an across-the-fence encounter between the pack of dogs and one with a spot on its back, from a different pack). This is a video installation – time-based art, in the current lingo – that was shot mostly in Kiryat Arba’s Meir Kahane Park, looking toward Hebron itself, which is seen from afar. In one shot you can see the shut-down market stalls.

Yet despite the filming location, political censorship will find it difficult to operate here: There is no shot that advocates of exclusively patriotic art can finger, and that would allow them to criticize the work’s creator, or denounce his creation. This is a film that observes a pack of eight dogs, mostly from the park, with interest. There are scenes of eating, playing, walking, sprawling. At times an alpha male struts by along the fence, at the head of a line of dogs; at times a female sits alone. But there is no definitive story line. There are no scenes of rescue. Invasion. Occasional panoramic shots. A basketball court. This is a film that becomes darker and deeper the more it is viewed. Because Marom, a 2008 graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem, is serving up political art in the profound sense – art of a kind that’s almost impossible to censor, because it’s impossible to “read” in it support of an ad hoc political argument. There is no metaphor at the center of the work, despite its poetic rhythm. Not an absolute one at least. Territory is a key concept, clearly, but the work avoids locals-versus-invaders terminology, to show some sort of extra-territorialness.

Marom is shooting in the park around the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of a massacre, because the dogs are there, but he doesn’t linger on Goldstein’s headstone, on inscriptions or anything else. The film is restrained. Different in principle from the David Attenborough school of nature films, out to praise the beauty and wisdom of nature. This isn’t a visit to the Galapagos. Marom does not seem to be interested in nature’s symmetry. He is interested in motion: A pure concept flowing in a subparallel territory within charted borders.

This effect of “Dogs” is created because of Marom’s resistance, even obliviousness, to nature-film rhetoric. He does not photograph the dogs as human beings (they thus acquire an aura of canine independence). On the other hand, he also does not show the dogs’ direct contact with people, despite the fact that in one scene they are filmed feeding next to a garbage bin. So nothing is immediately projected that allows us to formulate an opinion about Kiryat Arba’s settlers or the humanity of the Hebronites. Everything is left open: whether people treat the dogs well or not, take mercy on them and so on, or whether their attitudes toward the animals reflect on how people treat each other. Marom avoids the metaphor of who is dominating whom in this territory.

His film is in a way shown as a dream. A dream about dogs. We see the ugliness of the landscape, in the form of expanses of asphalt and yellow lighting and electrified fences, with dogs surviving within it. Slowly, then, if one also listens to the film’s soundtrack, created by Rotem Dror, associations begin to arise. The face of this generation is as the face of a dog, as per the mishnaic phrase. Reservoir dogs. Watchdogs. Watchdogs of democracy. So there’s irony here, too. Because there is no democracy here.

Thought censorship could allow Education Ministry technocrats to remove a book from the curriculum because it describes an affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, as happened with Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife.” That book is devoted to an examination of the question of whether a love story like this is emotionally possible between these lovers, who are committed to their respective identity frameworks. In other words, it’s actually a story about the impossibility of relations between a Palestinian and an Israeli, centering on the theme of forgoing the wishes of one’s heart. Arguably, then, the book’s rejection by the ministry is not related only to the possibility it portrays of contact between an Arab man and a Jewish woman – that is, what’s “seen” in the work – but precisely to an understanding of its message: namely, that their parting can be sad and entail loss for both of the characters; hence the demand from the author, and from the public, not to even identify with the thought that this broken attachment is something to be sorry for.

Be that as it may, a realistic novel can be excluded from the high-school reading list for political reasons. But it’s impossible to prohibit art from showing a pack of dogs roaming the boundary lines between Kiryat Arba and Hebron. In times when it’s not possible to describe in a formalistic narrative things as they are, realism must come in other forms.

Since “Dogs” was first screened half a year ago, and certainly since it was shown at the Manofim art festival in Jerusalem last October, concurrent with the onset of the knifing attacks by individuals, and before the tidal wave of self-styled patriots surged high – with spies infiltrating human rights organizations to collect “testimonies,” and the culture minister positing “Zionism” or “loyalty” as a condition for institutional investment in art – Itay Marom’s film has become an intriguing and plausible artistic model. There’s no way to censor it, but if you look closely, you can understand a lot from it. It’s about adaptation to a bad situation in a place where life is borderless.