I was recently a guest at the Corrymeela Residential center in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, where, as one of a team leading workshops on facilitating dialogue groups, I used major clips from Yulie Cohen’s trilogy of documentary films about contemporary Israel. Not surprisingly, Cohen’s unique films which deal with personal reconciliation, both on a national level and a familial level, struck a sympathetic chord with viewers in Northern Ireland and her comments, “peace can come from us” and “I want to try another way”, spoke to their contemporary reality.
Cohen’s personal story reflects the story of the nation. She is an Israeli woman who grew up in Tzahala, an upper middle class neighborhood of the aristocratic military elite, dreaming of becoming an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. After serving in the airforce, she became a stewardess for El Al and, in 1978, was wounded in a terrorist attack which was carried out against an El Al flight crew in London. Now, years later, married and the mother of two little girls, she is trying to come to terms with that formative experience.
In her personal documentary, “My Terrorist” (2002), Cohen looks at the cycle of revenge and the events of history during her lifetime and concludes that we have suffered enough over the years and we must find another way. According to Cohen, the logical next step is to communicate with “her” terrorist — or was he a freedom fighter? — from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who attacked her and killed her colleague and, since that time, has been “rotting” in prison in the U.K. Cohen is convinced that only through communicating and reconciling with him, can she help build a better world for her children.
But Cohen is not naïve. She recognizes the fear and hatred around her. She meets a bereaved mother who lost her daughter in a suicide bombing and who describes the pain of losing a child. Cohen gives this mother much space on film to talk about her daughter, how much she misses her, and how special she was. As a feminist, mother, and empathetic listener, Cohen is capable of hearing this woman’s voice, even though the point of view does not agree with her own. She even permits that mother to talk about her desire for revenge. Cohen’s reaction: “I cannot put myself in her place. I want to show my little girls that there is another way. I cannot put myself in her place. I did not lose a child.” These are two different world views that are expressed in the same film. The bereaved mother lives in the past with memories of her daughter, dwelling on revenge; whereas Cohen lives in the future, focusing on reconciliation and the future of her own children. This highlights the difference between choosing past or future. Choosing the future is to choose life.
As a mother in the contemporary reality, Cohen is afraid of letting her own daughters go out of the house. She feels that she must protect them, shelter them and keep them at home. Here, “home” becomes a central image in the film. She recalls the terrible fear that she experienced at the time of the terrorist attack in London and the post-traumatic stress that she suffered as a result. But she feels that her daughters are safe within the confines of their family home.
It is after 9/11. Within her own home, Cohen is painting the metal bars on the stairs of her home (symbolic of being imprisoned within your own home) and she senses that fear is overwhelming her and she realizes the danger of its leading to hatred.
The Dangers of Home
“Home” is not always so safe. In her next film, “Zion, My Land” (2004), Cohen considers the terrorism, the dangers of army service, and she talks to Palestinians, also trying to understand what it is like for them living in contemporary Israel. She looks at three generations of Israelis – her parents from the Palmach generation, her own generation, and that of her daughters. Cohen asks tough questions and considers the difficulties of living in a land that literally tears apart its inhabitants.
Reconciliation within the Family
Also about reconciliation, but this time within the family context, is Cohen’s “My Brother” (2007). This time she attempts to reconcile with her estranged brother, 25 years after the family was torn apart when he became an ultra-Orthodox Jew. In her particularly personal style, Cohen turns the gaze of the camera inward and focuses primarily on herself, on her own feelings, on her own perspective, as she tells her story and that of her family.
Here again the element of “home” becomes a central element. Their family home, the home in which they grew up, together as brother and sister, is demolished as their parents are aging and the house is sold. This is the period of the disengagement from Gaza, and bulldozers demolishing homes is an image that has unsettled the entire nation.
Cohen uses the fact that reconciliation within the family is so complicated to hint at the challenges of reconciliation among Jews and also between Jews and Arabs in the region. At a recent screening at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, some members of the audience found it difficult to understand why the filmmaker would include a reference to the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a film about family issues. Cohen, however, discussed this honestly with the audience, talking about the difficulties of family reconciliation even when regret and apologies are offered. If this is so difficult on a personal and family level, then even moreso, on a national and international level. In the case of the assassin of Prime Minister Rabin – his murderer has not expressed regret to this day.
Yulie Cohen’s unique trilogy, which includes: “My Terrorist” (2002), “Zion, My Land” (2004), and “My Brother” (2007), was recently edited into one compilation film entitled, “My Israel” (80 minutes) and broadcast on the BBC-TV. This film can be seen as a unique reflection of Israel of the last decade, grappling with issues that are part and parcel of one woman’s personal journey and, at the same time, reflecting the identity of an entire nation.
All four films are available in the U.S.A. from Women Make Movies, www.wmm.com
By Amy Kronish (www.israelfilm.blogspot.com)