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Alternative voices

In overly insecure and nationalistic countries, what suffers the most is freedom of speech and action

Alternative voices

Recently a film Foxtrot by an Israeli director has made headlines all across the world. It was publically denounced by the Israeli culture minister as intolerable and disgraceful, especially in the light of the favourable response it received as it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival. It also picked up thirteen nominations at the domestic Ophir Awards.

The director and writer of the film Samuel Maoz had solely focused his film on the human cost of war and conflict. The entire plot revolved round the character of a renowned architect who was very successful, self-satisfied and seemed to have done well in life till he suddenly heard the news of his son’s death in combat. The rest of the film was about the unfolding of the parental grief and the attempts at coping with it. It was a succession of both mourning and rage.

The ending or resolution did not offer the resignation of the father at the hands of fate or some kind of a reconciliation of dying for a higher cause — the country, the motherland or a religious obligation — but instead a series of desperate efforts at drawing a connection between suffering and redemption.

This is what must have irked official circles and those who tout the line of making sacrifices for the cause of saving the country. No sacrifice for them is high enough for the safety and security of the country, and placing human suffering over and above that of the sublimated heroism of offering the highest price must have galled them.

Israel is a terribly insecure place and, despite its guaranteed security at the hands of the United States and unassailable war record since its creation, the government and the people are forever fearful of its annihilation at the hands of its neighbours. It is ironical because the neighbours too, more or less, have either been neutralised or beaten into submission. Still, the siege mentality has reigned supreme and the ultimate end of saving the country or its territorial integrity has been promoted as a value that is non-negotiable. By calling it the promised-land with a reference to scriptures, it has tried to further indemnify it.

The title ‘Foxtrot’ according to the director is “a move in a loop, ending at the point it once started. All the time we are told we are at war and this is part of the brainwashing but what is the war there, the soldiers don’t know they just fight the unknown.— it has turned the Palestinians into a spectral entity that exists only to haunt Israel”.

“The external image of the Israeli soldier is so bad, but people see the film and see that the soldiers are children ……..I have been criticised by the left in Israel who say I have turned the soldiers into victims but I do believe that both sides are victims of trauma.”

One does not know what the size of the Israeli cinema is, probably miniscule, but the fact that the film Foxtrot was able to win thirteen nominations in a domestic award ceremony does tell us that alternative voices are being heard as well.

One finds many parallels with the situation in Pakistan and mindset of the Pakistanis. This too is an insecure country, and the price of offering one’s life is considered to be above reproach. And what suffers the most and becomes a victim to this line of argument is the freedom of speech and action. Any alternative point of view is viewed with suspicion, if not an act of outright treason, doing disservice to the motherland. Here, too, the narrative is laced with references to scriptures, and is seen both as defiance of nationalistic duty and religious obligation.

In the recent past, some films have been made in Pakistan which glorified the value of patriotism and were acclaimed hugely among some selected local circles. When films were being made solely as a private enterprise, it was the box office that determined the fate of the film. But with the film industry being in some kind of stasis, some of the films were propped up and not considered to be neutral in their being offered to the film-going public or audience. It was all managed, and it seemed that the films did not make enough money but scrapped through without going into the red. In other words, it is just not possible to assess whether the films have done well or not.

Indian cinema too gets into the mode of touting patriotism, and its target mostly is Pakistan. But, due to its size and immensity, there are other voices too that are being raised. It is not all singing in a chorus, and that has probably saved the cinema there. One does not know what the size of the Israeli cinema is , probably miniscule, but the fact that the film Foxtrot was able to win thirteen nominations in a domestic award ceremony does tell us that alternative voices are being heard as well.

But it appears that space for freedom of speech and action is shrinking all over. This is not only limited to political freedom but to artistic and academic freedom as well. Some of the leading institutions in the largest democracy have been rendered dysfunctional, for the state and society fears their alternative narrative. The communities, genders, ethnic, religious and nationalistic denominations are getting oversensitive about their portrayal in the arts; their instant reaction has made writers, directors and visual artistes to tread it all more carefully. This itself can lead to self-censorship, which may be a good thing in societies with limited space for freedoms but not for an order that encourages and ensures openness.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • I saw the film last year and while I do agree with the argument Mr. Sarwat is making here, I must say those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Israel, however ‘overly insecure and nationalist country’ it might be, is willing to give the green light to a film like Foxtrot at least. A film like that wll not see the light of the day in Pakistan.

    “alternative voices are being heard as well.”

    I wish that could be said about Pakistani cinema as well, which seems quite content by only showing perversions of reality in the name of popcorn entertainment.

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