Interview with Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz “The Truth, but Not the Whole Truth”

published in Ha’aretz, by Nirit Anderman Nov 18, 2011

In his documentary on the complex legal system operated by the IDF
in the territories, filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz repeatedly reminds
viewers that they are watching a movie – not an objective reflection of reality.

In the film The Inner Tour the documentary directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz a decade ago, he followed a group of Palestinians who arrived in Israel for a three-day excursion. The protagonists set out on a sort of “discover your roots” tour to the homeland that had been swept out from under them in 1948. Appearing alongside them were several supporting characters – young children who accompanied their parents on the tour. The film was well received and screened at dozens of festivals worldwide; Alexandrowicz immediately went on to make a feature film entitled James’ Journey to Jerusalem, which was also well received.

Several years later, Alexandrowicz was informed that one of the children who appeared in The Inner Tour had been arrested, having been accused of throwing stones near Bethlehem during the second intifada. The director made his way to the military court at which the hearing for extending the detention was to take place.

“As anyone who makes documentaries knows, the people appearing in your film remain part of you even after the film is done,” says Alexandrowicz, speaking with Haaretz recently in Tel Aviv. “Five years after ‘The Inner Tour,’ the children who appeared in it began to be arrested, one after the other, as happens to the majority of male Palestinian youths.

“When I learned about the trial of the first youth who was arrested, I attended the hearing at which his detention was extended, and after that I stayed on for the rest of the trial, which went on for seven months. The boy was not yet 16; he missed a year of school. He was eventually convicted on several counts of stone-throwing in his village. Except that he was released on the day that the trial ended [having been held in custody throughout the trial]. For me, it was the first time I ever saw a military court. I knew that these courts existed, but I didn’t really know much about them. Sitting in the court was a very powerful experience for me, a consciousness-changing experience.”

The unfamiliar legal system in operation in that court drew Alexandrowicz into a prolonged investigation of impressive scope, in the wake of which he created, together with the producer Liran Atzmor, The Law in These Parts (in Hebrew, Shilton Hahok – Rule of Law ). The two men spent five years working on this unique cinematic production. It tries to recreate the string of events that led to the establishment of the legal system that Israel operates in the territories, the way it developed over the years, and the changes that had to be constantly made to the system to adapt it to the impossible reality in which it is used.

The 2010 movie – which won the award for best documentary at this past summer’s Jerusalem Film Festival, and is now being screened around the country – invites the audience to embark on a demanding intellectual journey, to assess the nature of this exceptional legal and judicial system, in which the army serves as the legislative, executive and judicial branches, all rolled into one.

Alexandrowicz says he hopes the film will cause people to shake off some of their prior assumptions, and to take a nonconventional approach when considering the legal and judicial system operated by the Israel Defense Forces in the territories, and the inherent inconsistency of that system, which to his mind is not well known.

In the opening scenes of The Law in These Parts, the camera follows the construction of the movie set. Several men can be seen building a small stage in the middle of a studio, placing a table on it and then a chair alongside. Throughout the film, several jurists are filmed in this minimalist set. All of them are former senior officials who served in the military’s judicial system. A green screen is visible on the wall in the back of the studio, on which videotaped archival materials are subsequently screened.

One after another, the interviewees, who include include former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, sit down, on the same chair, behind the same table, and listen to the questions of the director, who is seated across from them. They listen in silence and then offer answers. Sometimes the questions are technical in nature, and sometimes profound. The answers are at times comprehensive and detailed, but at other times, they fail to reveal the entire truth.

It is difficult not to notice the strong similarity to a courtroom situation in which testimony is given, one witness after another. Here, though, it is the judges and prosecutors who are being asked to answer the questions; they are the ones who are being asked to explain the numerous conflicts and paradoxes embodied in this strange and distorted judicial system.

Alexandrowicz found himself fascinated by the proceedings he observed in military court, when the defendants were Palestinians: “There is an enormous tension in this place [military court] between the concept of doing justice and the absolute hostility and discord that prevails between the two sides [involved in the cases]. What I saw there came across as not only a powerful human situation, but a metaphor for something broader – for the duality that characterizes the society in which we live. On the one hand, there’s a desire to live according to the values of democracy, equality before the law and rule of law, and on the other hand, existence under extreme circumstances, of a long, drawn-out military occupation going back four-and-a-half decades, a situation in which there is by definition no democracy or equality. When I saw the attempt by the military courts to nevertheless combine these two elements, I thought it would be material for a film.”

Not the right story

Alexandrowicz pulled countless files from the IDF archive of trials held over the past 44 years in the military courts, and simultaneously began a search for appropriate visual materials. Nevertheless, at a certain point he decided that the direction he’d chosen for his film was wrong.

“Despite having made a prodigious investment of time and effort, I reached the conclusion that the courts are not the right story. Because what came across from the hearings that took place there, what was hidden in the texts concerning the files, was the law. The military courts are the place where the law is applied and enforced. I realized that I should begin by understanding the law,” he explains.

Alexandrowicz says that thinking about the gap between the two very different senses of the law, in Israel and in the territories that it controls, “brought me back to the period of my army service, in which I dealt with enforcing the law in the territories, and I would explain to people – with profound self-conviction – that ‘this is the law.’ That ‘now you have to go into your home, because that is the law’; ‘you are forbidden to work this land because that is the law.’ Suddenly, I was very curious, and wanted to delve into these basic concepts.”

In the movie, he describes the development of the system of laws that the IDF imposed on the territories it conquered in the Six-Day War. Alexandrowicz considers the influence of the High Court of Justice on that system, and presents several key legal cases that were heard in the military courts over the years that shaped the face of Israeli military rule in the territories.

For instance, he describes the legal tactics that enabled Israel to expropriate widespread tracts of land in the West Bank from their owners and declare them to be state lands. Understandably, the film must first provide viewers with the background to these legal cases and numerous details about them so that the filmmaker will be able to discuss them with his interviewees.

“Some people told me: ‘Be careful, you are taking on something from which it is impossible to make a film. It is too large a subject, too complicated, too dry.’ But I had already dived into this chasm, which got deeper and deeper the more material I read. I sat in archives and libraries and read hundreds of legal files, thousands of court orders and numerous petitions, and I understood that I had to find a way to deal with the enormous amount of material,” says Alexandrowicz.

“What’s more, my previous films dealt with elements that work well in cinema: characters, the ability to identify with them, to embark on a journey, to make a change. But here I was forced to deal with a very dry and technical world, and legal language, which is theoretically terrifying.”

The two bodies that supported the movie’s production, Channel 8 and the Rabinowitz Film Fund, pointed out this problematic aspect to Alexandrowicz, but then allowed him to grapple with the challenge. As if that were not enough, the director elected to impose an added limitation on himself.

“We also decided not to tell the story from the perspective of the Palestinians who live under this law, even though cinematically speaking they are the immediate element by means of which we should be telling such a story, because the drama is unfolding among them. But Liran [Atzmor] and I felt it would be more correct to create identification with the people who developed this system – to try to understand what they were thinking, how this thing was constructed, what the mind-set was that led them in their shaping of it.”

In order to deal with the numerous limitations he faced, Alexandrowicz chose to integrate into the film recurrent references to the cinematic act itself: Thus, along with cinematographer Sharon De Mayo and editors Ran Goldman and Neta Dvorkis, he exposes viewers to the filmmaking mechanism, revealing the microphones and the green screen; films what is happening in the studio before, during and after an interview; and plays the projects archival materials on the screen at varying speeds, and forward and backward. He repeatedly reminds viewers that they are watching a movie and not an objective reflection of reality, and that he, the director, is shaping the reality, presenting it to them as he sees fit.

The link between revealing the cinematic mechanism and revealing the legal mechanism is food for a great deal of thought. For instance, during the interview with former military judge Oded Pessensohn, the interviewee explains to the director that the military court sometimes convicts defendants on the basis of confidential investigation materials submitted by the Shin Bet security service. This occurs without a judge being able to speak with the persons who submitted the information to investigators, and without the defendant being permitted to study the material at all.

“What was your attitude toward the Shin Bet people who appeared before you? Did you at times doubt the credibility of their statements?” the director asks the interviewee.

“No, in general I did not doubt what they were saying,” Pessensohn admits.

Immediately after this, Alexandrowicz reminds his viewers that the same criticism holds true for the film they are watching. Against the background of footage of Pessensohn leaving the studio, we hear the director’s voice-over: “The interview with attorney Pessensohn continued for nearly three hours. In it, he stated many things … The audience hears only a paraphrase of his words, because it is I who decides which of the contents of the interview to show and which to omit. The viewer cannot ask attorney Pessensohn what he thinks about the way in which I edited the interview with him. The viewer is free to judge these things independently; as for the information, he receives it only from me.”

Alexandrowicz feels that today’s viewing audience understands his approach: “I believe that exposing the cinematic mechanics is nothing new for them. It only affirms things they already know. Nevertheless, I felt it important to expose this here, because the way we look at things is relevant not only when it comes to shaping reality in the cinema or in the media, but in terms of legal proceedings, as well: There is always a certain perspective, and it is composed of a great deal of manipulation,” he explains.

Tours of Dachau

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, 42, was born and raised in Jerusalem, and graduated in the third class of the School of Cinema and Television (before it was named for Sam Spiegel). Following his studies he moved to Tel Aviv, and made the documentary film Martin (1999 ), which won the Wolgin Prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival. It portrayed the story of an elderly Holocaust survivor who lives near the museum at the Dachau concentration camp, and offers tourists an alternative commentary to the official guides’ explanations.

Two years later, Alexandrowicz made The Inner Tour, which was followed by his only feature, James’ Journey to Jerusalem (2003 ). He and his partner, and their two children, live in Jerusalem, to which Alexandrowicz returned seven years ago.

The Law in These Parts is the first film that Alexandrowicz has completed since returning to his hometown. He spent the first part of this period writing a screenplay for another feature, The Miracle in Monte Leone, which never made it to production. He describes it “as a black, political comedy about two families, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who leave the country and find themselves living near each other in a town in France that desperately needs tourists. It ends with cars torched in the streets of Marseille,” says Alexandrowicz. “It is an unrealistic movie that looks at the lives of people in a conflict, but with an amused and politically incorrect perspective. I thought it was a pretty good script, but the two film funds here didn’t want it.”

Once he failed at obtaining funding for the movie, Alexandrowicz became drawn into the extensive research required for The Law in These Parts.  He now hopes that the film will have a continuation, but in a different realm.

“Anyone who makes movies knows there are a lot of limitations to this medium,” he explains. “This is the first film made about this subject, and it makes the subject accessible to a new audience that does not read articles or books about it. But the price that we pay for that is that the scope here is very narrow, even though the research encompassed a great deal of material.

“I have a dream, which I want to realize in a medium that is not hampered by the need to tell a story and cause an audience to sit with you for the full 90 minutes. I hope to create a sort of open history book on the Internet, one that goes much deeper, that enables readers to be involved – one in which the information will be available to people interested in the subject.”

When asked about his next film project, Alexandrowicz reveals that he is considering retiring from this arena.

“Right now, my next project is not to have a next project,” he says, smiling. “This film and the materials I used to work with require more work. For me to continue, I need to not have to rush around and move on to the next thing.”

“However, there are other reasons, deeper and more profound ones … I want to see if it’s really necessary for me to continue making movies, or whether I can harness what I learned about this field for the sake of other people’s projects. In other words, to work for someone, and not only try to always create my own things.”

What happened? You’ve had it with having to play the filmmaker who has to kill himself to make a movie and then has to pull the wagon all by himself?

“It’s that, too. At age 42, with two kids, I feel that I should check and see if it isn’t draining too many resources from me. I need to consider if the cost-benefit ratio here makes sense. I have found that for me making cinema is an awfully serious thing, I immerse myself in it, but only a small portion of the effort makes it to the screen in the end.

“In my opinion, what makes it possible not only for me, but for anyone who makes movies, to make this investment in resources, is a sense of self-importance – a desire that people see the film that I want to make. I confess that in recent years I have begun to sense the irony of this self-importance; it demands things of us that are not always compatible with other values we are trying to advance. So at the moment, I have decided to stop for a minute. In general, the field that interests me, that I feel engages me more and more, is education.”

And will your cinematic passion withstand such a decision?

“The question is if my ego will withstand it.”

Nirit Anderman, Haaretz Contributor, the online edition of Haaretz Newspaper in Israel, and analysis from Israel and the Middle East. provides extensive and in-depth coverage of Israel, the Jewish World and the Middle East, including defense, diplomacy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the peace process, Israeli politics, Jerusalem affairs, international relations, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Israeli business world and Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora.

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