On the Edge of Peace: Ilan Ziv Explores Video Diaries
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The Israeli army bursts into an apartment in a West Bank refugee camp. Suher Ismail secretly turns on her video camera, but leaves it dangling by her side. A fuzzy image of an unmade bed mixes with the sounds of a crying child and a heated argument between an Israeli soldier and Suher’s brother-in-law.
“You cannot use the camera while I’m here,” says the soldier. “She can use the camera,” insists the brother-in-law. The argument continues in a mix of Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Suher, emboldened, trains her camera, still dangling low, on an Israeli recruit, panning up past his Galil rifle and towards his face. Suddenly, the camera is struck down from the side as Suher cries painfully, “I will use my camera!”
This scene is from On the Edge of Peace, a 1995 video collaboration between three Palestinians, three Israelis and the director Ilan Ziv. Ziv presented this and other recent projects during a Winter 1996 visit to U-M as part of the “Screening Social Change” film series sponsored by the International Institute and the area studies programs.
Shortly after completing his military service, the Israeli-born Ziv moved to New York to study film at NYU. In 1980 he founded Tamouz Media, an independent production company, and spent the next decade making documentaries in locales of conflict from Central America to Jeruselem. His more recent work employs a more collaborative “video diary” technique.
“ On the Edge of Peace is not an auteur film,” explains Ziv, “it’s a film made with cameras that were given to people, so it’s obviously rough on the edges. But nothing done on the peace process by a professional filmmaker could come close to its level of immediacy.”
For Ziv, the role of documentation has changed. “I do not want to go to Peru or the Middle East to make a film by myself anymore. There are enough people around the world who have cameras or who will have cameras,” says Ziv, “people who could be trained in video. I believe you can tell your story with your images, but you cannot get your story told alone. I will convince television that your story is so compelling and so important that they will have to show it. And I will satisfy their cinematic necessities of story-telling and professional supervision.”
Ziv asked participants not to retell the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but to present their story or their family’s story through a record of daily life during the six months following the signing of the September 1993 peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
A West Bank settler woman interviews her father as they drive home through the dark streets of Ramallah, hoping to evade the rock-throwers; in the still pre-dawn a Palestinian matriarch prepares to visit her imprisoned son; a retired kibbutznik sits in a favorite chair and ruminates on his hopes for peace; three young refugee boys in Gaza train with the Fatah movement, invoking martyrs while lamenting their loss of childhood with unsettling acuity; an Israeli high school boy asks his friends about their impending military service - one accepts his duty, “Because this is my home, whether I like it or not.”
The diverse voices of the six diarists are captivating. Yet Ziv's subjectivity is present as well - he edited the footage 350 hours down to 100 minutes. The diaries are tightly juxtaposed - a Palestinian responds to the massacre at Hebron, then an Israeli, back and forth - but the juxtapositions rarely seem intrusive and leave room for viewers to come to their own conclusions.
The arithmetic of three Palestinians and three Israelis imposes a sense of balance on the documentary, a balance Ziv says is often lacking in mainstream news coverage. Clearly though, Palestinians and Israelis are not equal, one group displaced by the other’s well-funded occupation. Yet these video diaries tend to illuminate such inequalities rather than cover them up. Adam Shuv records his Israeli teenage friends taking a trip to the beach, smoking cigarettes and mugging for the camera behind aviator glasses, persistently trying to enjoy their adolescence despite Shuv’s troubling questions. The diary from Gaza, meanwhile, presents three Palestinian boys self-conscious of their lost youth and mobilized for struggle. “Our experiences are suitable for adults, not for us,” says Nael Rasman. “A person is supposed to go through childhood before he becomes a man. But what can we do? Ask Arafat to give us back our childhood?"
"These are non-representational attempts at representation," says Ziv. "Sociologically, the six people in Edge of Peace don't represent anything more than themselves, but we tried to give a sense of social diversity in Israel and Palestine, without the pretense of scientific sampling." For director Ziv, key to this kind of collaboration is a lengthy process of feedback. To view the rough cut, Ziv brought the diarists together, Palestinians and Israelis, once in East Jerusalem and once in West Jerusalem. Each person had editorial control of their story, but not of how it was put together.
Ziv acknowledges it is difficult for a filmmaker to cede so much control, but feels the participants’ reactions made the film stronger. “For the first cut we had two journalists providing narration and background, one Palestinian and one Israeli,” says Ziv. “But the minute the reporters came on, it brought back ‘politics’ because reporters are ‘objective.’ There was a huge uprising among the diarists, so we cut out the journalists. With just the diaries there is no politics per se - there is just your story and my story.”
The result, says Ziv, is an “eye-level” film, where daily lives illustrate a larger social issue like the Mideast peace process. Overall, the participants are pessimistic about the chance for a lasting peace in the Middle East, while optimistic about the small improvements that the peace process might bring - a greater sense of security or the return of an imprisoned son.
While visiting U-M, Ziv screened two other, more traditional documentaries. People Power (1989) finds Ilan Ziv returning to the “zones of social conflict” he knows well - Chile, the Middle East and the Philippines - to consider non-violence as more than a moral option but as an effective political strategy. Ziv worries that this 1989 film seems ancient today, with its discussion of revolution and large-scale social change. “In my prehistoric generation we used to talk about such things,” says Ziv, born in 1950.
In The Yellow Wasps (a work in progress) Ziv documents the “ethnic cleansing” of Zvornik, a town across the Drina River from Serbia. The movie, made under difficult conditions of Serbian control, mixes testimonies of the survivors with the story of the Bosnian Serb Vuskovic brothers, leaders of the paramilitary “Yellow Wasps” that drove the Muslims out of Zvornik. The filmmaker’s goal was to leave a record of this campaign, fearful that he was witnessing another attempt by western powers to overlook a holocaust in the heart of Europe, as the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jews was conveniently ignored in his father’s time.
Though committed to documentary journalism, Ziv hopes The Yellow Wasps is his last work of this genre, preferring to explore the video diary format.
Ziv and his Palestinian and Israeli co-producers are setting up an on-going project, The Video Nation. Expanding on the approach of Edge of Peace, The Video Nation will provide VHS cameras to 25 Palestinians and 25 Israelis, who will dispatch popular views of the week’s events to Palestinian and Israeli television over the next two years.
“Everybody is talking about the 50th anniversary of the partition of Palestine in 1997 and of the state of Israel in 1998,” says Ziv. “Instead of trying to propose my film on 1998, I am much more interested in using these two massive collaborations to create a montage of memory and history.”
Ziv has also taken the video diary approach to inner-city America. Teen Dreams: Unheard Voices of Youth (1995) presents the stories of a young Harlem drug dealer, a Puerto Rican gang member in Philadelphia, and a streetwise, tatooed “hostess” in Los Angeles.
Ziv views the video diary format as a chance to broaden media choice in a world dominated by CNN. “Forty cable channels is only the most primitive sense of choice. But if we can use video diaries to compete with existing notions of filmmaking and professional journalism, it creates a profound competition in terms of imagery where the audience is the judge, where the audience begins to demand more."
To Ilan Ziv these video diaries are a powerful way to understand social change. “The more personal and human-scale, the easier it is to communicate a reality.” No purist, Ziv still tries to bring out the cinematic appeal of people’s lives. “You don’t,” he says, “want the audience to fall asleep.”
On the Edge of Peace debuted in June 1995 at the Human Rights Film Festival in New York City. It will be excerpted in late April 1996 on PBS’s syndicated human rights program Rights and Wrongs . The video is also available from Tamouz Media in New York City, tel. 212.864.7603
Paul Kobrak is an editor of The Journal and a doctoral candidate in Sociology. Lane Clark and Loretta Hieber assisted in the preparation of this article.