Venice Film Festival:No Shalom for Jimmy Carter
By Uli Schmetzer
Venice, September 8, 2007 – The late Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin once compared Jimmy Carter’s efforts to bring peace to the Middle East to a slave building a pyramid in ancient times. Carter, the former U.S. president, is still pyramiding. Only these days he harvests no accolades from Jews who accuse him of having metamorphosed into an anti-Semite, a coward, a plagiarist and a lover of ‘terrorists.’
Not a bad theme for Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme’s documentary ‘The Man from Plains.’ His is a portrait of a tireless Jimmy Carter who Demme says in an interview still carries the aura of power in his endless endeavor to forge a more just world.
The two-hour documentary won standing ovations at the Venice Film Festival this week because it is far more then a pad on the back for a former president who refuses to sit on his laurels and brings hope and help to millions around the world through his Carter Foundation. This is an exquisite study of a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978 but today is seen as a villain by many Zionists for his outspoken criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains, the man with the charismatic smile, the Mister Fix-It of global conflicts who travels economy instead of on a private jet, the Christian who reads with his wife an extract from the bible each night before both go to sleep (and does it over the phone if the couple is separated) has put his foot into a hornet’s nest. He has upset the omnipotent Jewish lobby in the U.S. a lobby to which most politicians, presidents and the establishment kowtowed for years, a lobby whose clout has convinced the media to pull in its horns when confronted by Israel’s harsh actions against neighbors.
“I wanted to show Americans what it means to live with a president like George W. Bush, obsessed by war and a mania to destroy the enemy and what it could be like with a president obsessed by peace,” Demme said in an interview after the screening.
His film arrives at an uncomfortable moment for Israel following its destructive attack on Lebanon. It also comes amid growing awareness the Jewish State won a major victory by splitting the Palestinians into Hamas (Gaza) and Fatah (West Bank) factions, a ‘divide and rule’ policy. Right now Israel has no need to rekindle a long-stalled peace process. The old Zionist dream of a Greater Israel including the West Bank is turning into a graspable reality. The clamor for a Palestinian State is now superfluous.
With the global limelight focused on the war in Iraq ‘the Man from Plains’ reminds its audience the core of the Middle East problem remains the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Carter derides the new security wall between the two sides as ‘colonization’ and ‘a violation of the basic human rights of the Palestinians.’
He argues the wall, which took away 13 percent of Palestinian land, created a system of apartheid he says is ‘worse’ then the one practiced in South Africa.
This kind of provocative statement enrages the often blinkered friends of Israel.
In his interview later Demme said: “The fear of being considered anti-Semitic is enormous. Obviously anti-Semitism, like other forms of religious hatred, is terrible. But this must not impede at all criticism of Israel’s politics. Instead, however, if you say anything, immediately the accusations start. The media is always reticent to enter into such a debate.”
The film was shot before the Jewish State launched its massive 33-day air strikes against Lebanon or its probing air incursion into Syria this week. In the film Carter says he had organized a peace mission to Syria’s president Assad last year but was turned down by the Bush administration which argued it might give the Syrians the wrong impression.
(Canceling Carter’s visit preempted the possibility the ex-president, popular in Syria after an ice-breaking visit in the 1980s, could return with concessions from Assad, concessions that would reduce the options of an attack against Syria and Lebanon.)
Carter’s best-selling and controversial book “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid’ provides the backdrop for Demme’s film. The book has outraged the Israeli lobby which has since demonized the ex-president, picketed his book-autographing session and sent scores of threats and insults to his home and office. Pro-Israel academics, of which there are many in U.S. academia, leapt on the ‘get-Carter’ bandwagon, sometimes with ludicrous charges like the one that his book plagiarized two maps showing the route of Israel’s security wall is well inside Palestinian territory. These maps are easily available and one has no need to plagiarize them, as I personally know.
Watching the film’s scenes of fanatical anti-Carter protesters one can not help but recall the old saying: “The more shrill the shouts of innocence the more likely the guilt.”
In fact Carter hits back at his critics with the best possible argument: ‘Visit the Occupied Territories and judge if I exaggerated or lied.’
He pulls no punches.
In speeches and interviews shown on film he has been constantly accusing Israel of caging the Palestinians in their own land, especially after the withdrawal from Gaza, by closing all exits by land and sea. He talks about hundreds of villages demolished by explosives as collective punishment; he says smart missiles punish every stone thrown at Israeli settlers, three year jail sentences await Palestinians who dare use the highways set aside for Israeli settlers inside Palestinian land. He talks of key Palestinian water resources taken over by Israel, of hundred year old olive trees uprooted by army bulldozers as punishment, of 700 Palestinian roads closed by Israeli checkpoints.
He stresses the horror of Palestinian suicide bombings must stop but believes a permanent peace can only come ‘if Israel withdraws from all occupied territories.’
The film, which is not in contention for the Golden Lion award, had such a positive impact in Italy the daily Il Manifesto wrote: “The film should be sent around all schools, churches, mosques and synagogues.”
The international community has always been reluctant to chastise Israel for its punitive excesses so it was no surprise Lebanon sent a last minute entry to the Venice Film Festival. The film’s main aim was to show the horrendous devastation wrought on southern Lebanon during 33 days of Israeli air strikes on what appears from the film to have been mainly civilian targets and national infrastructures.
The camera scans across leveled villages, broken bridges, urban wastelands, laid out corpses of civilians, children, old men and women, a horror scenario so bad it prompted some Israelis to demand – in vain - the impeachment of their Prime Minister and justifies the question how can a superbly armed Israel, a nation born from persecution, so cruelly bomb a neighbor for 33 days and nights killing 1,800 Lebanese, wounding thousands, making a million homeless - and then declare a victory?
Was this bombing spree justified to avenge the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by a bunch of Islamic radicals? Or was the motivation more sinister, allowing a new Prime Minister to show how tough he was?
Aptly named “Under the Bombs’ director Philippe Aractingi’s film has a simple theme that lends itself perfectly to his purpose: A mother arrives in Beirut and hires a taxi to drive her to the south in search of a son she left with a sister. The plot may be sometimes unrealistic but her odyssey through scenes of destruction and death are very real.
The bombing of Lebanon dropped out of the news far too quickly. Perhaps Aractingi’s film reminds us, just like the holocaust does: ‘This must not happen again.’
As each side presents its case Israel sent into battle one of its best known film directors, Amos Gitai. His film “Disengagement” played on passions and solicits compassion for the religious settlers uprooted and repatriated by force when Israel decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
Strangely enough Gitai used the same device as Aractingi to drive home the pathos of his story: A mother traveling from France to search for her daughter in the Gaza – on the very day of the Israeli withdrawal. In this film distraught and screaming settlers are relocated by force from stately homes, gardens, nurseries and their synagogue while amiable policemen do their best not to hurt them and startled children want to know why they are being bussed away from home.
Of the Palestinians we see only a ragged banner-waving batch on the other side of the high security fence surrounding the settlement, one of them yelling prophetic statements.
It’s a dramatic scenario though the film omits any reference to the fact these settlements were illegal, not even sanctioned by the State of Israel though protected year after year by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
The sobs, the tears and the final speech by the rabbi tear at our heart strings until we remember those settlers should have never been there in the first place?