An Existential Study on Being Shut in and Shut Out
Until now, Simone Bitton's numerous, often highly acclaimed television documentaries have dealt with the feelings and emotional states of people in the Maghreb, in the Near and Middle East.
Frequently she approaches a region through several persons. In the three-part series "Great Voices of Arab Song"(1990) she portrays three overpowering cult figures: music and film stars Umm Kulthoum, Mohammed Abd el-Wahhab, and Farid al-Attrache.
She dedicated the film "Ben Barka"(2001) to the Moroccan political activist, freedom fighter, and later dissident Mehdi Ben Barka, who vanished in 1965 under mysterious circumstances.
Controversial figures and ambivalent life-worlds seem obvious subjects given filmmaker Simon Bitton's eventful biography. Her experiences as a soldier in the October War in 1973 turned her into a pacifist. Afterwards Bitton left Israel to study film at the famous IDHEC in Paris. She now feels at home in at least three societies.
Films on the Middle East conflict
The Middle East conflict is a recurring theme in her work. A film about Palestine ("Story of a Land,"1992) was followed by portraits of the Palestinian poet legend Mahmoud Darwish ("Mahmoud Darwish,"1997) and Azmi Bishara, an Arab-Palestinian member of Knesset.
"Citizen Bishara," filmed in 2001, depicts the everyday life, goals, and thoughts of a man who accomplished a difficult balancing act and became the first Palestinian to campaign for the office of Israeli Prime Minister in 1999.
Filmed in 1999, but unfortunately still very topical, is her film "The Bombing/ L'Attentat," a documentary about the devastating suicide attack carried out in the Ben-Yahuda pedestrian zone in September 1997. Because of the sensational nature of the topic Bitton consciously assumes a reserved tone and makes no attempt to explain the event politically or psychologically.
Rarely shown, heartbreaking images from the scene of the crime and moving accounts from eye witnesses are followed by long conversations with family members – of the Israeli victims as well as of the young suicide bombers.
What one perhaps fears most – justifications, accusations, tirades of hate – is absent. Above all "The Bombing" is a deeply sorrowful film about senseless loss, which also serves to express the filmmaker's helplessness – and her unconditional willingness to suffer in equal measure with Palestinians and Israelis alike.
At the end of her latest film "Wall," Bitton thematizes this personal identity problem only too clearly in a conversation with a psychologist friend. He must attest to the filmmaker's psychological health because – or even though? – she still works for peace and settlement in face of an increasingly bleak situation.
Images of "Absurdistan"
Nevertheless Bitton's first cinema film is an impressively composed, larger than life portrait. This time the focus is not on one person but on that inland border wall which symbolizes the entire dilemma of the Middle East conflict.
In its best moments the film "Wall" becomes a universal existential study on being shut in and shut out. The constant deployment of machines, trucks, and cranes, moving millions of tons of earth and concrete – together with a soundtrack on which construction noise and idyllic sounds of nature overlap – create moments of endless melancholy and tristesse.
Bit by bit the blooming landscape vanishes behind the components of the wall, only to be repainted on concrete on the Israeli side.
At the same time Bitton frequently refines the stylistic device of shortage and confusion, providing the viewer with hardly any information or facts. Often it is even unclear on which side of the barrier we currently are. That we are walking in "Absurdistan" is conveyed by images of a highly modern, almost entirely walled-in bungalow settlement, whose inhabitants talk about Palestinian villagers as if they were bloodthirsty aliens who might invade them at any moment.
It looks just as surreal when bad-tempered Israeli soldiers armed with MGs secure the entrance of a busload of pilgrims to the sacred Tomb of Rachel by surrounding it from all sides. Is this a Vietnam film? A martial science fiction?
With such long sequences of silent, evocative images, which Bitton deliberately contrasts with the loquacious, fast-paced aesthetics of television, "Wall" sometimes appears to be a counterpart to another film about the border wall.
In the high-strung film "Route 181," Michel Khleifi and Eyal Sivan meet mainly neurotic and traumatized psycho wrecks along the border. Bitton's interview partners, on the other hand – yes, they do exist – are mostly pacifist do-gooders.
There is Schuli Dichter, the critical left-wing intellectual living in a kibbutz, who says about his compatriots: "We love Israel so much that we want to suffocate it in our embrace." There are the Palestinian workers building the wall enclosure for Israeli companies (one worker did not want to be filmed out of fear of retaliation) and their Iraq-born boss. And then there are all those who believe that the wall is "wasted money."
Only one turns out to be a total hardliner: Israeli wall expert, retired general, and old Sharon crony Amos Yaron, who, surrounded by Israeli flags on his desk, refuses to look beyond the edge of his own plate and wall. He says that "the Palestinians are responsible for all this."
To counteract such biases Simone Bitton has sought out another border crosser for her next film: Frantz Fanon, who spent his lifetime fighting internal and external walls, refusing to accept divisions based on ethnicity or culture. The famous psychiatrist and freedom fighter was born in Martinique, studied in France, and fought in the Algerian war of liberation.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: Nancy Joyce
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