West of the Jordan River

West of the Jordan River

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Amos Gitai’s West of the Jordan River suggests an addendum to the director’s Rabin, the Last Day, but it’s less a sequel or a continuation of its predecessor’s exploration of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination than it is a series of disconnected outtakes that Gitai couldn’t manage to leave on the editing room floor. The footage here appears to have been cobbled together without Gitai ever deciding what exactly he wanted to say, maybe hoping that the material would speak for itself. Unfortunately, the documentary never coheres into a solid whole, leaving viewers with only the vaguest of sketches of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One of the few messages that can be gleaned from West of the Jordan River is that Gitai, like most of his interviewees, sees the peace process as being over after hitting a dead end in the wake of Rabin’s death. Bookended by interviews with Rabin from 1994 on the subject of the Oslo Accords, the film implies that the bilateral situation has steadily deteriorated since then but without providing the context to verify such a claim. Gitai boldly hints early on that his film will provide a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the prosaic series of short interviews that he conducts with various political and civil figures involved in the conflict fail to deliver on such a promise.

The roughly five-minute interview segments that make up the entirety of the film move between talks with Israeli and Palestinian organizations, journalists, politicians, and regular people on the street. While the seeming diversity of views on display gives West of the Jordan River the appearance of having a broad overview of the conflict, the final product nevertheless feels shallow. Gitai makes no attempt to bridge the gap between Rabin’s assassination and the present day—to reckon with the manifold changes in the conflict that have taken place in the interim. The result is a work that feels like a preamble to a larger statement that the filmmaker can’t manage to formulate.

Early in the film, a member of Hamas puts it plainly when he says that he doesn’t believe in the peace process. Later on, a Palestinian boy says to Gitai that he wants to die as a martyr, while simultaneously admitting that his life is actually quite good. If there’s a thesis here, it’s expressed when Gitai muses in passing that such Palestinian extremism triggers an equal response on the Israeli side. But the filmmaker offers no concrete examples of this equivalent Israeli response to such ingrained behavior, assuming that his audience will take his word for it. The leftist Israeli organization Breaking the Silence claims to speak out against Israeli abuses in the West Bank but shows itself to be paranoid and unconvincing in its time on screen. The group’s promise to reveal the outsized ethical toll of Israel’s presence in the West Bank amounts to little more than the assertion that it’s difficult to be a soldier in a place where the parents of child soldiers are one’s everyday acquaintances.

One glimmer of hope here is an Israeli-Palestinian women’s association doing the practical work of reconciliation by bringing mothers from both sides of the conflict together to share their grief. This scene works to fundamentally undercut the rest of the film by showing that coexistence here is possible when people are willing to listen to one another. Amid snippets of various people and groups blaming the conflict on one side or another, this segment feels like a diamond in the rough. If Gitai’s point was to have this segment run counter to the other interviews and their underlying (and sometimes explicit) message that all hope for peace is lost, it’s one that should have been more foregrounded, since it otherwise runs the risk of being lost in the rest of the film’s general cacophony of ambivalence and often outright pessimism.

Apart from this segment, Gitai regularly takes incidents and anecdotes out of context, making it difficult for viewers who lack intimate knowledge of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to follow the proceedings. For example, journalists from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz are disproportionately represented, which make give audiences the impression that there are no other significant newspapers with alternate viewpoints in the country. In never concretely defining the nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and providing almost no historical backstory for the views and assertions presented on screen, West of the Jordan River will be of little value to casual observers of the region, whose minds won’t be changed one way or another by what they see here.

Kino Lorber
87 min
Amos Gitai
Amos Gitai