mon 14/10/2019

Censored Voices | reviews, news & interviews

Censored Voices

Censored Voices

The impact of Israel's 1967 Six Day War starkly told in its protagonists' original words

Amos Oz listens to his own voice from 1967, played back on the same tape-recorder on which it was recorded

Israeli director Mor Loushy's documentary Censored Voices grapples with the weight of history. It draws on interviews taken by the future writer Amos Oz with Israeli soldiers immediately after the end of the Six Day War in 1967 which were heavily censored at the time by the Israeli army, with only around 30% of the resulting material subsequently published in a book by Oz’s colleague Avraham Shapira, The Seventh Day.

Censored Voices appears at first a deceptively simple work. Both Oz (main picture, with the original tape-recorder with which the two worked) and Shapira appear at the beginning to give invaluable context on how their project began. Then some of its original participants listen to their own recordings, with Loushy recording the reactions on their faces – they do not speak – and intercutting those with a remarkable compilation of visual material drawn from a range of sources, both military archive and civilian newsreel, and more generic footage connected with the pre-war experience of those who went on to fight, as well as public reaction to the war. In the short final segment the protagonists are identified and speak briefly about who they are now, and how they feel today about what they have just listened to.

The director’s skill is in making the final 84-minute assemblage seem so organic

Oz, who himself fought with a tank unit in Sinai during the conflict, explains how, with Shapira, he initiated the project out of a sense that there was an unease in Israeli society very different from the surface mood of triumph. The brief conflict had seen the young nation defeat the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and occupy the territories that, substantially, it now comprises – “Israel as we know it today was born.” We don’t hear about how he got official permission for the project at the time, nor about the process of its subsequent censorship – though we see the pages of transcript scored through with the censor’s green ink.

Nor do we learn how Loushy managed to convince Shapira to share the recordings with her, after he had refused access to the tapes he kept at home in a cupboard to others, major broadcasters included, who had requested it over the four and a half decades following their recording. That must be a fascinating story in itself, and there’s another nuance here: as Loushy revealed in interviews ahead of the premiere of Censored Voices at Sundance this year, even today her material had to pass the censor, with the director forbidden from commenting on the demands made in that process. The fact that the film we are watching is very possibly not the one which the director intended to make is itself a sobering thought.

“It may not do a great service to national morale, but might do a small service to the truth,” Oz describes his motivation as he started going round the kibbutzim and remembers his surprise – “miracle” is the word he uses – that the newly returned soldiers agreed to reveal their experiences so frankly. The memories were absolutely fresh: recording started from the tenth day after fighting ended. The result is testimony as close to any documentary truth as we can probably come, taken at a time before it had been re-evaluated by the protagonists, and before it became publicly controversial. Controversy came only later, when the imbalance between the official mood and these private versions became glaring. Every subsequent Israeli action in the territories occupied in 1967 can be seen in the light of questions raised in Censored Voices. Some of the closing verdicts, talking of “seeds of revenge”, a “next round” which would be crueller, and how a “constant state of war can destroy nations” seem prophetic.

The soldiers' recorded words speak for themselves, chillingly. The treatment of prisoners of war, including random execution, has them speculating on just how, effectively, they became murderers, and is a particularly shocking subject. The capture of Jerusalem and the expulsion of populations from there and other occupied areas evokes surely the ultimate challenging concept for the nation: “When you see a whole village go, like sheep, wherever they’re taken, and there is no sign of resistance, you realize what Holocaust means,” one soldier recounts.

Their present-day reactions, faces stretched in grimace or, conversely, placid, also somehow speak for themselves. What needs extolling is director Loushy’s skill in assembling the accompanying images – from a total archive the size of which we can only guess – into a narrative that both chimes with the words being spoken (no images exactly match the places or moments of the soldiers’ testimonies), and also creates a loose narrative of the war itself, chapters ranging from early elation, through the capture of prisoners, their treatment, on to the taking of Jerusalem, the refugees from conquest, and aftermath. The way we react to the contrast of black-and-white and colour imagery is a revealing issue in itself, how we relate the former more easily to classic photography, the latter to newsreel.

Loushy gives us a whole range of material, offering something close to external commentary in her recurring use of material from an ABC correspondent on the ground, and combining his broadcast material with impromptu outtakes from the process increases immediacy. Other archive, like youth sporting tournaments, is much more archetypal, giving us the sense that these soldiers were trying to live up to a particular myth of national endeavour. Popular anthems like “To the victor a song of praise” and scenes of mass celebration ring hollow in juxtaposition. The director’s skill (and, of course, that of her editor and co-writer Daniel Sivan) is exactly in making the final 84-minute assemblage seem so organic.

The film’s final line, from Amos Oz, is suitably lapidary: “I feel we spoke the truth… A truth I stand by today.” The wider issue of such truth standing up against any “official” line goes beyond the immediate issues of Israel and 1967. Censored Voices speaks richly about the sheer experience of war, its chaos, the contrast between any idea of how it was supposed to be and how it actually was, and how the protagonists mitigated that difference.

Watching Censored Voices in the week that Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature proved unexpectedly revealing. The earliest works by the Soviet-Belarusian writer, her first devoted to the Second World War and its successor, the remarkable Zinky Boys, to the immediate impact of the USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan, resound with very similar concerns. Zinky Boys, published in 1991 when the conflict remained raw, and no less controversial on its appearance, caught the impact of the war in its broadest sense. Like Censored Voices it reminds us how fragile are the “myths” established by society when set against the real-life testimony of those involved. That distinction articulated by Amos Oz – between “national morale” and truth – is surely one which the new Nobel Prize-winner would endorse.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Censored Voices

 

Talk of how a 'constant state of war can destroy nations' seems prophetic

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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