VENICE FILMFEST and the banality of evil.
VENICE. September 2,2008- Perhaps the most pleasant part of the current 65th Venice Film
Festival is the emphasis on introspective films that reflect the stark and often harsh reality of life in
different parts of the world. These films have no up-beat message to peddle, no heroes, no happy
endings. But they provide a mirror of our global society and force their audiences to reflect.
Such cinematographic peeks at the lives of â€˜othersâ€™ offer both stimulus and relief from brain-dead
programs on our commercial television and the equally brain-dead potboilers churned out by Hollywood. Fairytale
soap operas and fake reality shows have become addictive sedatives for the poor and the marginalized, perhaps
to keep them in front of their screens instead of protesting in the streets against unjust systems and unjust wars.
One of the films poking fun at populist TV is â€˜Sell Outâ€™ by young Malaysian director Yeo Joonhan. He
ridicules the crude money-making formula of TV reality shows supervised by cold profit-minded producers who
happen to be also in charge of marketing the TV companyâ€™s household products - a reference to todayâ€™s
symbiosis between corporate industry and media.
The film has its audience in stitches with the portrayal of a feisty insensitive reality show hostess whose
program ratings decline until she comes up with the idea of doing last gasp interviews with dying people. The only
trouble is the chosen â€˜victimsâ€™ refuse to die on time for the showâ€¦.soâ€¦.
The favorite movie theme in our increasingly xenophobic western world deals with immigration, the
desperation to escape misery and earn money to be sent home. Among these fictionalized documentaries is Tariq
Tapaâ€™s â€˜Zero Bridge.â€™ This is about life in impoverished and war-torn Kashmir where young woman are
still forced into arranged marriages and young men try to escape to more peaceful cities in India.
The gem among these migrant stories is â€˜Machan,â€™ a Sri Lankan epic by Umberto Pasolini, a tale of
misery and poverty from which the protagonists try to escape, legally first, then illegally, to jobs in Europe. As the
film develops the audience begins to sympathize with the menâ€™s efforts, realizing these immigrants, often
vilified as undesirables and treated like cattle, are far more humane then their western hosts.
(This humanity emerges especially in Ramin Bahraniâ€™s sensitive film â€˜Goodbye Soloâ€™ in which the
African expatriate taxi driver refuses to give up on an embittered suicide-bound white passenger.)
In their final scheme to go abroad the Sri Lankans in â€˜Machanâ€™ manage to be invited to a handball
tournament in Germany by passing themselves off as the Sri Lankan national handball team.
What makes this humorous and yet tragic film so endearing is not the plot but the motives of each of the
team members who are all in debt to someone or to the usurious money-lenders who pry on their poverty. All of
them, as one explains, are escaping a loved home country, families and a trade to become nobodies and third-
rate citizen in alien nations. Yet as they hoodwink German immigration authorities they also forge a touching
fraternity that transcends the decade-old bloody rift between Tamils and Singhalese.
The Venice festival has undergone a subtle transition which has irritated many critics who miss the old
style movies with a plot that leaves no room for contemplation.
Realism films leave audiences puzzled about what they have viewed and heard, not quite sure how to
react, turning eagerly to anyone offering an opinion of what the film tried to say. Only a few years ago at these
festivals people loudly debated the pros and cons of a film entry. Today their judgmental capacity seems impaired
by prolonged exposure to cinematographic garbage.
Yet judging by the long queues the yen for reflective films is great.
Unfortunately few of the â€˜goodâ€™ low budget films will be exhibited in global cinema theaters,
auditoriums owned by American studios or pan-corporate industries with a monopoly on what films the public may
see. Not surprisingly the films chosen by them are usually their own potboilers, mostly with an excess of violence
and destruction, the commercial success formula nowadays both in cinema and in the Middle East.
However if one had to select a film from the crop of this yearâ€™s Venice Festival entries the
film people should see in order to understand how far we have lowered our concepts of â€˜right and
wrongâ€™ is the Israeli production â€˜Z32â€™ by director Avi Mograbi.
This is a film about the banality of evil.
It is not simply an indictment of a despicable war crime in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but
a gradual realization through the dialogue of the very soldiers who committed the crime how war crimes are the
inevitable result of programming soldiers with hatred for â€˜the enemyâ€™ by training them like fighting dogs to
raise their killer instincts, by allowing them to tear at the leash until they are finally released to attack.
The film could run on a similar script in the United States.
The plot is not a plot but the account of two soldiers of an elite Israeli army unit. Their unit was ordered to
shoot six Palestinian policemen in retaliation for an attack on an Israeli checkpoint during which six Israeli soldiers
were killed. The members of the unit ask no questions but are ready to wipe out anyone their commanders
The unarmed policemen are massacred in a hail of bullets as the Israeli soldiers pretend theirs is a combat
mission not a cowardly execution.
Mograbi narrates the â€˜incidentâ€™ through interviews with two of the Israeli soldiers who
participated in the killing. On screen the two wear face masks to hide their identity. One admits he now
realizes he has committed â€˜a war crimeâ€™ the other still tries to rationalize: The shooting was
inevitable, was programmed into his training, was part of the hatred for the others, an act of revenge
justifiable to them at the time, though now he has â€˜grown upâ€™ and sees it as a madness due to
A third masked person, a woman peace activist, tries to understand the motivations by asking her fiancÃ©,
one of the soldiers, how he felt at the time, what he thought, how he reacted. He admits he felt good, went to sleep
straight after he boarded the bus to return to base, joined in the general boasts of his comrades how they ran
down and shot the Palestinians. He admits he â€˜pumpedâ€™ bullets into one of the corpses and felt â€˜okâ€™.
In this reconstructed melodrama of the banality of evil Mograbi takes the same soldier to the scene of the
killing in Palestinian territory. The soldier jokes: â€œI hope no one recognizes me.â€� But the Palestinians look
on immobile and the soldier wonders why no one has commemorated the massacre with a plaque or a monolith.
Mograbi, endowed with a good baritone voice, sings his comments and questions in the film while seated in
his living room surrounded and accompanied by a chamber orchestra that reminds the audience of Jews playing
music for their executioners in the Nazi concentration camps. He sings that his film will not be a commercial
success but he feels the story must be told. He sings: â€œWho will accuse the man behind the mask? There are
no courts to try him.â€�
Perhaps the real question Mograbi should ask is this: Who gave the order to unleash these young
soldiers on a primitive revenge mission to kill unarmed Palestinians?
That kind of question should also be asked in Washington these days.