Third Cinema revisited

Just another WordPress.com weblog

The Promise, Channel Four Television.

Posted by keith1942 on September 8, 2017

This filmed drama was transmitted in four episodes in 2011. It was written and directed by Peter Kosminsky who has directed several successful television serials and several films. Channel Four has just finished transmitting his most recent television production, Secret State. It follows three British recruits to Daesh or Islamic State in Syria. This serial was interesting but I thought it was weak on analysis and motivations. But it appears to have been relatively successful and Channel Four have placed the earlier serial, The Promise, on its catch-up platform. So, I watched all four episodes [running to 85 minutes an episode, quite long for this format] over the last week.

This is an interesting drama set in Palestine and in two separate periods: the time leading up the Nakba and the erection of the Zionist State: and contemporary occupied Palestine, i.e. 2011. The first episode introduces Erin Matthews (Claire Foy) using her gap year before Higher Education to accompany her close friend Ziphora (Yvonne Caterfled) to her home in Israel. Ziphora has been educated in Britain and is now returning to undertake the compulsory military service with the Israeli Defence Force. We also meet Ziphora’s liberal parents and her brother Paul (Itay Tiran). Paul served in the Israeli Defence Force in occupied Hebron and the experience has made him a vocal critic of the Israeli occupation. He has a Palestinian friend Omar (Hass Sleiman).

We revisit Palestine between 1945 and 1948 through the diary of Erin’s grandfather Leonard Matthews. He served in the British army of occupation in that period and Erin has bought the diary with her. In 1945 Sergeant Leonard Matthews (Christian Cook) served in the invasion of Germany and was stationed for period at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. During his service in  Palestine we also see several of his army colleagues: a Jewish girlfriend, Klara (Katherina Schüttler) and his Arab servant Abu Hassan-Mohammed (Ali Suliman), whom Leonard calls Mohammed.

Wikipedia has a detailed plot synopsis of all four episodes as well as production details and extracts from some of the responses. So, I want to first offer my comments on the series as I watched it. Then I want to discuss some of the positive and negative criticism.

In the opening episode, we follow Erin to Israel. Her grandfather is in hospital after suffering a stroke. And she is carrying the diary she found whilst sorting out his belongings with her mother: there is no mention of her father, presumably moved on or dead. We get flashbacks to the 1940s as Erin reads the diary, initially chronologically. At times, the flashback appears not to be motivated by Erin’s reading. And sometimes a flashback is cut in abruptly and briefly to events in the contemporary time frame.

The diary open with Sergeant Leonard’s appalled responses to Buchenwald. Then we see him serving in Palestine and uneasy and concerned that he has to police and imprison refugees who were inmates of the Concentration camps. This struck me as rather conventional in the way that films relate the Holocaust and the migration of Jews to Palestine. In fact, we only meet an Arab, Omar, over an hour into the first episode. And the first ‘terrorist’ incident is an attack on Israeli coffee bar in which Paul is injured.

By the second episode Leonard has met and started going out with Klara. He is also involved in assisting the British Army Intelligence, which leads to him being an accessory to the shooting of a wanted Zionist. There follows the well-known bombing of the King David Hotel by the Zionist Irgun. This is intercut with the aftermath of the contemporary bombing of the coffee bar. In an argument at Paul’ family home Erin learns that he and Ziphora’s grandfather was a member of the Irgun and was party to the bombing of the King David Hotel.

“He is unapologetic, and tells them that his father, mother, sister and brother had all died in German camps. He says that his generation had been determined that the Jewish people would never again capitulate in the face of genocide, and want to secure a land that could be safe for ever. He explains that the British stood in their way, so they wiped them out.”

She also reads the final written pages of the diary. She learns that her grandfather feels guilty because he failed to keep a promise to Mohammed and that this related to his later imprisonment by the Military Authorities: a family secret that she did not know about.

By this stage we have met Mohammed and his family, including his son Hassan. It also becomes clear where the emotional commitment of the serial lies: Hassan has a puppy, the only family pet seen in the film. Sure enough the puppy will die later. Moreover, whilst we see both Arab and Jewish children, in Palestine it is only the Arab children who are victims of the contemporary Zionist settlers. The episode closes as Leonard and two colleagues are shot by Jewish fighters.

Episode 3 finds Leonard in hospital. When he comes out he continues to visit Mohammed and starts to tutor Hassan in mathematics. Leonard’s relationship with Klara becomes problematic because he wonders if she might be passing information to the Jewish underground. Then he finds her ‘tarred and feather’, apparently because she is dating a British NCO. Trying to support and re-assure her he lets out information about a meeting with a Jewish informant. The meeting is ambushed and Leonard and two colleagues are kidnapped. They are held for 15 days. Leonard is rescued but the other two are executed.

In the contemporary time Erin visits Hebron looking for Mohammed or his family. She witnesses the persecution of Arabs by the Jewish settlers and the way that the Israeli army passively supports the settlers.

In the final episode Erin has sex with both Omar and Paul: both acts seem rather casual. Still trying to find Mohammed family she persuades Omar to smuggled her into Gaza. There she is a witness as the IDF blow up the house of a family of s suicide bomber. She supports the daughter of the family.

Back in 1948 The British are withdrawing and we see Zionists celebrating the UN partition of Palestine. Leonard persuades Mohammed to leave his home with his family to avoid the massacres already underway. Hassan goes missing and Leonard goes to find him. Whilst doing this he also helps a group of armed Arabs fighting back against the Zionist forces. But Hassan is killed and Leonard is arrested: ending up in a military prison. Hassan has been carrying the key to the family home. And it is Hassan’s death and his failure to return the key to Mohammed that is the promise Leonard feels he has broken.

Erin meanwhile finally reads the remaining parts of Leonard’s dairy. And she is able to return the key to the last surviving member of Mohammed’s family: his daughter, a teenager when Leonard knew the family. Erin returns to Britain and explains what she has done to the hospitalised Leopard. He is cannot speak but he cries.

Wikipedia has notes on the production background of the serial. One of Kosminsky’s earlier television works was Warriors (1999) which dramatised the experiences of British troops stationed in Bosnia during the 1990s war. It seems that the suggestion was made that Kosminsky could produce something parallel on the experiences of the British soldiers in Palestine under the Mandate. When Kosminsky returned to the idea after 2002 the BBC agreed to support the project. There was detailed research over 12 months including interviewing 82 veterans who served in Palestine. When the BBC pulled out Kosminsky was able to take the project to Channel Four.

“Kosminsky says that his overriding aim was to present the experience of the 100,000 British soldiers who served in Palestine.”

I think this aim probably got at least partly deflected over the development of the project. The period 1945 to 1948 in the serial is presented from Leonard’s point of view.

“Overwhelmingly, the veterans told a similar story: they had started out “incredibly pro-Jewish”[10] but they had shifted their allegiance and by the end “were feeling a great deal of sympathy for the Arabs”

And this is how the flashbacks based on Leonard’s diary present the story. But the serial also renders this in dramatic form. So, I believe that, as in the serial, there were British soldiers secretly working for the Zionists. And I know than there were cases where Palestinian Jews, serving in the British Army, secretly smuggled Jewish refugees to Palestine. I do wonder if there is a case of a British soldiers fighting with Arabs against the Zionist forces.

But what deflects the original property even more is the contemporary part of the serial. The writing dramatizes Erin’s story so that her experience parallel those that she is reading about in the diary. However, this does rather ‘stretch the long arm of co-incidence to dislocation’, as we follow her to an affluent Israeli home, across the Israeli wall to a small village and then to Hebron and finally under the fencing to Gaza. In fact, in the plotline the relation between the present with Erin and the past with Leonard can be confusing. Supposedly the flashbacks that we see are motivated by Erin reading the diary. However, on quite a few occasions this motivation seems lacking. The most glaring example is the cuts from the aftermath of the coffee bar bombing to that in 1947 at the King David Hotel. I am not sure if Erin is carrying the diary with her but she can hardly be reading it in the aftermath of an explosion and when she is trying to determine the fate of Paul.

In the flashbacks Leonard is present at the assassination of a Zionist activist; is there when the explosion at the King David Hotel occurs; is shot in a Zionist ambush; and a, little later kidnapped and is eventually the only survivor. And the most extreme example is that he is present during the notorious massacre at Deir Yassin. Was any British representative three during this barbarous event?

Erin’s odyssey seems intended to parallel that of her grandfather. But this is a very different situation. The sequences of her journey round occupied Palestine, whilst it presents another occupation, is also the scene of a very different war. But the series gives little sense of the resistance, including armed resistance, of the Palestinians. We see armed Palestinian fighters in the flashback, we do not see them in the present. The most problematic example is Gaza. Where are Hamas whilst the Israeli army are blowing up Palestinian houses? Should we seriously believe they sit back and watch,

The representations in the series are simplistic. Initially we see the European refugees arriving and being imprisoned by the British. Then we leave them behind. All we see from then on in the flashbacks are armed Zionists [usually presented as the Irgun]; passively supportive Jewish immigrants; and Jews like Klara who apparently befriend the British but really support armed Zionism. At one point, after a successful search of a Kibbutz, Leonard, alone in his jeep, is serenaded by Jewish children and presented with a red flower. Later the Intelligence Officer Rowntree (Lukas Gregorowicz) explains that the flowers,

“ are anemones, or kalaniot in Hebrew: “red for the paratrooper’s beret; black for his heart”.

This is a Manichean division between Jewish victims and Jewish ‘terrorists’. The actual situation was clearly more complex.

And there is parallel problem is the representation of Palestinian Arabs. The script makes good uses of recognisable motifs, such as the key, an example of the Palestinian tie to their land and homes. But the Palestinians are uniformly victims. Omar, who was in the Al Aqsa brigade, is now involved in joint meetings with Israelis, apparently having surrendered the gun. The armed Palestinians in the flashback are not competent; Leonard takes them in charge and instructs them. And in Hebron and in Gaza all we see is Palestinians on the receiving end of Israeli violence.

Whilst the narrative is problematic in number of ways the series is effectively produced and presented. It was filmed on super 16 film stock and the definition and contrast of the image is good. The editing is extremely effective, though [as I suggest] at times it does seem somewhat abrupt. The sound is clear and relies [as is typical in mainstream] on music at certain dramatic points. The bulk of the dialogue is in English though we also hear Arabic and Yiddish; but in these cases, there is nearly always a translator amongst the characters. When Erin first sees and hears Omar at a Palestinian meeting in the West Bank Paul is translated into Arabic, and Omar is translated into English: the latter apparently for the sole benefit of Erin.

As is probably apparent the series follows mainstream conventions and exhibits the influence of other works in what is a genre about colonial oppression. There is also the influence of Kosminsky’s own productions including Warriors. And the use of illness/death, a surviving diary and an odyssey conducted in part in flashback recalls Ken Loach’s fine Land and Freedom (1995). The tropes of oppression, resistance, massacres, betrayals and failure are central to both films. However, The Promise does not essay the sort of sequence typical of Loach [in both Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)] where an in-depth discussion/debate about the politics of the war occurs.

The series was relatively successful. The first episode garnered 1.8 million viewers; subsequent episodes all achieved over a million strong audience. And there were further audiences in other territories and more recently on Channel 4’s catch-up service.

The series produced some positive criticism and as one might expect, some strong opposition.

“By the second episode Andrew Billon, writing in The Times, was concerned that both Len and Erin were meeting from the Arabs a “little too much kindness for the comfort of all of us hoping that Kosminsky will parcel out recriminations in exactly equal proportions”; but nonetheless applauded the “immersive and emotional” quality of the series.”

This reflects the point I made above. The series is essentially melodrama and this mode tends to draw characters in stark oppositions. The flashbacks do not address the resistance of the Arabs. Thus, the Palestinians had organized a rebellion against the British occupation and Zionist take-over of land in 1939. This is referred to only in a line of dialogue. Some Arabs clearly had a misplaced faith/hope in British protection, an aspect represented by Mohammed: but there was also a movement that clearly recognized the British oppression and coming perfidy.

The problematic representation of the British was picked up by a pro-Zionist critic rather than by British left or liberal writers.

“2011, Jonathan Freedland, having seen the first episode of The Promise, said Kosminsky used anti-Semitic tropes, misrepresenting Israel and Zionism as being a consequence of the Holocaust, whose imagery he had abused. Historian, Professor David Cesarani, accused Kosminsky of “deceit…massive historical distortion”: omitting the Balfour Declaration’s promise of a Jewish national home; downplaying selfish British geo-strategy; and exculpating the British, “chief architects of the Palestine tragedy…making responsible…only the Jews”; turning a tricorn conflict of British, Arabs and Jews “into a one-sided rant.”

The point about the European Holocaust is well made. Because of the structure of the series we start with the arrival of European refugees, victims of the Third Reich genocidal policy. There are brief references to an earlier Palestine. But there is not really a sense of the long-term Zionist colonisation and Palestine resistance, not just in 1939, but going back to the 1920s. The claim, made by the ex-Irgun member, that they would grasp the land to protect Jews in the future appears as the motivation for the Zionist seizure of land and for their conduct when that had erected an illegal state on that land. In fact Zionism going back to the 1890s and the project of migration and land accumulation started almost immediately.

Equally the Balfour Declaration is crucial to the long colonization of Palestine and the oppression of it people. I am pretty sure that the Balfour Declaration never gets a mention in the series. Neither does the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which Palestine was part of a Middle East strategy of domination and theft, particularly of the region’s oil wealth.

The sharpest criticisms came from the media that supports Zionism and from Zionist organizations.

“A press attaché at the Israeli embassy in London, however, condemned the drama to ‘The Jewish Chronicle’ as the worst example of anti-Israel propaganda he had seen on television, saying it “created a new category of hostility towards Israel”. The Zionist Federation and the Board of Deputies of British Jews both also lodged letters of complaint. The Jewish Chronicle itself took the view that rather than “attempt to tell both sides of what is a complex and contentious story”, the series had turned out to be “a depressing study in how to select historical facts to convey a politically loaded message”.“

The term ‘anti-Semitic’ turned up frequently.

There were also complaints to OFCOM [British Office of Communications]“

“The broadcasting regulator Ofcom received 44 complaints about the series, but concluded in a ten-page report that it did not breach its code of conduct. Viewers complained that the drama was anti-Semitic, used upsetting footage of concentration camps, incited racial hatred, was biased against Israel and presented historical inaccuracies. But, Ofcom said: “Just because some individual Jewish and Israeli characters were portrayed in a negative light does not mean the programmed was, or was intended to be, anti-Semitic… Just as there were Jewish/Israeli characters that could be seen in a negative light, so there were British and Palestinian characters that could also be seen in a negative light.”

Similar responses occurred in France and Australia.

On the other hand the serial was supported and publicized by Palestinian Solidarity Organizations. One felt that as it annoyed and dismayed Zionists it must be ‘good’. Unfortunately, some Palestinian support groups still recognize the term of ‘anti-Semitism’. In fact, historically it is a dubious concept. It was initially publicized a by groups who publicised and practiced anti-Jewish racism. More recently it has been hijacked by the Zionists. It is also a concept that suffers from relying on a ‘hierarchy of the oppressed’: not a basis for progressive thought or action.

Overall, I would judge that the series offers emotional support for the Palestinians and rather simplistic criticism of Zionism. The actions and events shown in the episodes are, as the regulators judged, more or less accurate. However, the structure and organisations of these does not seem to prompt deeper consideration. Typically of mainstream melodrama it weakest aspect is that of analysis, So the Palestinian people and their resistance is longer, larger and more direct than suggested here. And Zionism is a more complex, more dangerous movement, though it its viciousness is addressed.

The films can be clearly sited in the ‘auteur’ strata. Kosminsky’s film making regularly addresses contentions social and political issues. But it does so on the basis of individualised stories. Thus ‘Secret State’ follows three individuals who journey to Syria. We learn their individual stories and see something of the hard-line values and practice of Daesh. But the complexities of the Syrian war and foreign interventions is not really addressed. An earlier drama, Britz (2007) contrasted the experiences of an Asian Officer in MI5 and his sister recruited by an Islamist organisation. I found this powerful, but again the full politics of this world were not really presented.

Solanas and Getino commented on the

“so-called ‘author’s cinema’ … This alternative signified a step forward inasmuch as it demanded that the film-maker be free to express himself in non-standard language and inasmuch as it was an attempt at cultural decolonisation. But such attempts have already reached, or are about to reach, the outer limits of what the system permits.”

In fact, Kosminsky does not really use ‘non-standard language’, his films are fairly conventional and parallel mainstream film and television. This is where I find Ken Loach more radical. However, I have critically examined the limits of Loach’s Land and Freedom. So to be fair to Kosminsky that film also fails to address in particular the important aspects of colonialism and its relation to the Spanish Civil War.

The Promise does not progress far beyond the apparent views of the British veterans who provided the basis for the story. Justified criticism of Zionism is good, and solidarity with Palestinians is good. But the Israeli State is not just about an occupation of Palestinian land: it perpetuates in a neo-colonial way, the domination of Arab lands represented by Balfour, Sykes-Picot and the artificial structure of the modern Middle East.

Apart from ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, all the quotations are taken from the Wikipedia post on The Promise.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: