Tuesday 20 March 2012

David Ofek and the Ethics of Documentary in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Fíorscéal, the primary documentary series dealing with foreign issues on TG4, the Irish national broadcaster’s terrestrial Irish language channel, recently featured a programme called “Gaza Luxuries”. Fíorscéal usually repackage French made programmes for an Irish language audience by doing little more than adding a very brief introduction to the topic by a chap called Maolra Mac Donnchadha, and credits in the Irish language.

“Gaza Luxuries”, which mainly deals with the Israeli policy on imports during the embargo on Gaza prior to liberalisation in 2010, is in fact a 2012 English language reissue of an imported documentary made by Eden Productions. An Israeli filmmaker called David Ofek, directed, researched, scripted, and narrated the piece. The documentary was first shown publicly in 2011. Oddly the production company has used differing titles for the film, e.g. “Luxuries”, and “Meatless in Gaza”, which is a very misleading title since meat was not a proscribed item for import.

Whilst the issue of the embargo is a serious facet of the conflict, which any documentary producer is of course more than entitled to examine, “Luxuries”/“Meatless in Gaza” comes across as propaganda because it stripped the issue of context, misrepresented basic truths, and seemingly applied certain extremely prejudicial visual motifs to scenes that may have been the result of influence by the director.

The politics of the director

Israeli born David Ofek has been making documentaries since the 1990’s, and has received a number of awards for his work. He is married to journalist and filmmaker Ayelet Bechar, whose films seem to appear quite often at defamatory pro-Palestinian pro-boycott events.

One of Ofek’s best known works is a documentary called “No. 17” (2003). It displays a pro-Israel tone because it dealt with a terrorist act on Israeli soil in 2002. In the intervening years he seems to have become explicitly pro-Palestinian. Ofek has since made films with anti-Israeli themes like “The Tale of Nicolai & the Law of Return”, which apparently “broaches serious and central questions about the nature of Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy”, although a less charitable reading may suggest it questions the right of Israel to exist as a principally Jewish State.

Indeed in 2009 Ofek signed a petition by anti-Israeli academics, which advocated the boycott of Israel. The boycott (BDS) movement seeks the effective dismantling of Israel, which it deems “apartheid”. The petition demanded international intervention to stop Operation Cast Lead in an unspecified manner, which could include military action. The text used highly demonising language such as “insatiable Israeli violence”. Thus, Mr. Ofek’s signature is indicative of a hard-line political stance.


TG4 promoted the programme with these words:
How the Israeli blockade on Gaza is tightly monitored, with essential necessities deemed acceptable but luxuries being denied. At their weekly meeting at the Defense Ministry, the Israeli bureaucrats move on to the next item on their agenda — hair conditioner purchased by the Palestinians.
It is probable that the programme description was provided by the programme maker or production company behind the documentary rather than TG4/Fíorscéal because the same promotional wording was used for other venues.

The example of hair conditioner cited in the description of the programme suggests the filmmakers penetrated the inner sanctum of Israeli decision making. However, the film does not show Israeli “bureaucrats” making any decisions, quite the opposite in fact. None of said “bureaucrats” appeared on camera or in any audio form attesting to or suggesting such a fact. Secondly, it is misleading to suggest these goods were collectively “purchased by the Palestinians” as if somehow taken from The People. The goods were purchased by a small number of Arab or Palestinian traders who nonetheless appear to be doing business in the Gaza Strip, in part through smuggling from Egypt, as the film itself attests.

And echoing that apparent decision making, Maolra Mac Donnchadha stated during his introduction:
Their [luxury goods] availability depends on what mood the Israeli authorities are in that week.
How changeable was the import policy? The film opens with a truck driver stating certain fruits were allowed in four years previously. However, that is hardly relevant since that was a time before the embargo was introduced when Hamas took power. The film makes much of calves exported from Australia with the intent of going to Gaza but by that stage fresh meat, rather than frozen meat, was prohibited. By the time the exporter decided to do anything with the calves, they had grown into mature cattle, which the programme blamed on the authorities. The co-ordinator finally let the cattle in as a gesture at Ramadan. The film mentioned examples of allowing in chickpeas, whilst roasted chickpeas were not accepted because they were deemed a snack, which was not one of the foodstuffs accepted. Such an example was clearly an example of bureaucracy rather than a changeable attitude. No doubt the policy was harsh and inflexible but it can hardly be considered as changeable as the breeze.

The impressions of the documentary, offered by the programme guide and Mac Donnchadha’s words, clearly derive from the use of suggestion and rumour in the film to make its case on these points. The assertions were not even vaguely shown to be the case to anyone possessing a modicum of scepticism.

However, scepticism is not a common feature in foreign audiences, as even illustrated by Fíorscéal’s own stance. Mac Donnchadha’s brief introduction displayed a remarkably one-sided grasp of the issue, as illustrated by comments such as “the violent attack on flotillas sent to assist Palestinians”, when in fact the Gaza flotillas were very clearly intended to provoke violence, and break the embargo as often suggested by the organisers words themselves. The Flotillas were/are merely propagandistic stunts to cause major harm to Israel’s international reputation. Why else do they repeatedly refuse delivery of aid by the UN from the port of Ashdod? Such points should be blindingly obvious any to journalists but Mac Donnchadha never fails to puts the boot in, and whenever this conflict comes up as a topic, programming hostile to Israel is featured, without exception. This betrays a prejudicial political stance taken by the producers.

Rumour, hearsay and omissions

One of the most notable features of the documentary is the he/she-said dynamic to many of the interviews. Peculiar also is the number of conversations conducted by phone, for example individuals ring up other individuals who may have spoken to someone else, such as the “Co-ordinator” who controls imports to Gaza, and comes across as having a near-mythical status. For example, a man who dealt with fruits rang an unidentified individual in the presence of the camera. Said individual relayed a conversation with the Co-ordinator to explain why kiwi’s were disallowed. Whilst this phenomenon occurs in some documentaries, “Luxuries”/“Meatless in Gaza” relies upon it to an unusual extent.

A number of odd omissions appear in the documentary. For example, near the end of the film, Ofek makes a point about delays due to restricted border crossings. He speaks to a truck driver called Dimitri who makes a point of showing him images on his phone of insects that are damaging the grain he is delivering to Gaza. The images could have easily been shown to the camera or sent to Ofek’s own phone to display for the viewer. Surely such a thing would have occurred to an industrious filmmaker?

The above example is a relatively minor quibble but an important element in documentary is to present robust facts to the viewer. There are more serious omissions in the film, such as when Ofek visited an “Israeli human rights organisation” twice that he never actually names. This should be an important fact because he spends several minutes in two parts of the film discussing their findings with regard to foods that are proscribed or allowed. It is especially odd because he takes the trouble on both occasions to mention the name of the lady lawyer he spoke to at the organisation’s office. Her name is Tamar!

Ofek is most likely referring to an NGO called Gisha. They took the Israeli authorities to court in 2010, to try to force them to provide import lists. However, Gisha has come in for criticism due to the highly speculative nature of the lists it produced and for its overall conduct, which is seen as highly dishonest and damaging to Israel. Gisha also produced a rather astonishing pro-Palestinian video game around the time the documentary was being completed. Besides which, foreign funded NGO’s like Gisha and B’Tselem have a dubious reputation for manipulating facts. Therefore, the omission of their name from the documentary is questionable.

Of border crossings

Much of the documentary became dated whilst it was being filmed because the import rules suddenly changed in July 2010. The final segment of the documentary dealt with the aftermath of Israel’s liberalised policy of importing goods into Gaza, which also expanded the importation of materials for construction projects under international supervision. All goods would be allowed in except for proscribed dual-use items. This turn of events should have surely been deemed good news by Ofek.

However, at this point Ofek starkly misrepresented the truth by focusing exclusively on a reduction of opening days for the Karni crossing, whilst failing to mention that in fact there are several border crossings used for goods going to Gaza from Israel, the Kerem Shalom, Karni, and Erez crossings, while the Sufa crossing is deemed too dangerous.

Attacks at border crossings are a frequent event and so represent a serious security issue. Yet Ofek didn’t mention that traffic through the Karni crossing was cut due to security risks after rocket attacks and attempts to dig tunnels whilst movement through the Kerem Shalom crossing was being greatly intensified, and its infrastructure upgraded.

Here the clear inference was that the import of goods may have been liberalised but Israel is causing unnecessary hardship for truckers, the spoiling of goods, and a lack of sustenance for Gazans. It is hard to believe that the omission of such basic facts could be anything other than an effort to mislead.

A little thing called context

Whilst the materials imported to Gaza were restricted, there was never any question of Palestinians starving, due to the prolific shipment of supplies. As noted, some descriptions of the documentary do state that essentials were allowed into Gaza but there is no mention that there wasn’t a humanitarian crisis, which was an erroneous claim often made by pro-Palestinians.

It is also worth noting that the documentary failed to state that Gaza is a conflict zone. Of course it would be obvious to some but why was there not even brief mention in the narration of the near-daily rocket strikes from Gaza, or the security considerations at the borders that are flash points for conflict? The only mention of security with regard to the liberalising of trade was a rather vague sentence that the issue was important with regard to imports to Gaza. It was a point made by a military official at a meeting between Israeli fruit growers and Arab-Palestinian traders in Gaza, rather than by the narrator.

Ironically, the reality of the conflict was present in the news, whilst the documentary was being shown on Fíorscéal. At the time 200,000 children living near Gaza’s borders had been forced into bomb shelters, instead of attending school, when hundreds of rockets were fired into Israel.

It isn’t overt but there are hints in the documentary that the restricted import policy was an appeasement to the Shalit family (perhaps by the Co-ordinator) or a punishment on Hamas/Gaza whilst their son Gilad was being held hostage. However, this policy was initiated in 2007, at a time when Hamas was engaged in rocket assaults on several Israeli communities. The policy of restricting imports was understood to be an effort to discredit and weaken Hamas, and thereby promote in Gaza the somewhat more moderate Palestinian Authority.

Ethics in documentary

Ofek’s Internet presence is relatively limited but one of his few interviews online features a revealing admission:
[Question] In Home you begin a trend which runs throughout your career, that of blurring the distinction between narrative and documentary?

[Answer] Some of the characters in Home are real. [I play myself and] the grandmother in the film is my real grandmother: The scenes between her and I are almost documentary and are based on what I assume she will say in such a situation. I think this was the first time I did this sort of part-documentary using real characters. And it has worked really well since then. In almost every fiction film I do, there are a lot of documentary elements. And in almost every documentary I do, there are staged scenes.
Similarly reviews of his work note that he crosses boundaries: “Always straddling a fine line between documentary and feature film…”

The above is a troubling admission for Ofek to make. Whilst it is effectively impossible for any documentary maker to remain completely objective since the very decision to look at a certain subject will betray a certain interest, as would pointing a camera in one direction rather than another, it is not a category that benefits from fictionalising. Whilst documentary can be to some extent an expressive form, where the character of the director becomes an element of a piece as is the case in Ofek’s film, it behoves of any documentarian to give the utmost respect to truth, factual content, and evidential material as would befit any non-fiction category. To do otherwise is an ethical abuse of one’s audience.

His interview predates the making of “Luxuries”/“Meatless in Gaza” by two years, and even if there was no staging employed in the documentary in question, it suggests a casualness about the issue, as if documentary relates more to art than fact. Staging might suit a personal piece about one’s family but does not befit that of a conflict issue, particularly a quagmire like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is impossible to say whether any scenes were staged by Ofek and his team but at the very least it is likely that scenes were influenced to an extent that would be deemed intrusive. For example, there is a meeting in an office where a team of Israeli food exporters are gorging on food. The level of food was almost akin to a banquet, and the camera focused on opulent visuals of food to a significant extent, for example, it lingered on one young man gorging himself on an almost whole chicken carcass. The scene seems an intentional grotesque in a documentary about the restricted access of luxury foods in Gaza.

The prolific consumption of food by Israeli’s represents such a distinctive visual motif in the documentary that it cannot be anything other than intentional, and extremely manipulative. Ofek eats a chocolate biscuit as he rings the phone in an attempt to obtain an interview. A fruit distributor peels a kiwi and demonstrates the variety of ways in which it can be consumed, and discusses how wonderful it tastes. Two men involved with the import/export industry have their food served up in a restaurant, and sit down to eat while having a rather constructed conversation in front of the camera.

Last but not least, a large meat filled roll is put together for Mr. Ofek as seen by a camera located in the cooking area of a van by the side of a road to one of the border crossings to Gaza. The film closes with lengthy shots of him eating the roll as trucks drive by, while he waits for an interview with an official.

Differences in attitude and approach to documentary

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a rich vein for documentary makers over the years. However, the intensive propaganda that has emerged especially in recent decades due to the conflict, results in a considerable test of balance and fairness for any documentary producer. The issue is all the more grave because the films deal with a conflict in a region that is in a state of considerable political instability.

Clearly “Luxuries”/“Meatless in Gaza” is an agenda driven piece that uses a degree of manipulation to carry a negative message about Israel to the very end, even in the face of good news concerning import liberalisation. Nonetheless the film is marginally more subtle than the harsh propaganda on the conflict that passes for documentary. One such example is “Welcome to Hebron” (2007/08), by Terje Carlsson, which was also featured a number of times on Fíorscéal, circa June 2010.

“Welcome to Hebron” failed to represent the context of the tensions between the Jewish settler community and the Palestinians in any meaningful sense, ignored the long history of attacks on settlers, and didn’t mention the repeated massacres and expulsions of the Jewish populace from the area, from the 17th Century to the 1929 massacre. It attempted to portray their claim as exclusively biblical by citing a sound bite from one settler. Neither was there any mention of the rich Jewish heritage found in the area. Oddly, Leila, the teenage Palestinian girl who is the focal point of the film, actually moved with her mother to the area from Romania roughly ten years previously. Given the horror and oppression, one can only wonder why.

Terje Carlsson’s film is an example of a documentary that treats a segment of it subjects in an abusive fashion because it was clearly made with the intent of showing the Jewish settler populace in as bad a light as possible. Although the film was apparently made over three years, only a few scenes involving the settlers were truly unpleasant, one being the scene of a Jewish woman spitting at Palestinians. However, the spitting motif has been adopted by pro-Palestinian propagandists, some of whom have in turn made their own way to the area to provoke reactions for their cameras, to be promptly screened on Youtube.

The blinkered approach these documentaries adopted stands in stark contrast to that of Nicky Larkin who went to the region with an intense pro-Palestinian agenda. However, his views didn’t blind him to inconvenient truths of the conflict, facts that didn’t suit agendas.
I began to experience the sense of isolation Israelis feel. An isolation that began in the ghettos of Europe and ended in Auschwitz.

And as I made the effort to empathise, to look at the world through their eyes. I began a new intellectual journey. One that would not be welcome back home.
For all his preconceived notions, Larkin possessed an impressive intellectual honesty, which led him to turn against the very foundations of his own deeply held beliefs, regardless of the financial and social consequences because it should be noted that balanced documentaries are hardly welcome in Ireland:
The problem began when I resolved to come back with a film that showed both sides of the coin…. But only one side was wanted back in Dublin. My peers expected me to come back with an attack on Israel. No grey areas were acceptable.
However, one need not go through a voyage of discovery to make a worthy documentary about the conflict. Louis Theroux’s recent documentary entitled “The Ultra Zionists” (2011) is such an example. The piece took a definite pro-Palestinian line as indicated a number of times by unjustified judgements in Theroux’s narration, and being a BBC production, the prejudicial title was another indicator of bias.

Nonetheless “The Ultra Zionists” lacks the polemical tone of other documentaries about the conflict because Theroux treats both his subjects and the audience with a fundamental respect. He does not whitewash the negative qualities that subjects may possess but neither does he use them as a means. He doesn’t ram his message down the viewers collective throat, and is sufficiently professional to allow the subject(s) to lead him forward. Indeed the programme features some revealing footage, such as the predictable violence of the supposedly peaceful protests after prayers at the security barrier near the Palestinian village of Bil’in, which displayed a starkly different reality to the constructed take on the conflict, sometimes found in the media.

It should also be noted that the complicity of the media or its mere presence can cause or escalate violent incidents. This phenomenon ought to be an ethical dilemma for both journalists/photo-journalists and documentarians.

It does seem that filmmakers like David Ofek do not need to abandon their beliefs to make a reasonable documentary about issues appertaining of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, like any other documentary maker on any other topic, they need to make choices that are cognisant of an obvious ethical responsibility to the subjects captured on camera, their audience, and the impact it will have on the societies involved with the issue. Ofek stated “My film takes the active approach. If a filmmaker can make a difference, so can the individual.” Indeed, and just like “the individual”, the filmmaker ought to be guided by moral responsibilities toward others.

This article was also published at Crethi Plethi.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Inciting fear of Israel at the Sunday Times?

The Sunday Times featured an interesting article in its edition dated the 4th of March 2012. In the print edition of the newspaper, the article in question is entitled “In a flash, your details are sent to Israel”. It is also listed on the Sunday Times website as “In a flash, your details are on a server in Israel”. From a journalistic point of view the piece is more interesting for the headline rather than the content.

The article features the by-line “A torch app is among those now found to be exploiting users, write Robin Henry and Peter Newlands”, and indeed the article focuses on the worrying finding that advertising and marketing companies are using smart-phone apps to transmit a given user’s personal information to computer servers in several parts of the world.

However, it is bizarre for the headline to focus exclusively on Israel because mention of the nation is only featured in three paragraphs of the rather long twenty-one paragraph piece (twenty-nine if including the companion article to the side), which takes up more than half a broadsheet page. The article mentions America (specifically the United States) more frequently than Israel. The piece refers to a firm called LeadBolt repeatedly which is located there, and seemingly the prime focus of investigation for the journalists. The article also mentions China, India, and Germany. The piece mentions the Israeli city of Petah Tikva once but also mentions the cities of Los Angeles, and New Dehli.

To quote the three passages of the subscription-only article that mention or refer to Israel and the city of Petah Tikva:
Using software to monitor the transmission of data from a Google android mobile phone onto which a range of basic apps have been downloaded, The Sunday Times discovered private information — including telephone numbers, email addresses and the phone’s location — being sent to companies in China, India, Israel and America. […]

One app, Cute Dog, which downloads images of puppies for the phone’s background screen, sent a stream of information, including the phone number, network, and ID number, to lead LeadBolt’s servers in America. The ID number and phone’s GPS (Global Positioning System) co-ordinates were transmitted to a server located in Germany but registered in the city of Petah Tikva, Israel.

The identity of the server’s owner could not be established but numerous hi-tech companies, including some of the world’s biggest technology firms have offices in the city.
The article evokes a 2010 controversy where a much-publicised row broke out in the Middle-East over BlackBerry smart phones, which offered an encrypted communication link that numerous Arab nations feared Israel/Mossad and the US would exploit. However, in this case the reader’s own personal information is going to Israel!

To identify this country in the headline suggests the nation itself, rather than some private business enterprise, will put personal information to some sort of malign duplicitous use. Arguably it plays on the Mossad false-flag paranoia that every anti-Semitic conspiracist evokes for serious terrorist incidents, such as the Anders Behring Breivik massacre last year.

Whilst the article in question does not make any unfair claims about Israel per se, the rather extraordinary finger-pointing of the headline nonetheless illustrates both an unhealthy if not obsessive need in the media to cast Israel in a very negative light, and the disturbingly negative way in with a certain segment of the public views Israel, even above that of states like China, which of course the media itself bears more than a little responsibility for.

This article was also published at Crethi Plethi.