Shimon Peres: The Price of Unsatisfactory Documentaries 17.04.12
I was going to review the documentary, Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace, but the analysis will take more time. Instead, today I will review The Price of Kings: Shimon Peres, a documentary filmdirected by Richard Symons and Joanna Natesegara that I saw yesterday afternoon. It is one of twelve planned documentaries on leaders that the directors plan to make. The first one was on Arafat released in January 2011. The Peres film is the second in the series released a year ago. (The third is on Oscar Arias Sanchez from Costa Rica was released in November 2012.) The opening of the Peres film is a confusing collage alluding to the theme of the series as focusing on the sacrifices leaders make to dedicate their lives to political leadership. The film asks: what would you sacrifice for your beliefs? Since the film never really even probes the question, I would be surprised if the film stimulated an intelligent answer.
I think it is very hard not to make an interesting film about political leaders. They have led eventful lives. If you can get an interview and have them talk on camera and then add views of associates, family members, friends and critics, over half your job is done. The filmmakers are to be congratulated for getting that part accomplished. The film not only has many minutes from Peres, but includes Yitzchak Navon, the 5th president of Israel, and Professor Michael Bar-Zohar, the biographer of David Ben Gurion, who also in 2006 published Shimon Peres: The Biography. Former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Ahmed Querei and an Oslo negotiator for Arafat, and Ahmad Tibi, the Israeli-Arab leader of the Arab Movement for Renewal Party, make cameo appearances. Uri Savir, the Chief Negotiator for Israel in the Oslo process, has a much larger role. Uri Avnery makes an appearance as does Ruth Dayan who was married to Moshe Dayan. Gideon Levy, an ex-aide, and Peres’ friend, Danny Gillerman, have very serious parts. Human Rights campaigner, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, has much to say and is even given the final pronouncement. The problem then is editing the material and knitting it together. The directors use a simple technique – the historical trajectory of the life of the leader focused on the most famous historical events. For Peres, whose life covered the sixty-five years of the history of Israel, there is no difficulty in finding those key moments.
However, the selection of music, perhaps inspired by Peres’ current aged dour visage, is so melancholic that the film is often experienced as a dirge when the violins are not being used to bring forth your tears. Helena Bonham Carter, the actress from Alice in Wonderland, The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, is the narrator; her script is pedestrian, clichéd and often wrong, and the officious newsreel voice that she adopts, even though it is that of a woman, takes us back to newsreels of the fifties and sixties. The interrotron technique that appears to have been used for the Peres interview catches the face of the interviewee close-up, but also ensures formality and distance rather than intimacy and disclosure. The lighting on Peres when he is being interviewed against a black backdrop reinforces stiffness and platitudes rather than casualness and open comments. And some of the B-roll! At the end of the film there is a scene of the Tel Aviv beach with a cement podium as a backdrop and two sunbathers on chairs in the foreground. One of the sunbathers brings his legs together, then separates them, then brings them together again as if he suffers from ADHT. But then he appears to be exercising. What this scene has to do with the life story of Peres, I have no idea. It is just an ugly picture! Is that the message the director wants to convey about his view of Peres, that underneath his reserve and dignity he just sways from side to side wherever the political winds take him?
Peres left Poland at the age of eleven; before he left, he promised his grandfather that he would always be Jewish. Peres describes arriving Palestine with its golden sand beaches, blue skies and the perfumed air of the Mediterranean as arriving in paradise compared to the sullen gray skies of Poland and the crowded small shtetl of 1000 families that he left behind. Most of his extended family died in the Holocaust, including his grandfather to whom he made that solemn promise. One day, they were all gathered together by the Nazis, forced into the community synagogue and all shot.
One thesis in the film is that Peres remained an outsider because: a) he was not born in Israel and spoke Hebrew with a Polish accent; b) he never served in the army; and 3) he was too much of a thinker. But they never asked what he read, what his favourite writers were or where he got most of his inspiration. Further, surely the filmmakers knew that he served in the Haganah and was charged at a young age with giving an organizational structure to the collection of militias from pre-state Palestine to create the Israeli army. Finally, one would think that the filmmakers would have asked, why, if he arrived at 11 years of age, he still had an accent? They do not. Like many of the issues raised and theses propounded without any evidence, there are no follow-ups. As we heard the claim of the disadvantage of speaking Hebrew with an accent, we wonder about Begin and the hordes of other non-Sabra founding fathers, but do not expect the film to provide any answers.
In the film, Peres says that if you have to choose between being Machiavellian and doing everything you can to achieve power or naiveté, he prefers naiveté. I wanted to scream: Why did you not ask why Peres defined Machiavellian as the pursuit of power by any means, or the even easier question of why pose those as the only two alternatives? The film loves to capture protagonists cast between two poles. Peres might opt for one pole, such as naiveté and offer a rationale, but the director suggests that this is evidence of his being conflicted. The script writers themselves seem to have a propensity to favour a tryptych of concepts rather than visual panels to make pronouncements – Peres combined religion with a conscience with a commitment to good government. Other than the odd shot of Peres with a kippa, where is there any exploration of Peres’ religion in the film or even an allusion to the fact that as a young boy influenced by his grandfather, Peres was a Haredi while his family was really non-observant? Where are the questions about the influence of his religious beliefs on his politics? Whenever these summaries were offered, I had to mentally close my ears lest they distract from the focus on the events and actions in which Peres was involved.
Some of these were impossible to ignore – such as the erroneous cliché that the UN gave birth to Israel because of the guilt over the Holocaust, a cliché that even most Jews believe. A good historian will show you why this is utter nonsense. One of the more important reasons was the problem of dealing with the 200,000 Jewish refugees left after the war. But that issue is not raised in the film nor whether the intake of those Jewish refugees played any part in Peres’ early life. Instead, the film focuses on the exodus of the Palestinians who became refugees and whom the Israeli authorities banned from re-entering. Does this have anything to do with Peres? If so, what? If not, why is this episode in the film?
The film makes clear that Peres was on the side of those Zionists who accepted partition and an Israel with only 45% of the land of Palestine but ended up with 78% because the Arabs never were satisfied with the amount allocated to them. Thus, war was inevitable in a fight over land. If that fight was to be settled by force of arms at the Arab’s choice and not mutual agreement or external imposition, then why would Peres not take 100% and instead settle only for 78%? There are good answers to which Peres would probably agree, but the question is never asked, perhaps because the director is not neutral and cannot even imagine giving a respectful voice to the right wingers who are presented stereotypically as religious zealots. The film seems to have an underlying thesis – that peace was sabotaged simply by the work of Jewish extremists and the settler movement more generally, as if the Palestinian terrorist bus bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that are shown in the film and that turned the Israeli public against Oslo, played no part. Contrary to some commentators on the film commending its neutrality, I found the appearance of neutrality a sham. The issues are discussed superficially and without any depth.
The film is gripping because the events and characters are gripping. The film engages but doesn’t really probe – except with one provocative (and inappropriate question in the context) suggestion that Israel is an apartheid state. However, by an large the questions are left out of the film to enhance the impression of letting the characters voices carry the film.
Peres is given credit for organizing the arms supply to the army of the new state, but we are told nothing of how he accomplished the feat. If the directors asked Peres, the footage was left on the cutting room table. There is one interesting anecdote told in the film that I had never heard before. Peres was corralled by Ben Gurion to accompany him in the car to Tel Aviv. Ben Gurion told Peres out of the blue that Trotsky was a lousy leader. "No War, No Peace. That was not a decision. Decisions have to be clear and unequivocal." Lenin was the real leader for Ben Gurion. Peres was puzzled by the story. Why not explore the puzzlement? What was Peres’ view of leadership?
Peres is also credited with bringing the capacity to produce nuclear weapons to Israel and with building the "textile factory", the Dimona reactor. But how or why – you will learn nothing from the film. You will not even hear Peres’ evasions.
On the Entebbe operation, the film sums up the position that, while Yitzhak Rabin wanted to negotiate with the terrorists, Peres was totally opposed and was convinced that a plan of rescue could be developed, in spite of the total scepticism of the head of the armed forces, Mordechai Gur. This potted summary is all we get along with a mixture of facts and errors about the raid that Peres’ himself calls one of the bravest and most heroic deeds performed by Israeli troops. An example of an error is heard when the narrator states that five aircraft landed in Entebbe when there were only four Hercules aircraft.
The story and activities were quite a bit more complicated than the edited summary. As Peres himself described them when he opened the storyteller’s festival as recorded by Shahar Chai for Israel News (10.01.12) in a news item headed, "I convinced Rabin to launch Operation Entebbe." Here is what Peres said:
"The chances of rescuing 101 Jewish hostages 4,000 kilometers away seemed miniscule…The conclusion was that we should comply with the demands to release the terrorists," but Peres then left out the qualifier – if a feasible rescue plan could not be developed. It is true that most were sceptical that a feasible rescue plan could be created and he himself thought the chances were miniscule. "The Fantasy Headquarters" made up of gutsy creative officers did come up with a plan and Peres convinced the cabinet that the risks were worth taking. So while Prime Minister Rabin continued to give the impression that he was keen on negotiating, the plan was implemented.
This is a very different version that the impression created by the film of Peres as a determined decision maker willing to take risks and Rabin as a waffler willing to back down on a sacred principle of no negotiations with terrorists. Further, it contradicts the overall impression the film makes, and the stated conviction of the director, Richard Symons, in reinforcing the image of Peres as a very successful second in command but not a decisive and gutsy leader. In fact, Symons has said on tape that he thinks Peres lacked a backbone and was deeply conflicted even if the evidence in his own film contradicts that conclusion. The film spends a few seconds mentioning the back channels behind Oslo, but only a mention; there is no suggestion that this initiative might belie the stereotype of Peres as just a second and never qualified to be a first.
Further, there is so much about Peres that is omitted – his imposition of a military organization on the inchoate ragtag of militias inherited from pre-state Palestine, his early career initiatives in modernizing agriculture and spreading those innovations to Africa, his later initiatives that helped make Israel the "start-up" nation.
Peres is presented as a person with enormous self-control – which he did have – but he also cried when told of Yoni Netanyahu’s death, but that is not stated or admitted in the film. What is said by a colleague – I cannot recall who said it in the film – was that Peres was both very decisive and very flexible and willing to change. Peres admits he made many mistakes, but the filmmakers never ask him whether his decision not to call an election in 1995 in the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, contrary to all the advice he received, because he did not want to ride into office on the coattails of Rabin’s blood, was one of those decisions. Had his own ego stood in the way of practicing proper Machiavellian politics? Again, the film provides no answers.
The film does provide a very moving account of the success of the rally in Tel Aviv in November of 1955 when Rabin was murdered, but especially of the close rapport Peres and Rabin had finally developed and when Peres had never seen Rabin so relaxed, happy, smiling and, most of all, friendly. The glint in Peres’ eyes as he described Rabin putting his arm on his shoulders could not and should not be missed. These touching moments – such as the account of and by Peres’ granddaughter, Mika, riding in the back of a car in Washington with her grandfather and saying what she thinks of him, are very moving.
Finally, to return to the ostensible theme of the series, what did Peres sacrifice? Peres explicitly states that the most rewarding and satisfying experience in life is work. Peres did a great deal of important work. His granddaughter cried when she expressed to him directly how proud she was of him and what he accomplished. Where was the sacrifice? What greater nachas is there?