It is Written for Me
It’s carried out in a language most of us don’t understand.
“One burden I can’t avoid is the heavy feeling that I’m not being told the truth from beginning to end.” Oded Pesensson, a former Israeli military judge, leans across a desk as he speaks. In response to questions posed by filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, he reflects on his history and its intersections with Israel’s. Specifically, and like the other retired judges interviewed in The Law in These Parts (Shilton Ha’Chok), he talks about the law, its possibilities, its limitations, and indeed, its burdens.
The burden Pesensson describes here is familiar and distressing. First, the obvious and specific case he is remembering: Israeli officers testifying in his court might lie to make their cases against people they have arrested. Second: he describes here a basic tenet of the law, that it depends on and assumes access to truth—even as it cannot do either. Alexandrowicz brings attention to this essential contradiction—or hypocrisy—throughout the film, beginning with its literal set-up. As he and crewmembers haul a desk and chair onto a set, arrange a green screen and lights, the filmmaker ponders the definition of “documentary,” that is, perhaps, his project. “The common understanding is that a documentary depicts reality,” he notes, adding, “This is not precise enough.” Rather than offer a more precise definition, however, he leaves the problem hanging while he links it to the particular subject matter he will be documenting, that is, the legal system implemented in “the territories we conquered in 1967,” in the Six Day War.
The Law in These Parts—currently screening at Film Forum—is structured to illustrate the problem at the center of the temporary occupation by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that is now 45 years old. The military judges are interviewed, in person and one by one, seated at the desk set up at film’s start, while the people subjected to their rulings, Alexandrowicz says, “will be represented by images from documentaries made over the last 40 years, mostly by Israeli filmmakers like me.” The filmmaker’s phrasing makes clear the underlying problem, that both documentary and law imagine their subjects, present them according to particular backgrounds. Here the background is literal, documentaries showing prisoners or protestors or family members cast onto the green screen behind the desk. As the judges speak, they seem to be illuminated by screen images.
And so the documentary indicates its own tentative relationship to “reality.” The awkwardness of the representation mirrors the awkwardness of the stories told, the judges’ efforts to use language to shape a reality, just as Alexandrowicz’s description of his method underscores the film’s own awkward self-awareness, such that it can never present a story or a reality without questioning its veracity and its arbitrariness.
The history is well known but also baffling, as the IDF conjured a set of laws that distinguished between Israeli citizens and Palestinian residents, laws designed to protect one group from the other. As Israelis “settled” in the territories, such distinguishing became complicated, as the occupation’s laws ran counter to much international law (the right to resist occupation, for instance). “If you apply Israeli law,” explains Dov Shefi, West Bank Military Commander from 1967-1968, “You imply certain things you may not want.” He goes on, “One of them, for instance, is that you intend to annex the region. Secondly, you automatically obligate yourself to grant citizenship to the entire population.” It’s a terrible difference, of course, evolving over a series of court rulings that leave Palestinians increasingly without legal recourse, whether they try to keep their land (when forced to evacuate “for security purposes”), travel, or find some legal apparatus to deal with arrests and detentions.
The Law in These Parts illustrates this difference with historical anecdotes, memories that may or may not be wholly precise. It frames these with the filmmaker’s commentary on the definitions of law, citizenship, and their effects on so-called realities, drawing attention to inexact parallels between legal decisions and filmmaking decisions. So, in recounting the case of a woman who is tried for giving food to an infiltrator, for instance, Alexandrowicz narrates, “I will not interview her because this film is not about people who broke the law, but about people entrusted with the law.” Moments later, Alexandrowicz questions Alexander Ramati, a judge from 1980-1981, concerning the 1980 murders of six Israeli students by Palestinians. Even before the interview begins, Ramati asks about process, and Alexandrowicz says, “I’ll ask you questions based on what we talked about and what I’ve read.” And by the way, he’ll be editing their conversation afterwards.
In its focus on how current conditions came to be, on the manipulations of “conversations” and impositions of rules and definitions, the film assumes you know something about those current conditions. To remind you, it provides images of protests and arrests, detention camps and fences, neighborhoods destroyed by explosions and also by settlement constructions, the intifadas and the consequences of torture during interrogations.
These pictures help to underscore the film’s broader case about law as an issue of language, its inefficacy and its arbitrariness, its brutality. If the judges are pursuing a balance between security and freedom, between truth and human rights, the film exposes the costs of that pursuit. While Justice Meir Shagmar denies a connection between the Supreme Court’s rulings and the harrowing effects of the occupation: “This is a political phenomenon which is not connected to the Court,” he insists. The illogic seems obvious, and yet, it is the basis of so much logic, in the laws used to govern the territories. Alexandrowicz observes that his film is itself possible because of the increasing imbalance between security and human rights, that “the law I am documenting might apply only to other people, but it is written for me.” Such sense of responsibility shapes The Law in These Parts, as it lays out, repeatedly and in multiple conversations, the need to speak for those who cannot speak, to reveal the effects of law beyond its intention, and to ask viewers to wonder how we have come to believe in this reality, shaped by “language most of us don’t understand.”