Conflict Films

Liberal politics in Israeli movies of the 1980s and '90s.

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A radical critique is articulated through the films’ subtexts: (a) in the Conflict Films, rudiments of both Near-Eastern myths and medieval romance deconstruct the Zionist master narrative; (b) in the Nihilistic Cinema, a deeply embedded nihilist philosophy lays open and explicates the national death ethos; and (c) in the Shadow Cinema, Holocaust guilt-laden film characters represent a post-traumatic syndrome leading to psychic numbness and an obsession with death.

Rewriting the Master Narrative

The 1980s Conflict Films reformulate Arab-Jew relationships and challenge the Zionist master-narrative, which dominated 1930s -1950s cinema in films such as Oded the Wanderer (Chaim Halachmi, 1932), Sabra (Alexander Ford, 1933), On the Ruins (Nathan Axelrod, 1936), My Father's House (Herbert Kline, 1947), Out of Evil (Joseph Krumgold, 1952) and They Were Ten (Baruch Dienar, 1959).

The rewriting of Zionist master-narrative by means of the Israeli cinema began in 1978 with Hirbet Hiz'ah, Ram Levy’s television drama, and continued to develop in films such as Hamsin (Daniel Wachsman, 1982), Beyond the Walls (Uri Barabash, 1984), Smile of the Lamb (Shimon Dotan, 1986), Avanti Popolo (Rafi Bukai, 1986) and Greenfields (Yitzhak Yeshurun, 1989).

Not only do these films present the Arab-Israeli conflict as an uncompromising struggle between two national movements but they in some instances judge the whole Zionist quest as misplaced.

Ironically, both 1930s-1950s Zionist cinema and 1980s Conflict Films exhibit, in both their iconography and narrative, rudiments of ancient Near Eastern myth, and resemble two phases of the medieval Holy Grail romances. The iconographic motifs of chalice and blade appearing frequently in Grail romances are directly related to ancient near-Eastern fertility rituals. In Israeli cinema the same icons, chalice and blade, originate from the cultural wells of the ancient Near-East, both from local Arab tradition and from ancient Judaism.

Another common cultural basis of cinematic representations which link the Zionist cinema to the Grail romances is utopianism--the ambition to redeem a people and restore a land. The first cycle of Grail romances features a two-fold mission for the quester (the Grail hero):

(a) "restore the health and vigor to a king suffering from infirmity caused by wounds, sickness or old age" and

(b) "restore the waters to their channels and render the land once more fertile." (Weston: 20)

Key films of the early Zionist cinema, such as Sabra, Land of Promise (Yehuda Lehman, 1935), or Out of Evil, feature in their opening sequences a wasteland followed by scenes in which the Arabs are seen using very old agricultural technologies that cannot keep the land fertile. In the Grail romance the King’s infirmity has a disastrous effect on his kingdom, depriving it of vegetation or exposing it to the ravages of war. The Grail hero revitalizes the wasteland by freeing the waters and restoring the rivers to their channels.

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Judd Ne'eman

Judd Ne'eman is a well-known Israeli filmmaker.