The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual For Military Occupation

The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual For Military Occupation is a documentary about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, framed as an instructive manual for the audience on how to occupy a territory on a long-term basis. Avi Mograbi, the filmmaker, directs his instructions straight to camera, directs them in the second person – this is how you go about an occupation, this is how you go about suppressing dissent.

Unlike so many films about the Israeli occupation, this film is not made by Palestinians, trying to get the word of their suffering out into the world. It is made by Israelis, and is composed largely of testimonies of ex-Israeli soldiers, speaking of their first-hand experience as part of the machinery of occupation. It is a film made by Israelis for an Israeli audience, talking about the reality and responsibility that must be taken for the occupation. The address to ‘you’, direct to camera, makes explicit the shared culpability in what exists.

Now, it can be a dicey area, having a discussion about oppression with only those on the oppressing side at the table. My worry would be it would descend into that Frankie Boyle joke about the Americans and the Vietnam war – that not only will they kill your people, they’ll come back 15 years later to make a film about how killing your people made their soldiers sad. But that’s not what this is at all. The First 54 Years shines a light on the people who make occupation happen, the faceless, nameless, anonymous soldiers whose daily actions perpetuate the occupation as a reality for those who live under it. It strips them of their invisibility and makes them accountable for what actions they took and what actions they failed to take. It shows the treatment of Palestinians as not some misfortune of history, whose misery has become almost seen as natural to us now, as if it simply rains bombs over Gaza instead of water. But someone is firing those bombs, someone is shooting those people, and these atrocities don’t just happen – they are done.

The manner in which the ex-soldiers speak is very matter-of-fact. The describe a reality that was, there is very little moral grandstanding or debate. Many stories follow the same format – this was the order, this was how it was carried out. But that’s not to say that their retelling is flat. Just the opposite. In their recounting is all the weariness of numbness to brutality, the everyday indifference to the absurd you find in a warzone, and the sharp, breaking clarity when the horror of what is going on finds a way to break on you afresh.

Many of the ex-soldiers were kids who were drafted into the military. They talk about how easily they accepted the normality of what they were being trained to do, unquestioningly. That they would run drills on local villages, not because anyone in that village had done anything, but because the new recruits needed to practice how to raid a village. The soldiers from the 90s and later talk about how it was as if it was a video game, some shoot-em-up they had been put in front of. The machine gun on the hill, and how guys would come on their lunch break, and line up to take a turn, spraying the city with bullets.

And what they all seemed to convey, over and over again, was how rudderless this whole thing was. How absurd. How they would be sent to an address and told to pull the place apart, and they would not know who they were looking for or what they were looking for. There just had to be *something*. And how they would lift men out their bed in the dead of night, cuff and hood him, beat the shit out him, and transport him to the nearest base for detention, only to find out he was being held for not paying his electricity bill. The whole thing just felt so abritrary.

As the soldiers serving in the 70s give way to the more recent generations serving in the 2000s, the sheen comes off the apple almost entirely, the mask slips, and the pretence of propaganda drops. No longer is even lip service paid to idea of targeting terrorists. The nightly duty is to ‘map’ a neighbourhood, by going door-to-door at 4am, and wake up everyone inside, to photograph and map the layout of each room, and make a list of everyone sleeping under that roof. And they were told the ‘why’ for this was not that this would produce any valuable intelligence, but simply to instill in the general populace the understanding that there would not be a night where they would go undisturbed or unsearched. That quite openly, the purpose was to grind them down, and put the fear of god in them.

So what do you get, after the first 54 years? Mograbi’s end is one of pessimism, that unless Israel faces the reality of what it has done and continues to do, that the conflict will only escalate in brutality, with no expectation or even hope of peace. That Israelis and Palestinians have both come to see this as an unwinnable war, and the goal has devolved from victory over the other to simply spreading the suffering.

This is how you run a military occupation, it says, with terror, and torture, and death. How do you want to continue?

The Story of Looking

So, a couple of things went up like flares that the filmmaker might be a twat. He starts the film lying naked in bed talking the camera next to him, like you’re lying on the other pillow, in this suffocatingly heavy-handed visual metaphor for being brought into an intimate and personal story. As he lectures the camera, I noticed his naked torso and arms were covered in tattoos, the signatures of famous people, in various fonts and scripts. I began to feel the dread that I’d somehow woken to discover I’d slept with yet another film fuckboy. He mentions he’s speaking from his flat in the centre of Edinburgh and the feeling of doom is complete.

The needless cockshot later in the film is almost surplus confirmation at that point.

So, is this self-indulgent pretentious bilge? Yes. Is it worthless? No.

The Story of Looking is an essay/poem/memoir on what visual culture means to the filmmaker, what looking is. The film explores art in photography, painting, film, and performance, while talking about the development of our sight in infancy and childhood. And there is a lot of interesting stuff said. He talks about growing up in a working class Catholic family, where the glory of God made manifest in art, in architecture, in beholding creation, was seen as positive good of looking. And how, when he got older and moved into a middle-class presbyterian environment, the act of looking was seen as a negative, that it was a shallow practice, open to deceit and distraction, in opposition to the transcendental nature of reading and inner imagination and thought.

He talks about the separation between light and colour, their respective forms and functions, in life and in art. He talks about the experiences of those missing colour through colour-blindness, or light through complete blindness. He talks about focus and blur, the blur of vision, the blur of memory, the blur of ruined film or smudged paint or ink.

The hook he hangs this semi-structured ramble on is that he has begun to develop a cataract in one eye, and it will be removed and replaced with an artificial lens. It is for this reason he beats you about the head with how personal and intimate this soliloquy is, up to and including flashing you his knob.

Except it’s not intimate or personal. It’s the opposite of that. He intellectualises the subject into the abstract, distancing us and himself from any emotion the prospect of his sight being lost or changed is actually causing him. Despite being literally brought into the folds of his skin, he could not push the audience further away than with this intellectual exercise.

As I’m educated on the use of light and colour in film, I spend 90 minutes learning almost nothing about Mark Cousins. And his sense of trepidation about his operation is effaced completely with this aria to visual culture. And beautiful though much of it is, it does what any intellectual exercise does – leaves me cold.

The Father

Jesus, what was I thinking? Staved off greeting til the last scene, then sobbed like a fucking wean. My mask is soaking.

At first you’re like, you’re an ol’ bastard aren’t you? Just coz you’re old, and ill, and pitiable, doesn’t mean you’re not a bastard, and probably have been a bastard all your days.

Then as the scenery and furniture change in subtle ways, and the cast are played by multiple actors, you get taken along on this unsettling sense of sliding through time, totally disorientated.

At first, the dad is hostile, seeing his constant confusion as a product of malicious agents, like his daughter or his carers, but as the story progresses, you just see him lose his bluster as he becomes truly scared. And you realise just what a vulnerability he is at with the people around him.

All through the film the dad, the daughter ask for reassurance from others, it is going to be ok, isn’t it? They tell each other it’s going to be alright. But it’s not. You’re going to get old, and feeble, and die. And everyone you love will leave or die or be forgotten to you.

But the world also turns the other way too if you look. The world is full of people looking out for you, loving you, caring about you. And outside, every day, is a new day. And you are alive for as long as you live to see it.

A really heartbreaking film about the absolute fundamentals of life and love.

My Name Is Pauli Murray

Wow. Like, wow. There is so much I didn’t know.

Not a stranger to African-American history or feminist history, but still never heard of Pauli Murray. And after watching this film, it seems incredible that could happen.

Who was Pauli Murray? Pauli Murray was arrested for refusing to sit at the back of the bus in the segregated South 14 years before Rosa Parks. She brought a legal challenge to the Jim Crow laws behind her arrest and used it as a platform to speak out against racism and segregation. She wrote a paper against the Separate But Equal doctrine, showing how it contravened the 14th amendment of the Constitution while she was a legal student, and was derided by other students and dismissed by her professor – the same professor who went on to use the arguments in her paper while bringing Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, securing one of the most major wins of the Civil Rights Movement and sending a wrecking ball into the legal basis for segregation.

While working with the ACLU, Murray argued in White v. Crook that the 14th amendment covered discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race, succeeding in allowing women, as well as black men, to sit on juries in Alabama. 6 years later, her argument would be credited by Ruth Bader Ginsberg when she brought the same argument before the Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed, which upheld that discrimination on the basis of sex was in contravention of the 14th amendment of the Constitution.

She coined the term ‘Jane Crow’, and wrote about the intersectional oppression of African-American women on the basis of their sex and race. She co-founded NOW, the National Organization for Women, alongside Betty Friedan. She had a lifelong correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt, who requested her appointment to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women’s Committee on Political and Civil Rights. She got Eleanor to use her influence on President Roosevelt in the case of a black sharecropper who had shot dead his white landlord, and he privately spoke to the Governor of Virginia to ask him to commute his death sentence.

Murray also worked for labour rights as part of the Workers’ Defense League. She taught Law in the newly independent Ghana, and how decolonisation was an opportunity to realise human rights. She organised student activists while at Howard University, and staged sit-ins in all-white diners with fellow women students 17 years before the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins of the 60s.

She was a writer, an essayist, a memoirist, and a poet.

She was the first African-American to get a Law Doctorate from Yale. She was the one of the first African-Americans, alongside James Baldwin, to be admitted to the McDowell artists’ residency. She became the first woman and the first African-American to get a residential college named after her at Yale. She was the first African-American woman to become a US Episcopal priest, and 2012 was named as an Episcopal saint.

She also may have been a trans man. Or perhaps transmasculine genderqueer. While during their life, they used she pronouns, now it would probably be more appropriate to use they or they/she. They spent their life perpetually in conflict with their assigned gender. They underwent surgery to find a pair of undescended testes that they were sure must be inside them, as it would explain so much about why they did not feel as though they were fully female. They spent their life seeking a doctor who would give them testosterone, as they were sure injections of the hormone were needed to correct an imbalance in their body. They struggled their whole life to find a language to put into words what they were feeling and who they were.

They described to doctors that they may be an ‘invert’, using the parlance at the time which covered lesbians, trans people, and even just butch or non-conforming women. Their loving relationships were exclusively with women. They were unable to be out during their lifetime, but they did have the support of their partner of almost 25 years, Irene.

It is so good to see a film which celebrates the contributions of gender minorities to the feminist cause. The feminist movements and achievements that we have today, are down the work, support, unity, and leadership of all those denied the privilege of the cis male gender.

Murray’s worldview was shaped by a life lived across arbitrary division. As a person of mixed racial heritage, with both black and white ancestors, that opportunities should be afforded to those labelled White and not Black was ridiculous, unjust, and cruel. As a person whose gender experience crossed the binary between man and woman, that a person’s potential should be denied or curtailed because they are labelled Female and not Male was preposterous, unfair, and obscene. They fought injustice everywhere they found it.

This film does a good job of boiling down an expansive life, each aspect of which could span a movie in its own right, to the the central thread of who Pauli Murray was – someone filled with deep compassion, who felt keenly the injustices of the world, and who worked tirelessly in every corner of their talents to promote understanding, empathy, and the shared bond of humanity. Pauli Murray is someone who sought only the successful outcome of their cause, and never pushed to the front for the limelight, or to establish personal glory. Pauli is seen in many photos of the century’s most recognisable figures, standing at the back or sat just to the side, almost a shadow in each great historical moment. And it is perhaps because of this effacing of ego, that it is necessary for us that come after to remember.

If you liked this…

Comets

Comets is this beautiful, heartfelt movie about love set almost entirely in a garden in Georgia. It is almost like a play more than a film, with characters discussing the most intense and meaningful of emotions with relatively little action or plot. It almost feels like the film takes place in real time, bookended by the main character Nana’s daughter going to the shops, then returning home.

The film has a stillness to it, like the breathless heat of the summer day it takes place in. The camera moves very little, as we are introduced to the initial languid feeling of sunbathed leisure in this pastoral scene. But the camera remains still as this seemingly soporific domesticity peels back to reveal the tumultuous inner life of the characters. All of life is here, and in the deceptive tranquillity are the intensest tragedies and loves.

The film starts with Nana’s daughter reading a small book of poetry and having a morning coffee. Nana enters with blackberries she has picked, and begins sorting out the sweet and ripe ones. And in this contented tableau, Nana’s daughter confesses that she and her boyfriend may be breaking up, that he seems like a good man, but she doubts whether she even has the ability to love, that she is perhaps incapable of it. Her mother, older and having seen more of life, talks to her daughter about what it is like to love her, about her daughter’s character. And this theme emerges of the need for but rejection of love.

After Nana’s daughter goes to the shop, Nana is busy with the chores of the day when, like a comet hitting earth, the love of her life steps into her garden. Irina, the girl who was her first love 30 years ago, and who left never to return after their attempt to live their love openly was met with calamity. The rest of the film is just this incredibly rich two-hander, as these two character feel around the edges of each other to see who they are now, to understand who they were, and what their love meant for each of them.

It has such frank intimacy, and there are such screams in the silences. The performances feel so real, and there is this pressure of both the possibility and transience of this one meeting. Despite the lack of movement on screen, your attention is rapt.

A film that leaves you holding your breath.

Our People Will Be Healed

Our People Will Be Healed is about the Cree First Nation reservation school at Norway House, Manitoba, Canada. It begins its story there and then spirals out to encompass the entire community, showing how change ripples out. This film is so uplifting, full of hope.

So many stories told about indigenous peoples focuses on the violence perpetuated against them and intergenerational effects of that trauma. Our People Will Be Healed is a different kind of story, showing a community rebuilding, recovering, blossoming. It is hopeful in a sense that is not simply speculative about the future, but evidenced in the here and now, being made by many hands and tangible.

The Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw School is reversing the long-perpetuated practice of using education as a vehicle for violence against indigenous people, as a means to remove and acculturate children. And that is where the film starts, with all the successes. It has increased student retention, academic achievement, is decolonising their curriculum, ensuring Native Studies subjects are part of every student’s schedule, and teaching the Cree language. The pride and self-esteem of the students are self-evident. Even kids who have dropped out say they intend on returning, that they can see the worth of what is being taught. And the teachers are a really motivated bunch, determined that this generation will not be another generation lost to the failures of a racist education system which was never intended for Cree children to reach their full potential.

It really is moving. And I say this as someone who hated school, and has a deep cynicism of teachers tooting their own horn. But watching the music teacher teach huge classes on the fiddle old Cree hymns and traditional folk songs, it is really moving. The whole music department are just so enthusiastic, it had me wanting to learn the fiddle!

Gordon Walker is the school’s Cree language and culture adviser, and he takes students out on canoeing expeditions, showing them how to fish, hunt and trap. And you follow the thread from the school out into the community, as you see students not just learning something practical away from a classroom setting, but spend time with a male role model, someone knowledgeable and caring. Kids open up about the social problems of alcohol, drugs, gangs, criminality, early pregnancy, poverty, and challenging or absent family relationships. All of which are usually treated as ‘outside school’ problems, but which have a massive impact on their ability to stay in school and pursue their education. For some of them, Gordon is the only father figure they know, and the only one to take the time to teach them with kindness and patience. Even other community members who come along to help him on school trips speak to the influence Gordon has had on them, getting them out of gang life, taking their mind off substance abuse and putting them to work, focusing on making a better start for the kids. This film is about hope, but it’s the hope you make.

What I love about this film is it, start to finish, focuses on the successes. Rejecting centring the narrative on the violence of the oppressor, but on the celebration, love, and rekindling community who are solving their problems themselves. While some explanation is required of the previous school system, the widespread violence against indigenous women, and the outlawing of Cree traditional practices, in order to give context to the current achievements, it is always given second place to Cree action and agency in how they fought to overcome, and continue to fight, to ensure their people have what they need physically, ecologically, emotionally, spiritually, educationally and socially.

A feel-good movie that is really nourishing for the soul.

Maricarmen

Maricarmen is a look at the life of Maricarmen Graue. A professional cellist, she has congenital glaucoma, meaning from birth she has been visually impaired, and despite the ups and downs of various surgeries and treatments, has eventually went completely blind. Despite this, she lives independently on her own, and makes her living as a music teacher.

The focus of the film is Maricarmen’s zest for life. Running marathons, swimming beneath waterfalls, writing her autobiography, painting, sculpting, playing in a rock band and memorising symphonies to play in an orchestra. She celebrates life as an artist in so many different ways.

Yet because of her disability, both she and this film are caught on the horns of how she is perceived by others, as a blind woman in a sighted world. The film tries diligently to steer around the ‘inspirational’ trope all disabled people are expected to fulfil for an able-bodied audience. And in real life, Maricarmen herself says she struggles sometimes to know if she does things for her own joy and inner satisfaction, or because she feels she must, that she has to prove she can.

A multi-media artist who can memorise symphonies is a subject worthy of a documentary all on her own. And her spirit is uplifting as someone enthusiastically engaged with the world.

Nor does she or the film try to portray her as having ‘overcome’ her disability. Her disability is part of her and informs her art. It is as much part of her humanity as her creativity, and her determination to live independently is part of her character, neither a victory or defeat over this integral part of herself.

The central relationship in the film for me was that between Maricarmen and her mother. Her mother is fiercely independent, and she raised Maricarmen to be the same. Maricarmen’s father died when she was a teenager and her mother was determined to remain financially independent while she raised her kids alone. Their relationship has both a mutual admiration and tension because of this emphasis on independence and self-sufficiency.

Her mother raised her as though she were no different to other sighted children, and there is the dual result for Maricarmen that it taught her to always find a way to achieve what she wanted and to hold her expectations of herself as high as for anyone else, but conversely she didn’t always understand as a child why she was different, how visually impaired she in fact was, and why she found things so much more difficult than other children. That balance, between encouraging her daughter to realise all she was capable of, and providing comfort and support was a challenge to strike and was not always successfully found.

This continues into their relationship today, even as an adult Maricarmen craves an emotional comfort from her mother, and her mother seems almost afraid to give it to her, as though if she focuses on anything other than passing on her steely spine, it will have a detrimental effect on Maricarmen. Her mother wants to know that when she is gone, her daughter will be able to look after herself, that she won’t have to worry. And yet here and now, while they are together, she could maybe also do with reaching out and letting her know how much she loves her.

A thoroughly enjoyable documentary exploring the life and character of an extraordinary artist with her own experiences and challenges in the world.

Stray

A wonderful documentary following three stray dogs through the streets of Istanbul.

On one level this is just a lovely documentary about the lives of dogs. Istanbul had tried for years to get rid of the city’s stray dogs, with culls and inhumane tactics, until mass protests made it the first city in the world where it is illegal to put down or hold captive stray dogs. Thus the city’s strays now just wander free, and Stray shows us their world. It is beautiful. There is no narration or ‘interpretation’ for the audience. You just go where they go, see what they see. And it is beautiful. A city of lights, smells of food, the lap of the ocean in the harbour, green grassy parks, architecture both ancient and modern, awe-striking and derelict, a world replete with treasures. Unlike the complicated human drama they might wander through, the dogs care only if in this moment they are warm, they are dry, they are fed, they are safe, they are among friends. And they have all they need.

The tone of the film is a meditation, in following the dogs you are asked to see the world as they see it, to think not on any big picture, but to experience the world all around us. To look, without searching for purpose, upon the world as it is.

On another level, this film has a philosophical nature. Accompanied by quotations from Diogenes, who is known to have espoused the virtues of dogs, the film asks why human life is so contentious when dogs live among us as though the world were an untroubled bounty. As you watch the dogs walk along the water of the harbour, their life is undarkened by past memories, undisturbed by worries for the future, and unfettered by want in the present. Why can we not all live like a dog?

This perspective gives the film a unique viewpoint. The dogs occasionally hang out with a group of homeless refugee street kids, and whereas in any other documentary they would be portrayed as victims without agency on the lowest wrung of society, Stray shows them as rich with everything they need, sheltering in abandoned buildings, sleeping surrounded by friends, wrapped up together in blankets with the dogs, finding and sharing food together, and always glad to see each other, a endless wealth of kindness.

Just a lovely film.