Dpicting the Middle Eastern crisis without preaching has been a difficult challenge for many Israeli and Palestine filmmakers. With Kedma, Israeli-born director Amos Gitai attempts to illuminate his country’s troubled history by focusing on a batch of Jewish refugees who land on Palestinian shores in May 1948, shortly before the withdrawal of British troops and the declaration of the state of Israel. These coming events are referred to only in whispers around the campfire. There’s still time for reflection on where the Jews have been and where they are going; it’s a moment when all was promise and hope for the dawning state.
Yanush (Andrei Kashkar) and Rossa (Helena Yaralova), a Jewish refugee couple, kiss in the early evening rain, basking in the joyful realization that they have finally found a home. Behind them, a small group of Palmach (Jewish guerilla soldiers) wait to lead them onwards, their faces showing a mixture of warmth and impatience. The couple is part of a group of refugees recently landed on Palestinian shores from the cargo ship Kedma. They flee the British soldiers, pausing occasionally to eat a few vegetables and relay the stories of persecution and exile. Eventually, they meet at a local camp, where they’re coached in the use of firearms and sent into immediate combat against some Arabs blocking the road to the kibbutz.
These battle scenes have a unique poetry. With no rampaging musical score or kinetic editing to dictate viewers’ visceral response, the danger of combat is allowed to be vague and uncertain. The country setting is so neutral, even benevolent, that characters’ sudden deaths come as total shocks. In one surreal moment, an old Israeli fighter relates the tale of an earlier skirmish to Yanush as they lie down after an Arab mortar explosion. Though he is impatient to get into the fray, and the others are already moving forward without him, Yanush is too polite to interrupt the older man, and waits for this lengthy story to end so he can get up and continue the battle.
The scene is painful to watch, frustrating the expectations of viewers used to heroes charging recklessly into the face of danger. In arresting the film’s momentum right when it should be at its most intense, Gitai succinctly illustrates one of his Big Points, that the Jewish people’s obsession with history cripples their present.
Similarly eloquent moments appear throughout Kedma. The powerful opening shot begins with Rossa’s naked back as she leans toward Yanush. The camera follows him as he leaves her alone in the bed, gradually revealing that they were attempting their coital act in the very crowded lower deck of the cargo freighter bringing them to their new home. He goes on deck, where his fellow exiles look towards the horizon in cautious anticipation. There’s barely any dialogue for several minutes, and the images, allowed to stand alone, convey the mood more powerfully than some later scenes that are full of conversation.
The many storytelling scenes show the limitations of words to reflect the refugees’ horror and sorrow. They also reveal the actors’ limitations (as well as, perhaps, the constraints of low-budget filmmaking). Most of them look too healthy and relaxed to be convincing war-weary refugees, and they tend to engage in histrionics when underplaying would be more effective. Ironically, the members of the Palmach, with precious little to say (when they give the refugees terse instructions), seem more compelling characters.
The “talking” problem reaches critical mass when the din of battle fades, and two loud, spittle-flecked speeches, back to back, bring the picture to its close. The first is by an old Arab farmer (who looks, acts and speaks too much like an Israeli Jew to be very convincing as an Arab, even though he is played by half-Palestinian actor Yussuf Abu Warda). “You will never get rid of us! We will be a wall!” he proclaims to the departing refugees. It’s as if he’s shouting some ancient prayer on behalf of the about-to-be oppressed Palestinian people. This is just a bit too obvious, as if he’s peeked at the future’s history books.
A few minutes later, Yanush, weakened by the events of the day, launches into a lengthy diatribe about the futility of Jewish existence, the passive-aggressiveness of his people, on and on. The impossibility of a peaceful future in this new world is now so clearly spelled out, literally shouted, that it drowns out the earlier, subtler illustrations of this same point.
It could be that other genres are better suited to the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has been recently evoked in black comedy (Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention) and repeatedly in documentary, a genre with which Gitai has much experience and success (Wadi, Give Peace a Chance, Orange, The Arena of Murder, to name a few). It is to Gitai’s credit that he tries every which way to address his nation’s troubles, but it is a shame that he appears to lack confidence in his choice of images, and perhaps his audience as well.
Given Gitai’s productivity (he often releases several projects a year), it’s easy to see Kedma as just a one of a series of films, a sketch rather than a finished mural. This would be fine were he able to allow the film to remain sketch-like, and perhaps hint at the big message within its low-key, ensemble framework. Instead, Gitai pulls out all the stops, resorting to half-screamed predictions of unrest and indictments of history. In attempting to be both dramatic and didactic, Gitai’s initial lyricism ends up grating, like Yanush’s farewell speech.