Film Review: West of the Jordan River

An annoying rehash of anti-Israeli sentiment in connection with the occupied territories.
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West of the Jordan River, Amos Gitai’s latest documentary about life in the “occupied territories,” is yet another simple-minded indictment of Israel, smugly preaching to the already converted. His 1982 chronicle, Field Diary, centering on the post-Rabin era, caused quite the brouhaha for its blatant one-sidedness and allegedly forced him to leave his native country. As an ex-pat, he lived in France for a decade.

In Jordan River, structured as a “road trip diary” (to quote Gitai), he is an onscreen presence (humorless to the core) interacting with journalists, military personnel, activists and politicians who for the most part agree with him. The film opens and closes with clips from his earlier interviews with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose efforts on behalf of Middle East peace earned him, along with Shimon Perez and Yasser Arafat, a Nobel Peace Prize. Gitai’s docudrama Rabin, The Last Day was released in 2015.  

Gitai’s more memorable interviews are with The Parents Circle, an Israeli-forged association of both Jewish and Palestinian parents who lost children in the conflict; B’Tselem, an Israeli-led human-rights organization that helps Palestinian women document on video violations in the occupied territories;Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli activist veterans that has set out to expose the harsh realities of life in the occupied territories;and (again mostly Israeli) spokespeople for a Bedouin School now threatened with demolition due to the much-debated Regulation Law on Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

It’s striking that all outreach efforts are initiated by Israelis, while the Palestinians emerge as intransigent, including, and most disturbingly, an 11-year-old boy who wants to be a martyr (think suicide bomber) in order to receive Allah’s praise. The image of the Palestinian as rigid and uncompromising certainly isn’t the impression Gitai wants the viewer to walk away with. But as the old adage goes, “Trust the tale, not the teller.” The same charge can be leveled at Hava Beller’s In the Land of Pomegranates, an equally biased, recently released documentary on the emotionally fraught topic.

Admittedly, Gitai gives “conservative” voices on-camera time too, though it’s far less than he provides his supporters and he constantly interrupts them, making it clear he views their perspectives as racist and reactionary. It’s not coincidental that the political opponents he taps for interviews are in fact straw figures, most notably the flakyforeign-affairs minister Tzipi Hotovely,who merges contemporary politics with ancient mysticism.

Gitai has little interest in filmmaking aesthetics. The movie feels chaotic as it darts about from subject to subject and the interviews are monotonous, with a notable lack of variety in rhythm, cadence and length. But that’s the least of it. The overriding problem is the absence of new insight on this complex, troubling subject.

Still, one suspects Gitai wants to end on an affirmative note by showing how ordinary Israeli and Palestinians—unlike the current Israeli powers-that-be—can join forces and find common ground in happy gatherings. The film concludes on a smarmy note as the camera pans interethnic crowds, expressing cross-cultural goodwill as they play games, engage in sports and enjoy shared artistic/theatrical events. One satisfied Israeli talks about the similarity in Palestinian and Israeli music. That’s lovely. But to suggest it’s going to solve anything is naïve at best.

Click here for cast and crew information.