Cinema in the Service of Israeli Propaganda
Political systems have used cinema for promotional purposes throughout history. The fascist regime in Italy and the Nazi regime in Germany used cinema to influence people’s minds by producing propaganda films that served their interests. Despite its lack of development at the time (compared to today), cinema was used to smoothly broadcast political agendas. In that era, propaganda was presented in the form of animated films or realistic stories that depicted these regimes and their sovereignty as the only recourse for the people. These films sanctioned wars and transformed their image as crimes into one of defending the homeland and the self. When Israel was founded, cinema was adopted to boost the people’s morale, to emphasize the dream of an independent state reclaiming the land, building cities, creating a cultural life, and to portray the country as devoid of people and waiting for salvation.
The genre of “war films” dramatically emerged in Israeli cinema. The issue of military service is a focal point in Israelis’ lives; as soon as one war ends, Israel enters another. These films try to embed the importance of war in the Israeli viewer’s mentality and its position in determining the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews. They desperately attempt to show the “humanity” of the Israeli soldier against the “brutality” of his enemies who “force” him to kill them.
The Israeli army has financed several films on the wars it has fought. Although these films criticize the army and its leaders to the point of “self-deprecation,” they cleverly show the army’s objectivity and allow the filmmakers to make comments as well. The films also convince people that providing their children as victims is a humanitarian-national dilemma for the army’s leadership, but inevitable for the state’s continued survival.
In this article, we present three films that were produced in different years, most notably the latest one: Rock the Casbah (2012), and two other films from previous years, set during a war or an important incident. They show different views of so-called war and anti-war films, but they all humanize the Israeli soldier by focusing on him as an individual in a group with his own feelings and opinions, which he then puts aside for a sublime purpose: the security of the state and its citizens. The three films have participated in important international festivals and received awards. Thus, Israeli filmmakers have ensured that their stories have reached the Western world, raising various views about waging wars and their consequences while eager to stir emotions through sounds and images, which are enhanced with emotional dialogues of nostalgia for home, family and the sweetheart.
Rock the Casbah (2012)
Directed by Yariv Horowitz
Rock the Casbah was named best foreign film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2012. The film takes place during the first intifada when a group of soldiers are “attacked” by a group of young Palestinians. One of the soldiers is killed because a washing machine falls on his head from the roof of a house. Another soldier sees the face of the young Palestinian who threw the washing machine. This soldier is chosen to join a group of his colleagues in ascending the roof of one of the houses to monitor the neighborhood in search of the wanted Palestinian.
From the beginning, the film prompts viewers to think in a certain direction. In the first few minutes, we see a bus with a banner reading “children.” Later it becomes clear that it is transporting soldiers. This choice of an opening obviously intends to convince the viewer that these soldiers are “pitiable children” who get pushed around by their political leaders, but are in fact human beings with feelings; they have families who they love and are loved by them, and they have dreams and desires like all of us.
The film exaggerates in its attempt to “humanize” the Israeli soldier, who enters the Palestinian house and asks permission to go up to the roof. The soldier greets and plays with the children, and leaves money on the impoverished family’s table. This soldier is “forced” to act rudely when interacting with the Palestinians, as he is “compelled” to respond and did not choose to act in this way (for example, in the scene of forced entry into the Palestinian house, or urinating on the roof of the house). This same soldier escorts a wanted young man to prison, and “requests” that he speak in Hebrew to save himself from torture.
The film focuses mainly on the times the soldiers spend on the roof of the Palestinian house, and tries to show the human inside the military uniform. For example, the conversations the soldiers have about love, dreams, going home, their desire to listen to music and dance, and their inability to defend themselves in front of a five-year-old Palestinian boy who is carrying a hand grenade taken from the one of the soldiers’ bags and playing a game of “hands up” with them. In this section, the film's director shows us the quarrelsome Palestinian child threatening the group of soldiers as they stand with their hands up not being able to shoot the child. The scene concludes with the child throwing the bomb in the lap of one of the soldiers after shouting “Allahu Akbar,” thus announcing the birth of a “new terrorist.”
Naturally, the film shows the Palestinian as backward, brusque, poor, wretched and dirty, causing discomfort and insecurity for the Israeli citizen. The Palestinian has an aimless laugh and damaged yellow teeth. He sits in his house, in front of his shop, or in the neighborhood café, smoking cigarettes and playing cards. He is unemployed and unproductive. He meets the soldiers that ascend his roof with humiliating subservience and is unable to confront them.
Several scenes in the film are based on the soldier, the human, the young man who loves life and does not seek death. In contrast, the Palestinian provokes the soldier and pushes him to react violently. “Who said that we enjoy being here?” This is the message presented by the film when it portrays the soldiers and their leaders as trying to escape from reality. They strip off their military garb and lead a normal life, but doing so marginalizes the fact that they create unnatural, unfair and inhumane circumstances for Palestinians who live under occupation. These circumstances appear in the form of a “situation” imposed for safety and security, or a temporary “condition” depicted through scenes that downplay the reality and horror of the occupation.
Waltz with Bashir (2008)
Directed by Ari Folman
This film is distinctive for being a combination of a docudrama (documentary-drama) and animation. The choice of animation technology seems to lighten the weight of the testimonies made by some of the film’s characters, or to give the director more freedom to disclose details that could not be revealed in a live action film.
In Waltz with Bashir, the director is looking for answers to questions that haunted him during and after his participation as a soldier in the first Lebanon war. He worked on the film for four years and described it as an “anti-war film.” In one of the interviews with him, he hoped that Israeli youth seeing it would not want to become soldiers like the participants in the film. However, despite the director's comments, the film still attempts to show the soldier as a human being thrust into a harsh situation by force. He acts on the basis of his humanity or the instructions of senior leaders, which cannot be rejected or changed. Thus, he is predestined and not free in this war.
For Palestinian viewers, the main focus of the film is the soldiers, military and political leaders who participate in the film’s description of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and the portrayal of the Israeli army as having nothing to do with this tragedy. In the testimonies, which are central to the film, we hear words repeated such as “we heard,” “we were told,” “they say that” and “there are those who saw.”
The film contains an infinite number of statements that portray the Israeli army as a moral one. The film deals with the first Lebanon war and what happened afterwards. It depicts our hero “Ari,” his memories and severe experiences during the war, his quest to find answers to his questions, his examination of the extent of the army’s involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and all the barbaric practices against the residents of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
The military and political figures’ testimonies center on these figures absolving themselves of responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre. We hear phrases such as: “there is a terrible massacre in Sabra and Shatila, we must stop it,” or one of the soldiers involved in the war confirming his mate’s innocence, saying, “I was there, I saw the massacre and we could not stop it, but more importantly, you did not cause it or participate in carrying it out.”
Directed by Joseph Cedar
This film takes place in the border area in southern Lebanon. The film is about an Israeli army mine-defusing unit that is exposed to the explosion of a landmine planted by Hezbollah on the road leading to the so-called “Beaufort Castle.” This endangers the lives of the unit members when they run inspection patrols, in addition to the “suffering” caused by the incessant shelling of the barracks by Hezbollah.
The film depicts the last months of the soldiers’ presence in the area. The viewer is shown their personal conversations, their desire to return to their homes and live as ordinary people, their differences, and the reality of living as soldiers.
On the one hand, the Israeli army lent the film crew a large amount of military gear and equipment so that the film could resemble reality as much as possible. On the other hand, the army Chief of Staff at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi, and a number of leading military figures refused the invitation to attend the film’s premiere. They called on the “passionate” Israeli public to boycott the film since three of its star actors did not perform military service, which contradicts the “nationalistic spirit” that the army and film both emphasize.
The central character in the film is the unit commander Liraz, who deals harshly with his soldiers and emphasizes the leader’s need to have a fighting spirit and a high level of “professionalism.” On the other hand, there is Oshri, a close friend of Liraz, who helps him alleviate his anger. Through Oshri’s character, the film highlights the soldier's desire to return to his family, especially as he is close to completing his compulsory military service. In this film, as in Rock the Casbah (2012), the word “children” clearly describes the soldiers and implies innocence, spontaneity, impulsiveness, and kindness to highlight the soldiers’ humanity.
The film’s location is important; it conveys the restrictions and limitations that the soldiers experience. The narrow passageways underground where they sleep and spend most of their day gives the viewer a sense of suffocation and solidarity, in addition to the happy moments that the soldier “steals” between the shelling, such as receiving a piece of candy that he eats with delight amid the piles of dirt, dust and gunpowder.
In conclusion, these three movies show that the army and Israeli political leadership have an interest in producing war films. These films provide an opportunity for them to gain public support in Israel and the world, especially when war is emphasized as a reaction to the imminent danger posed by Israel’s enemies. Meanwhile, the army diligently tries its utmost to carry out “sterile” operations against the enemy in order to maintain the safety of innocent civilians. Recurring scenes of ethical debate about the feasibility and necessity of the war, repeatedly describing the soldiers as naïve, innocent and obeying the orders of the leadership (who do not normally appear), and exaggerating the importance of the individual, his emotions and longing for home – all of these tactics ultimately spread Israeli propaganda. This propaganda depicts Israelis as the only ones suffering from injustice, provocation and aggression by their Arab neighbors.