For 'Rock the Casbah' Helmer, a Director's Chair Became a Therapist's Couch

Yariv Horowitz, whose first feature film nabbed the prestigious International Confederation of Art Cinemas award at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, says making a movie about Israeli soldiers during the first intifada wasn't just cathartic for him. It was cathartic for the entire nation.

When Yariv Horowitz was drafted, 23 years ago, he was assigned to the Film Unit of the Israel Defense Forces' Spokesperson Office. As a tyro filmmaker with zero seniority he was given the scut work, with no pretense of artistic values: short, amusing films about the various army units, packed with inside jokes, shown to weary soldiers as part of the occasional entertainment evening on their bases. The assignment – the IDF equivalent of a wedding videographer – meant going to various bases, aiming his camera at the soldiers and coaxing them into telling funny stories about their service. He would then edit the footage into short movies that, it was hoped, would motivate the troops and heighten their esprit de corps.

But this was the time of the first intifada, and motivation and esprit de corps were rare commodities among the IDF units stationed in the territories. And so, when Horowitz was ordered to make yet another entertaining film about an army unit, this time about paratroopers deployed in the West Bank city of Nablus, he found himself with footage of a very different kind.

"I started filming those soldiers, asking them about funny incidents from their day-to-day lives, and instead of telling me about life in their brigade they started using my camera to give themselves psychological therapy," Horowitz recalls. "They told me how bad they felt being there, how the day before they were spit on and cursed at. One soldier said it had gotten so bad that when they saw kids in the street, kids they knew would be throwing rocks at them later on, they would just beat them in advance. In effect, I asked the soldiers for levity and they responded with their emotional distress."

Horowitz was shocked by their stories, and by what he saw when he joined their patrols in Nablus. He was what we would now call "embedded" with the paratroopers for a few days, living out their moral dilemmas alongside them, and he realized he had to take this experience and make it into a movie.

He ended up making two: a documentary short called "Aftershock," which appeared in 2003; and "Rock the Casbah," a full-length feature that premiered at last year's Jerusalem International Film Festival. Two weeks ago, it was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it nabbed the prestigious International Confederation of Art Cinemas award.

The film unspooled in Israel theaters last Thursday. At the start of the movie, a group of young IDF recruits are patrolling the streets of Gaza City. Children throw rocks at them and then dash in to the shadows of a maze of alleyways, Palestinian mothers curse them and concrete blocks rain down on their heads from the homes of roofs above. After one of the soldiers is killed his buddies are posted to the roof of a building in order to impose order and to locate the perpetrators.

The movie shows the stifling tension of Gaza's streets, the mounting violence on both sides and the fear hanging in the air. But on the roof with the soldiers Horowitz attempts to create a fantastical territory, a heady concoction of '80s popular music, grave ethical dilemmas and the raging testosterone of young soldiers, mixed up with the rage and sense of humiliation of the local population and the dreams of a rosier future that smash against a stark, hopeless reality.

It is hard to believe that it took so many years for these images of soldiers confronting rock-wielding children, so familiar to us from television, to reach the big screen. In effect, Horowitz's film is the first time that Israel's film industry, which hasn't hesitated to poke at the open wounds left by the country's many wars, has dared to touch on the intifada and the experiences of Israeli soldiers in the territories.

Horowitz was born in the northern town of Pardes Hannah in 1971. His family, he says, was leftist, which he counts as a major factor in his decision to make a film examining the intifada from the point of view of Israeli soldiers.

"My mother was a Communist, and in high school her sister went out with Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet," he recalls. "In fact, 'Rock the Casbah' came out of my having grown up in an environment where everyone always said, 'Our soldiers are animals, they behave like beasts,' and I was the only one saying, 'No, they're not animals.' That always seemed too simplistic, and what I saw was my friends, who definitely didn't look like animals to me, but rather mainly like children in distress, children whose experiences in the territories in the army kept clashing with the values on which they were raised."

And Horowitz admits that he, too, was not quite an adult when the film first starting forming in his mind.

"It happened there, on the roof, when I was a 19-year-old child in a combat helmet and protective vest," Horowitz says. He starting thinking about the enormous amount of restraint it took for the soldiers to cope with the spitting and the cursing, the rocks and the concrete. "What you want most at that moment is to bash them in the face with your rifle butt," he says. "But in most cases the soldiers didn't do that, at least not near me, perhaps in part because I was holding a camera."

"I went up on the roof and I said to myself, it's absurd, this story must be told from the inside. It cannot be the case that 19-year-olds are being asked to make split-second decisions that the Supreme Court could take months to decide ... whether or not to shoot, to shove, to use 'moderate physical force' or immoderate force. If a child throws a concrete block on them, for example, and flees into some home, they have to decide quickly whether or not they're allowed to force open the door or not, whether it's legal or not. I saw some [soldiers] who broke in without thinking, but others who held themselves back and didn't. These are difficult ethical decisions that can stay with them for years to come."

Two officers and a gentleman

Before making "Aftershock," Horowitz took the paratroopers' narratives from 1991 and edited them into a short film, which he showed his commanding officers. Their response was less than stellar.

"My commander ran to the chief education officer and showed him the footage, which sent them both into shock," Horowitz says. "Their first reaction was to say the soldiers should be court-martialed." Horowitz, for his part, was summoned to the Kirya – Israel's military headquarters – for questioning, and inadvertently set off a dispute between two of the IDF's most senior officers. "Danny Yatom said the soldiers were 'lone wolves' and should be put on trial, while Matan Vilnai told him, 'You're naive, what do you mean put them on trial, are you an ostrich with its head in the sand, do you realize what that work does to soldiers?' They began arguing and at some point they simply threw me out of the room."

This interview was conducted a few days before Horowitz flew to Berlin. He admitted to being excited but said what scared him most was the movie's release in Israel; he worried local audiences wouldn't want to go to see a film about the army.

"Israel is like a tightly-coiled spring. It's tense, but my aim is to bring people closer to the issue, to pull down the barriers, to try to create a collective experience, since hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been through the territories over the years," Horowitz says. "I see on Facebook how excited people are to talk and share. There are so many people who were there and who are still stuck in some way because of it. We all live with the nagging question of whether or not we are doing the right thing, whether we have an alternative, whether people are mad at us, whether we are bad people. In that sense we are very tortured, and that is something that requires group therapy."

In 2002, Horowitz spoke to one of the paratroopers he had filmed in Nablus over a decade earlier, a conversation that would compel him to start work on "Aftershock." "There was no one he could talk to," Horowitz says. "He remembered how [he and his fellow soldiers] beat a red-haired boy who was throwing rocks, and he said he didn't know whether the boy died from the beating or not. Now, as a father with children of his own, he said he couldn't forget it."

That paratrooper's story, Horowitz says, is far from unique.

"That's the torment that everyone who was there, in the territories, knows," Horowitz says. "'Rock the Casbah' isn't just a movie for my own therapy, or for screenwriter Guy Meirson, or my cinematographer Guy Zlayet, whose son is serving in an elite unit in the West Bank. In some way, in my eyes, this film is therapy for this entire country."

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