Polarizing: American Radical, featuring Norman Finkelstein, closes YBCA's 'Human Rights and Film' series.

Unresolved Conflict in 'American Radical,' 'Promised Lands'

Dennis Harvey March 25, 2010

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ month-long, six-part Human Rights and Film series closes with two documentaries on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Though they were made 35 years apart and approach overlapping concerns from wildly different perspectives, both features underline how little has truly changed in that time span–save, of course, the regional conflict’s enormously expanded impact on international politics, cultural divisions and the militarization of religious belief.

First up this Thursday is a film that was barely seen in 1974 and had virtually vanished since. Actually, all of Susan Sontag’s few dips into cinema (as a practitioner, not as a critic and theorist) have been near-impossible to see since their original creation, though at least the Swedish-funded narrative features Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971) were fairly widely shown and discussed at the time.

Not so 1974’s Promised Lands, her only nonfiction work in the medium. Shot during the close and immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, funded by Polish and French sources, it was briefly released in the U.S. by New Yorker Films. But few saw it here then, and despite their cooperation during filming, Israeli authorities banned the finished film from local exhibition.

Today it may be hard to see why, if only because we’ve been exposed to so much vivid imagery of tragedy and strife in the Middle East since, and “photographic essay” Promised Lands’ has the cool, lightly ironic distance of a slightly-more-inquisitive-than-usual travelogue. Sontag (of nonreligious Jewish background herself) avoids any hint of personal or political stance, resulting in a film that risks dilettantism in its refusal to make any particular statement.

There’s a touristic exoticism to the snapshots of people praying at the Wailing Wall, urban Orthodox Jewish communities, Arabic shepherds, and so forth. Not to mention a striking scene in which the camera dwells on museum dioramas using grotesque wax dummies to illustrate an inspirational “official history” of Israel’s founding and history. The film’s soundtrack collage of phonograph recordings, radio broadcasts, gunfire, schoolroom textbook quotes and other miscellany–like its decision to omit interviewee identification, translate non-English speech or provide any explanatory narration/titles–heightens a sense of modish art project rather than serious investigation.

Nonetheless, there are powerful moments. One stark early contrast is between an Israeli soldier whose unit “can’t even [be called] a war machine…it’s one big family” and glimpses of black-skinned corpses mummifying in desert combat zones. Also channeling a generalized antiwar message is a final passage in which we see medical staff use simple means to “recreate” battle horrors for a discharged Israeli victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, hoping this psychological “shock treatment” will induce recovery. Squirming in the fetal position on his hospital bed, pillow clutched around his head, his pure terror is hard to watch.

The more liberal of two Israeli intellectuals heard throughout Lands says “We have this pogrom complex and you can’t take it away from us,” an insight that would certainly find favor with the subject of the YBCA series’ last entry. David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier’s "American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein” profiles the U.S. academic, author and fervent critic of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. He’s invariably described as “controversial”–though not by his myriad detractors, who deploy stronger terms like “disgusting self-hating Jew” and “enabler of terrorism.”

Described by one childhood friend as “very political” even in 10th grade, native New Yorker Finkelstein was raised by Jewish parents who’d both survived Nazi concentration camps. His overpoweringly influential mother interpreted her Holocaust experience in a “different direction” from many other U.S.-immigrating survivors, believing that “Jews have a special obligation to ease the suffering of humanity because of what was done to them.” Growing up during the Vietnam War, Finkelstein “couldn’t understand why” everyone wasn’t “torn apart” by that foreign-policy disaster like his own household, in which political engagement “wasn’t lip-service. It bordered on hysteria.”

Yet even his mother (now deceased) considered that Norman might have taken her ideas “too literally” when the political science prof earned academic-post oustings, powerful enemies, public protests and no end of media attention for his relentless critiques of the U.S. and Israeli Jewish political powers-that-be. His 2000 tome The Holocaust Industry accused Jews worldwide of “hijack [-ing] the Holocaust” to create “an extortion racket” that “uses history for their own purposes,” particularly in regard to justifying the treatment of Palestinians and occupation of disputed lands.

Primary foe Alan Dershowitz–whom Finkelstein recklessly accused of plagiarism for using materials similar to a prior pro-Israeli historian–says his nemesis is “not a teacher, he’s a propagandist.” A particular sticking point is Finkelstein’s popularity as a Jew (albeit one who’s a “devout atheist”) amongst those who support the Palestinian cause. Considered a threat to national security as a result, he was recently banned from entering Israel when attempting to visit longtime Palestinian friends.

Admitting “I’m not easy to get along with,” Finkelstein is seen here urging activists in Lebanon to tone down their rhetoric–even if he’s incapable of absorbing that advice himself. Though this sympathetic doc doesn’t show him in full, self-destructive rant mode like last year’s feature Defamation, it nonetheless reveals a complicated personality whose evident delight in inciting conflict will doubtless always obscure the validity, even bravery of many of his arguments. He’s a polarizing figure one suspects wouldn’t have it any other way if he could.