Thursday, May 1, 2008

EXODUS (1961)


Growing up, I would see paper-towel editions of Leon Uris’s books always on display at the neighbourhood market, always flanked by Victoria Holts, Wilbur Smiths and Danielle Steels. And I would wonder why. While size didn’t necessarily matter, the back covers would suggest vastly different contents and yet, the shop owners would unhesitatingly place the four piles together.

Deterred by the company they kept, I never got around to reading any Urises. Having watched Exodus some days ago, I really wish I had read the book, just in case it is different! The film, a 1960 adaptation directed by Otto Preminger, was a disappointment.

Exodus is the story of post-war creation of the State of Israel. The movie begins in 1947, Cyprus, with the determination of Haganah leader Ari Ben Canaan’s determination to transport the entire population of one Jewish refugee camp to Palestine.

At that time, Palestine was a British protectorate, with a predominantly Arab population. Jews, among them survivors of holocaust, had intensified their claims to a Zionist state, and in the short term, were seeking entry into Palestine. Palestinian Arabs resisted both aims, and in the absence of a solution of the former issue, the British felt it imprudent to allow the latter – i.e. immigration of large numbers of Jews into the protectorate.

Restrictions were placed on Jewish refugees to prevent travel to Israel, which, in the film, Ben Canaan was determined to violate. With forged orders he took aboard more than 600 refugees. The ship set sail for Palestine, but before it could leave the harbor, the British officials in Cyprus came to know. The harbor was sealed and the passengers asked to return. Instead, the passengers started a hunger strike. Following an impasse of several days, the British relented and the ship was allowed to sail to Palestine.

The next part of the film focuses on events in Palestine, as the British are preparing to leave and the question of partitioning the land into separate states of Israel and Palestine is being debated at the UN, and culminates in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of November 29, 1947 confirming the partition. It follows the fortunes of the Ben-Canaan family and their friends and associates.

After they land in Palestine, we are told that Ari’s father Barak is a leader in the Haganah (depicted as the mainstream Jewish organization seeking peaceful settlement of the Israel question) and head of the Jewish settlement of Gan Dafna. One of their closest family friends is Taha, the headman of the neighbouring Arab village. Ari’s uncle Akiva on the other hand is one of the leaders of Irgun, an extremist group relying on bombing British installations as its principal mode of expression. Other characters include the young explosives expert Dov, and a Danish refugee, Karen. Dov is a victim of sexual and emotional abuse at a Nazi concentration camp who survived because he was recruited as a Sonderkommando. Dov joins the Irgun and together with Akiva orchestrates a series of bombings on British installations. Karen, brought up by foster parents in Denmark has lost her mother and siblings, but believes her father, a famous scientist, is alive and in Palestine. She finally locates him, but he is by now unable to recognize or respond to her.

A series of events including the capture of Irgun members by the British, a dramatic jail breakout orchestrated by Ari, UN announcement of partition, outbreak of violence between the Arabs and the Jews, a dangerous walk in the night as 150 children from the village are taken across the mountain to protect them from Arab armies and a bloody end, with the discovery that Taha and Karen have been killed by Arab extremists.

According to Gideon Bachman [1], Exodus has achieved the status of a historical epic, despite no claims to accuracy other than the fact that it weaves in references to some ‘real’ events. One such real event is attempt to sail to Palestine from Cyprus, but the fate of that ship, the real Exodus, was different. Its passengers were driven to Germany and into another refugee camp. The film is littered with similar faux-historic, unsubstantiated episodes. This is a relevant criticism, but not the focus of this post.

The greater tragedy of the film is this: the film was shot against the backdrop of an enormously complex epoch in the history of this region, with a cacophony of issues providing any director with material rich enough for about 20 films (and posts on international law); it was shot in the region itself, and in the wake of a tremendously successful book so that it was assured of a large audience before release; it was a long film with a run time of three and a half hours; and yet there was barely a scene which engaged.

In the attempt to tell the full story of the ‘birth of Israel’ as well as a few love stories, the director glossed over the following: ethnic nationalism, territorial identity, religious nationalism, self-determination, refoulement, forced internment, terrorism, status of protectorates, buffer states, the United Nations, legitimacy of trials, rules targeting particular communities etc. This is not a laundry list conjured out of nowhere, the film actually refers to all of these issues, but in the attempt to depict all, addresses none.

So, you have a ship being forcibly prevented from sailing to Palestine suddenly allowed to go with no explanation why, beyond the hunger strike; passengers taken to Haifa and dropped off to roam at will; a UN General Assembly meeting in which the scene focuses on the votes of Panama and Peru; no explanation for why UN member states decided on partition; no explanation of the role the ever-present British regime played in the unfolding events. There were radio announcements of special curfews for Jews with no follow-up; award of capital punishment to Akiva and his cohort under a targeted provision, to which no further attention was paid.

Even worse, the film infantilized both causes: Jewish and Arab. To only mildly caricature, from the depiction it would appear that the legitimacy of one group’s cause was owing only to the record of abuse and torture under the Nazi regime, with no portrayal of their centuries-old claim to that land; while the other side’s claim was pure bloody-mindedness, not even redeemed by an iota of passion or dedication to any particular ‘cause’.

The multiplicity of views among the Jewish community was collapsed into two schools – and these barely explained - Barak’s and Aviva’s, peace loving moderates and the violent extremists. Only in one scene is any attempt made to tell a more complex tale: Barack goes to see Aviva (from whom he has been estranged for years), before he is hanged, finds himself yet unable to speak to his brother and leaves, but not before he tells his son that he cannot see his brother dying at the hands of the British. Just this one insight into a common feeling and then the scene shifts. The next time we see Barak, he is celebrating the UN resolution.

The only Arab we see is the good Taha, apart from the disembodied split second appearance of the mufti, only to shake hands with a German ex-Nazi and declare death to all Jews. Otherwise, we are expected to go along with a vague sense of poor hostile multitudes ready to kill and be killed at the first ringing of the clarion.

To get a sense of just how much Exodus manages to avoid accomplishing, one need only look at The Battle of Algiers, a film from the same period and a disturbing, emotionally wringing account, of another struggle between opposing causes. In Exodus, the vitals of Israel-Palestine conflict appear to have been shoehorned into the exigencies of an exotic love story - or three.

[1] Gideon Bachmann, Review, 14(3) Film Quarterly 56 (1961)

1 comment:

Orson said...

Really interesting post! It is a little bitter to view that since 1961 a real solution for Israele and Palestine has not found yet!
Anyway, I appreciate very much your blog. A lighter, but refined, way of studying law!