By Simone Bitton
First Run/Icarus Films (1999)
"The Bombing," a one-hour documentary by Simone Bitton, begins with a news flash on Israeli television. It is 4:30 p.m. on September 4, 1997. A suicide bombing has just occurred in central Jerusalem: three young Palestinian men have blown themselves up on Ben Yahuda Street. A passer-by has captured the chaos of the bombing's immediate aftermath on video. Among the Israeli victims were three teenage girls: Sivann Zarka, Yael Botwin, and Smadar Elahanan. This documentary, which Bitton both wrote and directed, deconstructs the bombing through interviews with families of the victims and the bombers, eye-witness accounts of the incident, and even a Palestinian psychiatrist's analysis of the young bombers' motivations. Bitton presents the tangled knot of issues that provoked this violent act, and we are left with a renewed sense of the pain that both preceded and continues to follow it.
Bitton universalizes this tragedy by focusing on the parents of both the victims and the bombers. Regardless of whether they are Israeli or Palestinian, Muslim or Jew, each suffers a parent's ultimate nightmare: losing a child. It is excruciating to witness the pain of these parents as Bitton asks them about their loss.
When did they first realize their child might be in danger? Smadar's mother had seen her daughter lying on a stretcher on the television news and had run from hospital to hospital trying to find her. "But I knew it was over, otherwise she would have called," she said. Says Smadar's father, "I felt a fear run through my veins and strangle my heart. Even during war, I had never felt anything like it." His pain has continued unabated: "[It] is there all the time. Every word, every look, every object reminds me of her and makes me suffer."
The parents of the bombers suffered in their own particular ways. The bombers were identified about two months after the incident as three youths from the Nablus area: Tawfiq Yassine, Bashar Sawalha, and Youssef Shouli. Their parents were not allowed to identify their bodies or even see them; a proper burial was not possible. The Israeli authorities destroyed the bombers' homes and tortured their brothers for information. The parents, in addition to feeling the loss of their sons, wrestled with confusion and shock, wondering why their sons had committed such an act.
It is this question which most haunts the survivors of this tragedy: Why would a young man deliberately kill innocent people and blow himself up? Americans echo this question as they read about the suicide bombings that have become more frequent in the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The Israeli father of one of the victims struggles with this question, puzzling over the apparent senselessness of the act. He can find no logic in it.
An Israeli mother of another victim demands of the bombers' mothers: "How could you sow such cruelty?" But Youssef's mother protests, "Who would send their child to his death?" Tewfiq's mother recalls lying in bed at night, remembering the kindnesses of her son, "how he spoke to me, how he helped me." A brother also insists that there was nothing abnormal or unfeeling about his sibling,explaining, "He did not have psychological problems. He would play with the children. He laughed a lot. He seemed fine."
Bitton poses the question: "What is inside the mind of a suicide bomber?" The parents of an Israeli girl harmed in the bombing ask a Palestinian psychiatrist to help them understand this. The psychiatrist had worked with Palestinian youths who turned to violence, and he tells the parents, "It is an act of despair . . . in a culture that supports religious and nationalist suicide." Young men become disillusioned with a peace process that has the Palestinian police firing on their own people, carrying out the will of an occupying force.
Time and again, Bitton brings us back to the "facts on the ground" in the occupied territories. The suicide bombers C all 25 years old or younger C had been raised in the West Bank. They had grown up under Israeli occupation and its policies. In perhaps the most chilling interview in the film, the mother and father of one of the Israeli victims, Smader Elahanan, suggest their own answers to the question of "Why?"
Father: "My children would never do such a thing. . . never have killed in cold blood. But my children were never humiliated. They have never been hungry. My children grew up in a warm and peaceful home. No one ever burst in on them in the middle of the night. I'm not in a position to judge. Nor do I want to."
Mother: "When a whole nation is oppressed for 30 years and subjected to continual humiliation, what can you expect? Where are those young men born? What can they hope for? They're born in a dump. They have nothing to lose. There are deviants and murderers everywhere. But here, we encourage these kinds of people. We encourage only these people and repress all the others. We crush their political, scientific and intellectual elite. We impose our censorship on them. It is our relentlessness that produces such monstrosities. Oppression! That's the only thing we know how to do."
Is there an end in sight? Not according to Bashar's father, who says, "Power is above the law. Israel is powerful. It doesn't care about rights . . . Israel doesn't want peace or reconciliation. It wants land."
The end of the film offers another perspective. Instead of focusing on the intransigence of the Israeli state, Bitton shows individual Israelis and Palestinians daring to take a step toward each other. The parents who had talked with the Palestinian psychiatrist visit the family of Youssef, the young man who injured their daughter and killed himself with a bomb. Forgiveness may not yet be possible, but the families' attempts to share their thoughts with each other is a first step in re-humanizing the enemy.
Though Bitton does not present much new information in this film, it succeeds in establishing a different, universal context within which to understand the current intifada. Because their generation did not create justice between Israelis and Palestinians, parents are losing their children. It is a terrible cost to pay. It is unfortunately ironic, as always, that it is the bombings which garner headlines and give visibility to the Palestinian plight. Bitton's film might more aptly be called "The Lost Children." But then perhaps not enough people would want to see it.
A FEMALE CABBY IN SIDI BEL-ABBÈ
By Belkacem Hadjadj (Algeria)
First Run/Icarus Films, 2000
For this documentary, Soumicha, the good-natured female cabby of the title, has agreed to have a camera installed on the dashboard of her taxi. Before her passengers get in, she tells them they will be on camera. Most of the women decline to enter, except for a few particularly independent ones, many of them friends she has made along her route.
As she drives her passengers around, Soumicha, the first female cabby in the Algerian city of Sidi Bel-Abbès, opens conversations with them. Not surprisingly, her riders bring up the topic of women's roles in their society.
She asks a young man if he is married. No, divorced, he replies. When she asks him why, he says he gave his wife so much freedom, she finally left him. Soumicha smiles. He responds sheepishly as she continues her questioning.
An older man and his fully-veiled wife enter her cab.
"How are you?" she asks them.
"Fine, God be praised," the man answers. Soumicha starts to talk and he interrupts vehemently.
"Talk to her, not to me," he says, referring to his wife.
"Why not with you, Hadj?" she asks.
"You're a woman, so talk with the woman."
Soumicha continues her conversation with him. "I'm a taxi driver. I talk with all my clients. Nothing wrong with that," she says, smiling.
"I'll talk my wife into becoming a pilot so she can fly planes."
"It's not bad?"
"That'll be the day," the wife finally chimes in.
"Do you have a daughter?" Soumicha asks.
"Only one," the wife answers.
"Could she be a taxi driver?" Soumicha asks.
"No," the man says abruptly.
"Would you let her?" Soumicha asks.
"Once I'm dead, she can do what she likes."
"Once you're dead?"
"I may die this evening, who knows."
People wave to Soumicha as she passes them. She wears modest clothes and a scarf, which she explains is necessary to prevent the hostile stares of men. As the documentary progresses, we witness the support of women and the ambivalence of men about her very public work. In her community, women are relegated to the private sphere.
Soumicha is a widow with three children to support. When her husband died unexpectedly, he left her only his Renault 4, so she decided to support her family as a taxi driver. At first she was scared, but both men and women seemed to accept what she was doing, for various reasons.
One woman says, "When I first saw her [driving the taxi], I felt really happy inside."
"My first client was a man," Soumicha remembers. "He smiled and praised me. . . . Women clapped. I was overjoyed."
The filmmaker asks men on the street who know of Soumicha what they think about her working in this job. "It's a man's job, but since she's a widow with children to support, it's okay." They make it clear that it would not be okay if she were married.
Soumicha has never had problems with anyone - even a drunk male passenger "behaved well."
The picture for working women darkens, however, when we travel to nearby towns with Soumicha and some of her friends. They visit Talegh, where several of her female friends found work in an electronics plant built in 1987. Some of the women are widows (one woman's husband had been killed by Islamic militants); some, divorced women who had been kicked out of their homes while still caring for their children. Some of them supported two or three families, and some had six or seven children.
These women had gained more autonomy as they ventured forth from their homes. One of Soumicha's friends describes her life before working: "I never went out. I was afraid. After my third child, I had only been to the hammam three times. Can you imagine? . . . He wouldn't let me out."
Another woman was using her factory paycheck to build her own house. We see her buying bricks and carrying the heavy load to her car, while a man watches without offering help. "I don't need his help, as long as he keeps his mouth shut," she says. Obviously, things have changed in this community.
However, these changes are not welcomed by local Islamic militants. In 1993, militants burned the factory to the ground, and the management fled. The women rebuilt the factory with their own hands and, though it is not yet back to full production, they sit in it every day, afraid of losing their "jobs" if they do not.
Soumicha and her friends visit another town to talk with some female teachers. Eleven of their female colleagues had been murdered as they drove to work from Sidi Bel-Abbès; again, Islamic militants are blamed.
These visits help to establish the context within which Soumicha is working, making her actions all the more courageous. The documentary underscores this point at the end, when a nasty rumor spreads around Sidi Bel-Abbès that Soumicha has been killed. Men interviewed on the street insist it is true, but then we see Soumicha driving. Had the rumor been started to scare her and other working women? At one point, Soumicha breaks down and cries in her taxi.
But she continues driving. Perhaps this is filmmaker Hadjadj's metaphor for the courage and endurance of these women. This documentary does have a meandering quality at times, and it would be stronger with more background information on the activity of Islamic militants in Algeria during the past few years. It might also have helped to concentrate solely on Soumicha, rather than traveling somewhat superficially over the other incidents raised in the film. But the film does offer a valuable glimpse into a class of people and some very courageous individuals - seldom seen in public.
These reviews appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 7, No. 35 (Spring 2001)
Copyright © 2001 by Al Jadid