While the Israeli-Palestinian issue tends to inspire a lot of heated discussion, a filmmaker is imploring viewers to stop talking for a moment and listen in a documentary that revisits the origins of that conflict.
Censored Voices (pictured), which is screening at the Berlinale this week, is based on interviews with a group of soldiers recorded the week after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967.
The recordings formed the basis of author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira’s book The Seventh Day, but roughly 70% of what the soldiers said was censored by the Israeli military prior to publication.
When filmmaker Mor Loushy read the book as a university student, she was startled by how dramatically the soldiers’ accounts of Israel conquering Jerusalem, Gaza, Sinai and the West Bank ran counter to the nationalistic narrative she learned growing up.
Determined to hear the rest of the tapes, she chased after Shapira who was initially reluctant to share the complete recordings. Eventually, he agreed and she spent three years listening to 200 hours of interviews and combing through archives in Israel, the U.S. and the UK to find footage from the Arab-Israeli conflict that would illustrate the soldiers’ words.
In Censored Voices, Loushy cuts together images of the unidentified veterans listening to themselves with archival news footage to give a real-time account of the war. As Israelis celebrate their surprise victory over the massive build-up of Arab armies on its borders, the soldiers share sad, emotionally fraught and prescient tales from the front lines.
“No one even thought that this victory was going to ruin us,” she tells realscreen in an interview from Berlin. “It really shocked me how they predicted the future and how they were so precise with their opinions. How come I had never heard about this until now?”
A few soldiers recount instances when Israeli officers – themselves included – shot and killed unarmed soldiers and civilians. One veteran likens encountering the broken Egyptian army as a vision of “dust and ashes,” and another compares the evacuation of villages to the Nazi treatment of European Jews during World War II.
“I could see myself in those kids who were carried in their parents’ arms, when my father carried me,” he says.
Ironically, Censored Voices was also submitted to military censors – as per the law – but producer Hilla Medalia (Dancing In Jaffa, Web Junkie) calls the requested cuts “insignificant.”
“It’s not an easy film,” says Medalia. “But it reflects on something bigger than just Israel. It’s important to listen to these voices, especially today.”
An Israeli-German coproduction, Censored Voices was financed through a combination of grants, government film funds and pre-sales with broadcasters including BBC, ARTE and Israel’s YesDocu. Impact Partners and Morgan Spurlock’s Warrior Poets also signed on to executive produce. Much of the nearly US$1 million budget went toward sourcing and digitizing 16mm and 35mm archival footage, some of which has never been seen in Israel before.
In Berlin, the filmmakers are hoping to secure a North American deal. Distributor Dogwoof picked up the global rights to the film prior to its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and has sold it in Australia, Germany and Israel.
Realscreen: When you first heard the tapes, what type of film did you envision?
Mor Loushy: From the very first time I heard those voices I started imagining the film. They were so sincere, so fresh and very unique. I really wanted to use visuals from the Six Day War and give as much respect and room to hear those unique voices as possible. I didn’t want to make a film with interviews. I didn’t want it to be a nostalgic film of people talking 46 years later about the war. I was a bit afraid at first because it was only a six-day war and Israeli television didn’t even exist at the time. When we started the visual research I was shocked at how much footage we found.
We found color and black and white footage and also very cinematic shots. The archival research was a big journey. It took us around three years to finish the film. For eight months I only sat and listened to the voices and it took us another year and a half to edit it with the visuals.
RS: How difficult was it to access the uncensored tapes?
ML: Very. From the moment they were censored back in ’67, the editor of the book, Avraham Shapira, just kept all the reels in his closet and didn’t let anyone touch it. They are intimate and personal conversations so he was waiting for the right stage for these voices.
A lot of major news outlets from Israel tried to take it from him and so did foreign journalists. He never agreed to give it to anyone. I started chasing after him and at first he didn’t answer my calls. Finally I went to a lecture that he gave. Immediately he told me, ‘OK, come to my kibbutz.’ From the first moment we met, there was something there. I don’t know how but he believed in me and we started this amazing journey together. He really gave me everything: all the tapes, all the reels. Everything. It was really amazing.
RS: How do you hope the film will be received in Israel? Do you think a documentary can impact public perception of the Six Day War?
ML: I hope so. I can’t tell you if it will change the reality but I’m sure it will raise a very important public debate. It also deals with morals and consciousness. That’s a discourse that is gone now in Israel. It’s so important to hear these sincere voices, to go back to this authentic moment in 1967 and to really hear these very special conversations because after that a lot of politics came and a lot of myths came. We have an opportunity to hear something naked before it became about politics – left, right. These men were the heart of Israel. They were the soldiers. They gave their lives to their country. They built the country. So it’s not my story, it’s their story. I think it’s very important to hear them and raise this debate in Israel. It’s not an outside criticism. It’s coming from people that gave everything to Israel. I do hope that it will not become about left or right because it’s bigger than that.
RS: You show them listening to the tapes, but we never see them speak. Why did you make that choice?
ML: I really wanted to give as much room and space to the incredible raw material I got from these conversations. I wanted also to tell a story of the censorship because these voices have not been heard in Israel. By only showing them listening, that tells a story of how they were not being heard. It also tells the story of the connection between the past and the present. You can understand the whole story through their faces. What was interesting to me was their first reaction to hearing their voices.
RS: How keen were the veterans to participate in the film?
ML: I was very surprised. Everyone was very, very open. They were also very proud to be a part of the book because it is a discourse of morals and consciousness. I think they all wanted this experience of hearing their voices for the first time after 46 years.
RS: This is a film about listening but invariably there will be people talking about it. How do you plan on handling people who are upset by what they hear?
ML: I stand 100% behind my film. I believe in the film and I believe in those voices. I believe that my son, who is two-and-a-half-years-old, needs another future in Israel. I’m fighting for a different future. I’m fighting for a better future – for a future of peace and for a future of two states side by side or any other solution. I don’t want to keep being in this bloody circle. I do believe that democratic states should be transparent in our history. If this film is a part of that, then I’m proud to be a part of that. Truly, I’m not afraid.
Censored Voices next screens at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Zoo Palast 2.