Peter Greenaway once noted, "We somehow expect cinema to provide us with meaning, to console us. But that's not the purpose of art." If that's so, the annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRW) is possibly the most artful gathering of new cinema in the world.
For 18 years now, HRW's curators have gleaned the most informative, accomplished, disconcerting, and challenging narrative features and documentaries from disparate centers of chaos. Their goals are to spotlight the often-overlooked inconsistencies in modern life, the miscarriages of justice, and the invincible heroes who surmount the most titanic devastations. Consoling is not a top priority here.
Amidst the offerings this year to be shown this year is Shimon Dotan's riveting Hot House, winner of the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Granted unexpected access to maximum-security prisons within Israel, Dotan was able to interview dozens of male and female perpetrators of terrorist acts. (Just imagine the Bush administration following suit with GuantÃ¡namo.)
Dotan's results are unexpected. I had anticipated to be boohooing over the plight of the incarcerated Palestinian subjects as I had with the recent documentary Nine Star Hotel, which plumbed the plight of the Arab workers sneaking into Israel illegally to work on construction sites. Or I imagined an Oz gala of brutality as depicted in Jeffrey Goldberg's memoir Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide. Goldberg, who in 1990 had served as a guard at Ketziot, a prison camp that Israel set up in its southern desert, recorded homosexual rapes of younger Arabs by older, killings of men suspected of being Israeli collaborators, plus brutal humiliations and beatings of the incarcerated by Israelis.
Instead, what I saw were nearly adequate-size cells with four bunk beds holding eight men each, overflowing with books and pictures. The prisoners could wear their own clothing and sleep on their own bedding, even sheets with illustrations on them. There were group religious services, 45-minute biweekly visits with family members, and the ability to get a free university education. Additionally, there was also a TV in every cell with access to daily doses of Oprah. It was almost like an overnight camp without frogs and campfires and sex with the counselors. Of course, enjoying such an environment for a decade or two or for life can be a bit trying, but my sympathy dissolved when I heard these prisoners speak.
One waxed quite poetically on suicide bombing: "You turn your bones into fragments that tear the flesh of your enemies, of those who kill your countrymen, your children, and your brothers."
"Do you want to blow yourself up?'
Another: "The Jews and the United States are the same thing. We don't want to hear about phony, distorted democracy. Islam is the solution!"
Then there was a young man who was smiling broadly as he envisioned his future. He would get married, have children, and have them become suicide bombers: "I want to put the bombs on them with my own hands."
Another, a young woman who had been a TV reporter, recalled the successful bombing she had planned in which fifteen Israelis were slaughtered. Talking of the suicide bomber she drove to restaurant: "It's a beautiful thing to realize a person's dream. For instance, if there was a poor man, and you gave him a lot of money that would make him very happy, and you would be very happy for giving him the life he wanted so much. I, in my turn, gave this bomber the life he wanted so much."
"Did you ever think of the children and the families you killed?'
"Do you know how many children were killed?"
"Eight children were killed."
"Eight," she serenely voices with a grin.
The unrepentant mentalities exposed here are bone chilling, especially because they seemingly belong to otherwise rather "nice," bright, ordinary folks. You really would not want these individuals back on the street, but that's where many will wind up. As one wise incarcerated gent noted, the prisons are "creating a cadre of Palestinian activists." Many who enter illiterate and politically naÃ¯ve exit intellectually sophisticated, hardened, and revolutionized. Having been in prison for them "is a badge of honor."
Besides spotlighting the prisoners' everyday activities, a number of factors are also adduced in Hot House in a rather timely manner that explain the events that have led to the current Fatah/Hamas standoff.
Subsequently, this documentary is essential viewing for any student of the Middle-Eastern affairs and scholar of human nature. â€“ Brandon Judell
Hot House is at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center from June 14 to June 28. The schedule can be found here.
UPDATE 3 July 07: Hot House is currently being screened on Cinemax.
Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.