Israeli-born documentary maker is no stranger to criticism, having his film ‘Route 181’ banned in France.
Born in Israel to Jewish Uruguayan parents, Eyal Sivan released his first documentary, Aqabet Jaber, about the daily life of refugees in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, in 1987. The film was a success and went on to screen in many international festivals. Sivan continued with filmmaking, using cinema as what he calls a “field of the essay” in the documentary format. In 2004, he released Route 181: Extracts from a Palestinian-Israeli Journey, a collaboration with Palestinian filmmaker Michel Khleifi. Route 181 follows Sivan and Khleifi’s journey of discovery and exposition from the south to north of Palestine while travelling along the virtual partition line defined in United Nations Resolution 181.
It was this work that would eventually be the cause for his marginalisation in France. The film was censored by the French Ministry of Culture and subsequently pulled out of France’s largest documentary film festival, Le Festival du Cinema du Reel, held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In a statement released by the Ministry of Culture and the Centre Pompidou, organisers behind the decision to pull the film said: “The film’s broadcast on ARTE … had already provoked intense emotion, particularly among those who are alarmed by the rise of anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish statements and acts in France, and who consider that the film’s underlying hostility to the existence of Israel may be of a nature to encourage these acts.”
Later, in 2004, Sivan filed a libel suit in Paris courts against philosopher Alain Finkelkraut (Sivan vs Finkelkraut) for the latter’s claim that Route 181 was a “call to murder Jews” and that Sivan himself was representative of a “particularly painful, particularly frightening reality – Jewish anti-Semitism”. Finkelkraut also claimed that Sivan’s film was a constant plagiarism of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a ten-hour innovative documentary about memory and the Holocaust, and called on Lanzmann, a former Israeli ambassador to France, to testify on Finkelkraut’s behalf.
The presiding judge at the trial rejected Finkielkraut’s conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and, according to court documents, dismissed Sivan’s petition based on the argument that Finkielkraut’s attack was part of a legitimate political disagreement. Following the trial, Sivan lost his teaching position at CLEMI (the French Ministry of Education’s centre for information media) and the French television network, ARTE, decided to cease commissioning his films.
Sivan’s experience, with its strong implication of censorship, is not unique in France. In January, Stephane Hessel, a former French resistance fighter and author of the acclaimed book, Indigenez-vous! [“Time for Outrage”], which includes a profound condemnation of Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-9 bombing and ground invasion of Gaza, was denied the platform to speak at a Collectif Palestine meeting at the Ecole Normale Superieure (the same university that Hessel once attended). In defence, the university director, Monique Canto-Sperber, wrote in Le Monde that she cancelled the meeting on the grounds that she had been fooled about the “exact nature” of the meeting – and that it might endanger public order and security. Canto-Sperber continues: “I add that the Ecole Normale Superieure maintains precious ties, from a scientific point of view, with Israeli universities and research teams. No public meeting that calls for these ties to be broken will take place with my consent at the ENS.” Though Sivan continues to live in Paris, he commutes to London where he teaches media production at the University of East London.
Al Jazeera spoke to Eyal Sivan about the role of rewriting history and his films, including his most recent, Jaffa: The Orange’s Clockwork – a documentary about the Jaffa Orange in which an abundance of archival footage is used to refute Israel’s version of history.
Let’s begin with your transition from fashion photography to documentary filmmaking. I read a piece that mentioned you first went to Aqabet Jaber refugee camp for a photography assignment.
Yes, it was before I became a professional photographer – while I was in high school – when I took a model to the valley of Jericho, which is not far from Jerusalem, to a place that I kind of knew from the road as a kid. We always passed it on our way to Jericho, and it looked like empty huts in the middle of the desert. At that moment children came out to see who we were and what we were doing, and I realised that people were living there – so I dropped the fashion project.
Instead, you decided to document the life of the people living in the camp?
Three years later, at the moment I left Israel, I decided to make documentaries. I went back to Israel from Paris with a film in mind. It wasn’t my story; it was really the story of the people. I didn’t take the story, which is the way that you encounter – as an Israeli – the story of the Palestinian refugees.
And since then you have been documenting films about both the Palestine question and the distortion of Jewish memory and identity. You say Israel’s nationalisation of Jews puts Jews in danger. Can you elaborate on this perception?
Well, what is Jewish identity and what identity are we talking about? Jewish identity can take on a permanence of an idea of identity. Jews are an idea of exile, and it is not a geographic exile. It is just the idea of exile. The world is in exile, and this is both a nature and a condition, which is not just a negative condition. Of course, the [first] appearance of the Zionist national movement was as a tiny movement that was not appealing to many Jews, and many Jews did not think that the movement was in any way a solution because they did not see the problem in the same way.
In fact, following the Second World War, Zionism became a real force within Judaism because of the extermination of a Jewish tradition, an identity. And this was the same identity of exile: the identity of being where you are. Zionism just used parts of Judaism – symbols, elements and a selection of what could be used for Jewish nationalism – which is not the same as Judaism. One of the main things was the secularisation, which brought this fantastic internal paradox of Zionism, which is a secular movement that says “God doesn’t exist but he promised us the land”.
When you say the Holocaust and the Nakba belong to the same timeline, aren’t you worried about the comparison of these two sufferings?
I’m not comparing. By putting them on the same timeline, it’s not about a comparison. It’s about considering the process that started in 1939, which is the process that tried to bring a solution to a problem, which was called “the Jewish problem”. Europeans saw the Jews as a problem. Jews did not see themselves as a problem. It is not to compare the violence in any way, but they belong to the same timeline and time space. Obviously, without the genocide of the Jews and the idea of purifying Europe, and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, the Nakba wouldn’t have occurred.
The Nakba is part of the European colonial project: the internal colonialism, the unification of Europe, whipping up and transferring the Jews to the east, and the continuation of the colonial project. Zionism is also a way of getting rid of the European Jews.
The Nakba is the result. It is the expulsion of the Palestinians, the destruction of a country and a society. It is part of the European anti-semtism. This is a result of all that process, which is the European modern anti-semitism. And this is why I am following Edward Said when he says “we are the victims of the victims”. It is not just that Palestinians are “less” victims, and that they have to prove that they are also victims, but it is a recognition that the Jews are victims and Palestinians are victims at the same timeline, and this is why am I saying that the denial of the Nakba is also the denial of the Holocaust, and vice versa.
Not many left-wing Jews are prepared to say that there is no moral basis to the existence of the State of Israel. You yourself have been a target of a censorship campaign in France. I was in Paris in January when Stephane Hessel’s scheduled conference at the Ecole Normale Superieure was cancelled by the university’s director because of the pressure she received from French Jewish individuals and organisations. There seems to be a certain current among liberal-right French intellectuals who don’t leave a space for a discourse on Palestine and Israel.
Absolutely. France still lives its colonial relations and colonial past with a big amount of denial. Also, France is facing, through the attitude to Arabs and Muslims today in France, a perpetuation of its anti-Semitic tradition. What we see is that there is a permanency in France, and this time there are some Zionist voices that are joining this old attitude that French society has to oriental foreigners, or to Semites, as they like to say.
How did you react to Claude Lanzmann’s claim that Route 181 “mocked Palestinians”?
It is one thing for Lanzmann to say he is pro-Palestinian because he is for a Palestinian state, but he never cared about Palestinians. He is a tough supporter of Israel and he denies completely the fact that the Palestinians are not just under permanent Israeli oppression, but he denies them the right to be victims by refusing to acknowledge the Nakba, and by refusing to acknowledge the timeline of continuity: that the catastrophe of Palestine is part of the European story.
Let’s look at your latest film, Jaffa: the Orange’s Clockwork. In the documentary you use the Jaffa orange to deconstruct the history of Zionism and the project of nationalising and creating a collective Israeli identity. Would you say something is similarly going on with the falafel? It may not be successful, as was the appropriation of the Jaffa orange, but it’s an ongoing propaganda campaign that attempts to purport the falafel as Israeli.
The appropriation starts with the land. What is interesting with the oranges is that it is not just a symbol of Zionism; it was taken and transformed into a symbol of Zionism. It was also something symbolic of Palestine and something which is common. In this sense I am interested in how Zionism struggled in destroying the commonality and possibility of building something in common, but also in denying and destroying something which belongs to the land. The orange belongs to the ibna’ el belid [“people of the land”], without distinguishing whether the people are Muslims, Jews or Christians.
I don’t think the falafel is the same thing because we cannot compare the amazing success of the orange, partially because the orange was the image of progress and socialism, and all the things that made the progressive camps, or so-called progressive and left liberals, who in fact became supporters of Israel because of the way the image was used, built and created. So the orange, I think, is much more complex. Of course, the falafel is part of the permanent de-Arabisation of Palestine, which includes the Arab Jews: the Israelis from Arab countries.
Well, one of Israel’s claims with the falafel is that the Mizrahim, the Arab Jews, brought the recipe with them. I think the point, though, is not to counter the propaganda and say this is Palestinian or Egyptian. It’s not to nationalise the falafel, but to de-nationalise it.
Exactly. There is a good friend of mine in Jaffa: The Orange Clockwork, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, professor of history, who says, “There is a difference between those who belong to the country and those who claim that the country belongs to them.” It’s not the same situation. This ongoing attempt to create belonging “this orange is mine, the falafel is mine…” shows the impossibility of many Israelis to consider belonging to the place; they have to appropriate all the time. This is what Elias Sanbar is saying in the film, “There’s a difference between loving a woman and possessing a woman.”
Naturally, one can become outraged at watching your films, at seeing the timeline of Palestine’s colonisation feverishly unfold with archives; and to quote Stephane Hessel in saying “outrage inspires resistance”, do you think this outrage will carry forward the traditions of resistance in Palestine?
I think that the struggle for truth and the dismantling of the discourse is a way to resist, a real way to resist. The outrage is simply not about outrage, it is about understanding processes. And this is part of the struggle. Part of the struggle is the recognition of the Nakba, not just through marches, but the fact that suddenly Israel feels that they have to fight the memory of the Nakba. This means it is a living memory. And part of the fact that it is a living memory is thanks to a resistance, including a cultural resistance. If they [Israelis] feel that they need to enact a law forbidding the commemoration of the Nakba, if they are shooting at people that are commemorating the Nakba, it means they are threatened by that memory. It means that this memory is strong.
There are an increasing number of progressive and anti-Zionist academics, activists, and artists who are fleeing the country, both Palestinian and Israeli. Take the case of Azmi Bishara or Illan Pappe, for example, who left Israel because he was receiving death threats and academic persecution for lecturing about the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. It seems that the State of Israel will find a way to eliminate those who are effectively countering the Zionist discourse.
The veil of democracy is being ripped from Israeli faces. This for me is a sign of weakness. When a state needs laws it does not mean it is strong, it means it is weak and afraid because it has no vision for the future. Still, there is great work being done by dissidents, and this is a new position. For many years there were just Israelis living outside, but there is a position of dissidence that they have voiced. People like Illan, they have a voice to contribute to the historical debate. In Israel, maybe there is not a political organised left, but there are so many open questions. Just today I received a magazine from Tel Aviv University that covers philosophy and politics, and the university is organising a seminar about the one-state solution.
I mean, there was a campaign against Jaffa before it even existed, but nevertheless it exists and cannot be ignored. And this is part of the longer struggle. The memory of the Nakba is much stronger today than it was before. It is present in the Israelis’ mind. They are afraid of it. They have to deal with it.
You are quite active with both the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and Boycott from Within. In the past you have partnered with the Palestinian filmmaker Michel Khleifi, but have you ever, because you hold an Israeli passport, been the target of boycott by Palestinians?
We were not targeted, but maybe insulted by some Palestinian filmmakers. I know of one example. But there is a difference between working together and struggling together. It’s not about two visions and putting on equality, but about the possibility. And the film we did with Michel, it was not about a vision of an Israeli and a vision of a Palestinian, or an Israeli speaking and a Palestinian speaking. It was a common film with a common idea, where you cannot distinguish who is doing the interviews and who is filming.
As a big supporter of the cultural boycott – because I think it is a just and an important boycott – it should be implemented widely. At the same time, we have to give a new sense to the notion of what it means to be in a common struggle. Maybe we have to think that, in order to reinforce the boycott in parallel, we have to reinforce the common cultural struggle. There are the Anarchists Against The Wall, for example, fighting against the construction of the Wall in Bil’in, and the Palestinians in Bil’in are not boycotting them.
You have to remember another thing. The official Israeli policy is about separation. We have to think, also, what it means to fight against separation.
To maybe conclude things, I’d like to go back to your films, and where you started. Who were some of your role models as both a photographer and filmmaker?
For me the real art of image-making is still photography. I’m doing less and less unfortunately. In cinema, I’m more interested in the works of Marcel Ophuls or Jean-Luc Godard, who are people who inspire me until today.
I’m not a cinephilic. Most of the work I watch is documentary. I watch fiction as entertainment. It doesn’t mean I look for entertainment in fiction. I am very passionate about using cinema as a field of essay, as both an essay and a laboratory.
I am also very inspired by my students, from teaching [at the University of East London and Sapir Academic College in Israel].
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on writing counter-history in documentary. This is my big project; and using the Palestine question as the case study.
It’s about what it means to counter history. It’s both a project of cinematography, aesthetics, and politics. I am starting to elaborate on a film that will be something around the one-state question, and about trying to think of other possibilities in the Palestine-Israeli space.
22 May 2011
Eyal Sivan was speaking to Sousan Hammad for Al Jazeera.