What does it take to become an executioner? The question lies at the heart of the Egyptian documentary In/Out of the Room, and the answer seems to be supreme intelligence, confidence, and above all, rationality. The film’s protagonist is an older Ashmawi, or state executioner, who has broken the record for men hanged. “I’ve killed 1,000 men and nobody’s tried me,” he tells a woman on a bus. “Guess it’s too late now.”
Not that he thinks his profession is wrong—in fact, quite the opposite. This exceedingly normal-seeming, good-tempered man begins the film saying that he first applied to be an executioner because it was honest work that paid well. Now, though, he believes that “There is favor between me and God.” We learn all this in close-ups as the man talks by a lapping sea, or hangs out at his favorite hookah bar, the place he best finds peace.
The movie spreads his perspective a little by interviewing other Ashmawis. But no matter how much they discuss the daily activity of the job, and even traumatic experiences with victims (the tale of the obese man who wouldn’t hang rings particularly vivid), you still feel that you’re missing an essential element—namely, the victims themselves.
I’m not asking for execution footage, and am quite glad that the film doesn’t include any. But the film also omits showing any convicts or convicts’ family members, leaving the executioners too cleanly as the lone voices of authority. Moral issues aside, any portrait of a business is incomplete if you don’t see the customers. In/Out of the Room runs 52 minutes, about half the length of a typical feature, which seems right since it only feels like half a movie.
Tears of Gaza goes the opposite way—all victims and no executioners, with incredible results. The film follows three young victims of the 2008-2009 Gaza bombings that killed nearly 1,400 Palestinians and wounded over 5,000. One child says he wants to become a doctor to heal the wounded; another kid says, “I want to become a lawyer so that I can take the Israelis to court.”
The movie focuses on children, though not always live ones. Much of its footage (a combination of original material and film and video shot by unknown Gaza residents) shows parents trying and failing to protect their brood. A man pulls his dead preteen from the rubble, then sprints out of sight. A hospital scene shows a youngster cased in bandages, and another with a charcoal-colored burned face.
It’s ironic that Israel, founded because of the Holocaust, should be the site of subsequent holocausts. While radical Islamic suicide bombers have been and still are a legitimate problem, they’re nothing compared to the bombs the Israeli government can launch. You can only kill, the movie seems to be saying, if you don’t think about who you’re killing. Self-defense arguments collapse in the face of an infant corpse on a table.
The 2008 film Waltz with Bashir ends with several seconds of images of Lebanon War victims. The protagonist, a former Israeli Army soldier, sees his past, a view of screaming mothers, bloody mouths, and gaping eye sockets. Imagine those sounds and pictures playing for an hour and a half, and you’ll have a sense of Tears of Gaza. There’s no voiceover here, nor governing presence from the outside world. The noise the movie leaves you with is an unceasing shriek of pain.
During the film’s post-screening Q & A, In/Out of the Room’s director said that she was opposed to the death penalty, and made a film about an executioner to help her understand why people would hate a government worker rather than the law he’s carrying out. After all, her subject is correct when he says that he’s doing honest work, especially in a society full of corrupt cops.
Blindly hating the executioner is what the kid in Tears of Gaza who wants to prosecute the Israelis is doing, and what many Palestinians have (very understandably) come to do in the wake of the Israeli government’s attacks. But military service is mandatory for Israeli citizens, so at least some of the bombers are doing honest work that they can’t escape. By looking at killer and killed separately, the films together claim that the larger society’s flaws are responsible for violence rather than individual actors. Both the executioner and his target are victims of a broken social structure. This thesis points to a valuable model of conflict resolution, in which people of different classes, races, and cultures work together to fix problems rather than to seek revenge.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.