The Scene at Cinema South II: Jewish-Arab Dialogue on Film

Haim Watzman

Can Jewish and Arab Israeli film students understand each other better if they watch a 50-year old French film about race relations in the Ivory Coast? Filipa César, a Portuguese artist, had the idea of showing a multi-cultural collection of film students in this country Jean Rouch’s Cinéma-vérité work The Human Pyramid and filming a subsequent discussion. The result is The Four Chambered Heart, screened at the Cinema South festival in Sderot.

Rouch’s film teeters on the fence between documentary and fiction. At the end of the 1950s, just before Côte d’Ivoire achieved independence, he took a group of black and white high school seniors in Abijan and asked them to improvise a story about race relations in their class. The film shows the students acting out the story, interspersed with voice-overs by the director and occasional interspliced scenes in which the teenagers are themselves and not their characters. The story follows the initiative of a new white girl, Nadine, who convinces the whites and blacks to socialize, and the disaster that follows as a result of her own inability to distinguish between displays of friendly affection and of romantic love.

One subtext of the film is that integration equals socialization—that if people belonging to two different racial, national, or cultural groups go to parties and have picnics together, harmonious relations will prevail. Another is that France is more advanced in the field of race relations than the Anglo-Saxon world—the students frequently refer to South African Apartheid and occasionally to segregation in the U.S. And, indeed, in 1959 the French were doing what was unthinkable in the U.S.—they had black and white kids in the same classrooms. On the other hand, as the film shows, the race barrier, while invisible, was still high, both inside and outside the classroom.

Rouch introduces complexity inasmuch as Nadine’s refusal to accept the race barrier is complemented by her own inability to maintain the kinds of distance that are essential in human relationships. By meeting them alone and permitting physical contact, she leads four of the boys, two white and two black, to believe that she loves them, and the resulting jealously eventually leads to a catastrophe and forces her to return to France.

César’s film stresses the silences in the discussion as much as the verbal exchanges. More often than not, she focuses her camera on a student who is not speaking—often, on students who do not speak at all throughout the film. Several of those who speak note that the presence of a filmmaker with a camera among them means that the resulting film will also straddle the border between reportage and fictional narrative.

The film students recognize the problematic nature of Rouch’s vision. The blacks and whites meet on the cultural terms of the French—speaking their language, accepting their social mores and culture. Tellingly, the final scene of The Human Pyramid shows some of the student-actors walking together as friends—in Paris, not in Abidjan. The parallel with Jewish-Arab relations in Israel is obvious to the film students. While they don’t mention it, the differences are, well, different. The blacks and whites in Rouch’s film share a culture, language, and religion, even if these were foreign imports for the blacks. The blacks in the film do not have large, strong, and devout native states just over the border. Israeli Arabs are segregated not by skin color but because they have a language, culture, and religions of their own that they value, and which are the dominant culture of the countries that surround Israel.

Rouch’s vision is ultimately that we are all human, and to be human is to be French. That won’t, and shouldn’t, work in Israel. Here the way to understanding and peaceful coexistence is the recognition of and respect for our differences.

5 thoughts on “The Scene at Cinema South II: Jewish-Arab Dialogue on Film”

  1. Haim-You are repeating the misconception that the reason for the Arab/Israeli conflict is “misunderstanding” and “cultural and religious differences” between the two groups.
    That is not the problem. The problem is that the Arabs view us Jews as alien invaders who stole their country and who are cursed because we rejected their prophet and our having a state here is a violation of the cosmic order. That is a much greater base for hostility than merely “different skin color” or “cultural and language differences”.
    In Germany 600,000 Jews lived in peace and with more or less equality with their non-Jewish neighbors for decades. They fought and died together in the trenches in World War I. They spoke the same language, had the same culture, revered the same national and cultural heroes. Sure they attended different houses of worship, on the occasions they went (by the 1920’s most Germand Jews and non-Jews didn’t take their religions too seriously in any event).

    Let’s look elsewhere. In Iraq, Shi’ites and Sunnis lived side by side in Baghdad in peace and harmony for many, many years. However, when Saddam’s iron hand was removed, they started killing each other.
    Same in the former Yugoslavia. In places like Sarajevo, Muslims and Serb Christians lived for decades in peace together, yet when the regime their broke up, it was easy to get them to start slaughtering each other.
    Same with Lebanon in the period leading up to their bloody civil war that started in the 1970’s.
    Obviously, not all groups that live in proximity and that have historic grudges against each other end up killing each other when given the chance. It must be remembered that the Arab hostility to Israel’s and its Jewish population is FAR, FAR more deeply ingrained than what the German Jews faced. And no peace agreement would even begin to relieve the hostility, if anything it could even intensify it…for example if Israel agrees to admit some Palestinian refugees as part of a recognition (G-d forbid) of the Palestinian demand for the “Right of return”, those left out would have a very deep resentment. Also, we have seen how Israel’s favoring of the FATAH terror group led to HAMAS’ strengthening itself because of many Palestinians hostility to FATAH.

    In reality, the people in Israel best suited to carrying out contact with the Palestinians are the “right-wing religious/settler” groups because in their values and life-style they are much closer to the Arabs/Muslims and in fact this has been going on from the beginning of the settlement movement. Unfortunately, the “peace process” has caused so much violence and hate that these contacts were greatly restricted since them, but there has been some revival of them in the recent past.
    The Arabs can respect a Jew who says, “I believe this land is all mine, just like you believe it is all yours, but in the meantime, we can drink coffee together and work for mutual interests”. Certainly a person like this is more honest to an Arab than a “progressive” who rails on about how the “settlers” are supposedly “immoral” living in the Biblical heartland of Israel (and which the Arabs know about) and at the same time saying the theft of Arab land (as the Arab see it) carried out by “progressives” such as those at Tel Aviv University which is sitting on land that used to belong to the Arab village of Sheikh Munis is somehow “justifiable”. This, in their eyes, is simply hypocrisy.

    It is important to keep facts like this in mind when trying to “bridge the gap”.

  2. I was in elementary school in NYC in 1959 and there were a few black kids in the class. And we knew that this was true in other places, although we didn’t know exactly which places in NYC. Call it partial segregation?

    The Arab/Israeli dispute is not about race. Film school students and artists from Europe tend to see it that way, though. Nor is the dispute about romantic love.

    But a Portuguese artist wouldn’t be expected to know much about it, would he?

  3. Rouch’s vision is ultimately that we are all human, and to be human is to be French. That won’t, and shouldn’t, work in Israel. Here the way to understanding and peaceful coexistence is the recognition of and respect for our differences.

    Back to the beginning- to be human is to be human as we know from pottery that goes back to fired pots before the time of Biblical lands. So then and for a long long time there were no Biblical lands. And after that for a long long time there were no Biblical lands, just lands that held people, people that came and went.

    With some shedding of notions that are ultimately doomed, some letting go, there might come not only respect for differences, but love of them, and maybe a feeling of wanting to embrace them as integral, enhancing, vital, beautiful.

    Perhaps when the ideological settler finds himself living in the Palestinian State he will have coffee and discuss mutual concerns with his “enemy”.

  4. Lets make a movie called “My name is Ilan Halimi” about a French Jew who is tortured by a gang of well integrated French youth led by the progressive Ivorian Yusuf Foufana. Both Arabs and progressive Jews can laugh histerically as Ilan Halimi is burned with cigarettes before he is killed. Simply heartwarming, like the old Lassie films

  5. I rarely purchase DVDs. Last night, I went out and bought Gran Torino. I don’t know if it will ever become a classic but it really spoke to me through its many layers about what it truly means to be an American. For Eastwood anyways, it is roughly the belief in American ideals and not the color of one’s skin or nationality. This movie comes at a time when white America can see that America will eventually not be a white-majority nation.

    See . . . these young Americans have this thing about being attracted to someone unlike them.

    Well, I wonder if Israel can ever bridge that gap between what it means to be Israeli to Jewish and Arab citizens. I personally can not see it until women can say Kaddish for their dead parents in a schul without causing a big rabbinical issue and Israeli-Arabs are asked to take up arms in defense of their Israeli values.

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