Benchetrit’s first film, Through the Veil of Exile, an intimate look at the lives of three Palestinian women, grew out of his work as a freelance cameraman covering the intifada, and the personal confusion he felt about which side was right. It has a very limited scope, covering the trio of women with virtually no context, and without a deep exploration of the moral issues behind their personal choices and views. At the time, he said he was interested in making a film about Palestinian women, not about war.
Though nearly 15 years have passed since that first film, Benchetrit clearly took the same approach to Dear Father, Quiet, We’re Shooting … , a film that is making its North American debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in a few weeks’ time. In Dear Father, Benchetrit focuses his camera almost exclusively on a small group of men who have refused to serve in various Israeli military ventures, be they Lebanon or the occupied territories. Seen in the context of the director’s own struggle with this issue, the film has a great poignancy. Unfortunately, however, watched on it own merits, there is a strange coldness to the film that make it much less affecting than its subject matter would suggest.
Among Benchetrit’s subjects are two distinct generations of men, the younger of which is more idealistic, and more likely to have been imprisoned for their choices. The older men, on the other hand, both served with distinction and pride in the Israeli military before experiencing changes of heart. Eli Geva was a general during the war in Lebanon (an action know at the time as “Peace for Galilee”) who asked to be relieved of his duties in order to avoid refusing the direct order to lead an invasion of Beirut. Yoel Piterberg, meanwhile, was a helicopter pilot whose whole life had been built around military service, and who, in his interviews, emphasizes time and again that he is not a pacifist -- instead, he feels wars occur naturally among men. The day came, however, when he could no longer close his internal eyes to a Palestine policy that he considers “aggressive” and “evil,” and he was expelled from the military for signing a letter of protest.
Of Benchetrit’s subjects, Piterberg is easily the most compelling. His bearing remains confidently military, and he’s fiercely supportive of warfare in general. By the same token, however, he speaks clearly and powerfully of the loss of individuality he felt while serving his country, and of the increasing difficulty of, as he says, locking his questions and doubts up deep inside. What’s fascinating about Piterberg is the fire that still lights his eyes when he speaks of the thrill of firing on a target; of the absolute certainly one feels in that moment about defending Israel. Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, it seems clear that he would not be surprised, one day, to be prosecuted for war crimes he took part in before he signed that fateful letter.
What sets Piterberg and Benchetrit’s other subjects apart from the other conscientious objectors we’ve seen on every continent throughout the modern history of warfare is that they, from day one, have been raised with the knowledge that the existence of their homeland is a perpetual fight; for Israel to survive, all of her citizens must serve and protect her. For an Israeli to claim CO status, then, is more than just a personal, moral choice: it’s an act of treason, and a decision that goes against everything they’ve been taught.
By rights, then, Dear Father should be riveting, and wrenching because of the profound implication of the choices made by its subjects. The problem is that it isn’t. Perhaps because the men are seen only in closed rooms, talking -- unquestioned -- to camera, there’s an air of sterility to the whole venture. Though the interviews are periodically intercut with footage of the intifada, or the invasion of Beirut, the “refusnicks” come across as philosophers, isolated from the world around them. Placed in the greater context that Benchetrit habitually eschews, their stories of sacrifice would wield great power. As it is, they come across primarily as philosophical exercises, a portrayal that fails to do justice to these men and their individual bravery.