This haunting film is at once a documentary, a highly personal film essay, and a poetic meditation on the human consequences of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The film tells the story of how Sachs became gradually drawn into the story of Revital Ohayon, an Israeli filmmaker who lived on a kibbutz directly adjacent to a Palestinian refugee camp, and who was killed, along with her two young sons, by a terrorist in 2002. (To add to the horror of the story, her young husband heard the entire gruesome murder on his phone.) Sachs reads about the story in the New York Times, and begins a correspondence with an ex-film student of hers, Nir Zats, who lives in Israel. It is natural that Sachs is fascinated by the story: like her, Ohayon is a female Jewish filmmaker with young children, trying to make films which address social conflicts. Like her, Ohayon was opposed to the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. (“She believed that peace must pervade,” says her mother.) Ohayon was a fiercely independent thinker, whose films, shown here in fragments, tell stories of women who strongly assert their right to define themselves. Ohayon’s story holds a key to how a woman, a mother, and an artist can find a sane way of living in a world of seemingly irreconcilable conflict and violence.
The film casually employs many of the techniques of experimental film, including collage, slow frame rates, overlapping projections, and a soundtrack which runs in counterpoint to the images. However, these techniques are applied in a highly expressive way which is never arbitrary. A beautiful score by Ted Reichman adds to the film’s emotional impact. The film is enhanced throughout by Zats’ video footage of the Israeli landscape, and by his thoughtful, poetic ruminations on the impossibility of normal life in Israel. The result is a flowing collage of words, music, and images, which is a powerful and convincing representation of Sachs’ inner experience as she continually learns more about Ohayon’s story and attempts to make sense of it.
Some of the most riveting footage in the film comes from a videotape of the kibbutz day care center, taken the day after the funeral, in which a wonderful teacher talks with a group of kids (they seem to be about 5 years old) about death, funerals, and how to cope with the loss of Ohayon’s two sons. The scene, in which the kids all sit in a big circle, discussing their feelings, could have easily come from a classroom in the Bank Street School for Children on Manhattan’s West Side, where I used to work. But watching these kids, who not only are attempting to deal with their feelings about two members of their class who were violently murdered, but also with the fact that they continue to live on the kibbutz, right up against the security fence and the West Bank, which is so dangerously near the ongoing conflict. One child says he heard someone on TV say that the terrorist had “the brain of a chickadee and the common sense of a dog.” While, given the senseless cruelty of the murders, I am inclined to agree with the assessment, it is still chilling to see how, at such a young age, these children are already being inculcated with a feeling that the terrorists are crazy people who have no real reasons for their anger.
Also fascinating is the story of Debra, Sachs’ friend, who, as an idealistic young person, spent some time living on the kibbutz in 1972, when, apparently, the kibbutz and the neighboring Arabs got along peacefully. One cannot help feeling, however, that the social and economic inequalities which became the root causes of the intifada must have been present in 1972, even if Debra wasn’t aware of it.
In an interview with Ohayon’s brother, it becomes clear that her approach to the danger of life next door to the West Bank was to try and ignore it, and to create her own personal world, in which people treat each other with respect instead of prejudice. In a sense, you could say that her reward for ignoring the conflict was to become one of its victims. But you could also say that her solution to the impossibility of life in Israel was brave and life-affirming. “I know I can’t do anything about this immense conflict all by myself,” Ohayon seemed to be saying, “but, as a creative person, I will create a reality where people behave decently towards each other. Some day, I may become a victim of the conflict, but, until that day, I will have created an atmosphere of peace and respect, instead of fear and hatred.” Her life is indeed an inspiration.
I have always been bothered by a certain kind of liberal approach to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, in which an artist or commentator tries to take a “neutral, balanced” approach, by acting as if both sides suffer equally and are equally guilty of horrendous acts. In a conflict such as this one, in which one side is immensely wealthier than the other, and the wealthier, better armed side is committing far greater acts of violence, and causing far more disruption in the lives of the poorer side, and is, in fact, the aggressive, occupying force, it is quite misleading to give the impression that blame for the conflict is equal on both sides. For much of the film, Sachs indeed takes this kind of stance. She represents the Palestinian experience by including a small amount of news footage about the building of the security wall and how it affects life on the West Bank, and there are images which contrast the wealth of Israel with the poverty of the West Bank. A single report about a Palestinian child who is senselessly killed in the conflict reinforces the vague, unarticulated impression the film gives that “there is equal blame on both sides.” Although Sachs searches extensively within the bible, trying to find an explanation of a landscape that “makes normal people go mad,” she doesn’t really look at the history of the last fifty years, which would make the motivation of Ohayon’s killer easy to comprehend.
In the end, the film makes an argument for its neutral political stance which I largely buy: in order to move forward and get somewhere with this conflict, one must get out of the ideologies, and into the lives and feelings of those who are suffering. As Ohayon’s husband says, the violence “will only stop when we go back to our feelings.” Sachs has set a supremely difficult task for herself, and, implicitly, for us: to realize the full horror of the senseless murder of a woman and two children, and yet not close ourselves off from acknowledging the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people. It is true that the feelings of the killer are unexamined in the film, and, halfway through the film, we learn that he has been killed in turn by the Israeli army, ending once and for all the possibility that any healing, growth or change can ever come of Ohayon’s murder. But this is not a film for beginners. By now, educated viewers have access to a myriad of documents which purport to explain the conflict from all sides. Meanwhile, by taking the edge off of this loaded issue, Sachs has done her audiences an invaluable service by making her film accessible to people from all ideological perspectives. Ohayon’s husband, speaking of Ohayon’s films, says that they will not provide any answers, but will enable the viewer to put question marks in the right places. His remark also serves as a perfect description of why “States of Unbelonging” is so effective as a humanist argument.
The underlying story of the film concerns Sachs, and her increasing level of involvement with Ohayon’s story, which gradually leads her to overcome her (perfectly natural) fear of going to Israel, until she finally feels that the lessons to be learned from her trip are so valuable, that she buys a ticket, packs up her camera, and goes. As any mother would, she tries to calm her kids’ fears about the trip. The film ends with a question her daughter asks about the biblical story of Abraham, in which he sends his maid Hagar and their son Ishmael into exile in the desert, where they become progenitors of the Arab people. “Who sent them into the desert?” she asks. Answer the question, and the film’s unspoken questions are also answered.
So, what is an “experimental documentary?” In this case, it means a film that, rather than posing as an Objective Statement of The Truth from a Noted Authority, attempts to convey the inner experiences of a whole person, with a spirit, a heart, and a mind, as she grapples with some bewildering aspects of the real world. We need more films like this.