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Tuesday, December 23, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Versions of a War

One of the good things about being an ombudsman is that you learn, at least I do, new things all the time. Last week's lesson in how television and PBS work came to me in the form of e-mails and phone calls from viewers, but mostly from a news article in Canada's The Globe and Mail newspaper. Since I didn't know these things, I assume that many viewers didn't know them as well, hence this passing along.

The e-mails and the article were about a documentary titled "Six Days in June," about the 1967 war between Israel and its surrounding Arab neighbors. It was produced as an international film by Instinct Films in Canada, under the direction of a well-known Israeli director, Ilan Ziv, and in conjunction with film companies in France and Israel. There is also a German language edition of the film, and a version that was prepared for PBS by WGBH in Boston. The PBS version aired nationally for two hours on Monday night, June 4. The film was intended to mark the 40th anniversary of the war; a seminal battle that has shaped the Middle East ever since and that ended almost as fast as it began with a lightning strike by Israel that demolished the Egyptian air force — and then a massed and threatening Egyptian army in the Sinai — and Syrian and Jordanian forces as well.

What first called my attention to the film were e-mails and phone calls from a handful of PBS viewers who complained that the documentary failed to include any mention of a dramatic moment on June 8, 1967, the second day of the war, when Israeli warplanes and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty, a U.S. Navy intelligence vessel operating in international waters just off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula. The attack killed 34 and wounded more than 170 aboard the ship and, at the time, was the deadliest attack on a U.S. Navy vessel since World War II. I'll come back to this.

'Five Takes on Six Days'

What next caught my attention was the Globe and Mail preview article by Matthew Hays that had been published on June 2 headlined "Five Takes on Six Days." The writer reported that the documentary was "full of impressive detail" and suspenseful, even though the history was generally well known. But I was really grateful to the person who wrote the clever headline because it was only well into the story that I learned that there were actually several versions of this same basic film being seen in different countries, and that the American, or PBS version, was different in important ways.

The story quotes Jon Kalina, a creative consultant to the Canadian producers, as saying: "The different versions of the same film warrant a PhD dissertation," and the chief producer of the documentary for Instinct Films, Ina Fichman, told me she agrees with that assessment. Some of the differences are explained by differences in length. The Israeli TV version, for example, is three hours. The PBS version and the French version are two hours. There were some things shot specifically for the Israeli version, she said, and WGBH editors made some decisions about what would and wouldn't work for their audience.

Margaret Drain, vice president for national programming at WGBH, told me that, "When there are multiple international co-production partners on a film, it is not unusual for each to make their own version of the film, in effect to re-version a film for their own market. This is regularly done when we acquire films from England, they from us, when we send films to Germany, etc. Editing takes place for length, format, language and changes in script to reflect tone and accuracy."

But in the Globe and Mail story, Kalina says, "Israel's status as an underdog is definitely enhanced in the American version." And that, especially, caught my eye since, aside from not knowing that there were different versions of the film, I didn't know that these differences were substantive. Furthermore, the Globe and Mail reported that the film "has been praised by some reviewers for not shying away from the deaths of 6,000 Palestinians during the war, something that's clearly described in every version except the one for PBS. The filmmakers describe the reasoning behind this difference as a mix of concern about American attitudes toward the continuing conflict and what PBS subscribers might make of such an inclusion." *(See correction at end of column.)

When I asked Drain about this she said: "What is characterized in the Globe article as a decision to not include the number of Palestinian deaths due to 'concern about American attitudes toward the continuing conflict and what PBS subscribers might make of such an inclusion' is simply not true. We would never make such a decision."

I have only seen the PBS/WGBH version of this film and not the "international" versions. But there is no mention of Palestinian deaths in the U.S. version and very little mention at all of the Palestinians. This is a film about the war, how it came about and how it was fought, and the narrator of the PBS version says, right at the start, that the 1967 conflict "is a brilliant military success for Israel but it has a troubled legacy. It mires the country in years of occupation and violence. And leaves an Arab world so traumatized that more and more will turn to militant Islam." But in a two-hour film, the absence of at least some focus on, and accounting of, the dimensions of loss and what happened at the time to Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Jerusalem is obvious.

Enter the Toronto Star

And now comes the Toronto Star newspaper on Friday, June 8, with a story, headlined "Viewers get whitewashed version of history," that compares the two-hour French-language version of the film that aired in Canada, with the version shown on PBS. The Star writer, Antonia Zerbisias, describes them as "two not-so-subtly different versions."

She reports, for example, that the French version aired in Canada — which Montreal-based producer Fichman calls the "international version" and which was also sold to Italy's RAI, Australia's SBS and networks elsewhere — "depicts, among other historical facts, the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians by the Israeli army, a move the narrator delicately describes as 'the first change to the demographics of the West Bank.' It shows, through the eyes of a former Arab resident and an Israeli who photographed the event, that, where large villages stood, now are forests." This does not appear in the PBS version.

"There is also a sequence," she says, "as related by the American-born Abdullah Schleifer, editor of Palestine News, as well as an Arab whose home was destroyed, about the overnight razing of a 700-year-old Palestinian neighbourhood in Jerusalem by the triumphant Israeli defence minister, General Moshe Dayan. 'When I saw this destruction, there was a part of me that felt tremendous dread, that a whole new problem was going to be created,' says Schleifer. He says this in the PBS version as well, but the horrifying context is stripped away for American sensibilities."

Actually, Schleifer says a little more about what he sees in Jerusalem in the PBS version, describing bulldozers starting to destroy houses and, when he looked again in the morning, "half the quarter is destroyed." But there are no scenes of the destruction.

Fichman also says, according to the Star report, that PBS demanded entire scenes and sequences come out, and others be softened.

The Underdog

As for Israel's underdog role being enhanced, I'm told by the filmmakers that aspects of Syria's threatening role, specifically narration that says "Syria harbors and trains Palestinian commandos who aim to destroy the Jewish state," is not included in the international edition but is included in the first minute or two of the U.S. film. Also, portions of an interview with a former Israeli intelligence official, Shlomo Gazit, who says, in effect, that Israel knew it was stronger than its enemies and had a realistic picture of the balance of power, is not in the U.S. version but is in the others.

Kalina says the facts in these versions are true, including the point about what Syria was up to, and that all versions of the film are more similar than different. But, he adds, "Everybody has strong ideas about what they think their audience needs to know and is sensitive about." So documentaries, he says, become what might be called "fashioned narratives," influenced by time available and how different producers view what is important to include for their audiences. He talks about a saying that "the past exists but history has to be made" in terms of narratives that don't change facts but make choices.

The review in Variety says the film shown here is "unmistakably sympathetic to Israel." But it also describes the film as "well-balanced and lucidly constructed." Most of the other reviews I've read also give the film generally good marks as "solid, if rather dry . . . straightforward telling," as the Los Angeles Times put it. "Although the filmmaker is an Israeli," the Hollywood reporter for Reuters wrote, the film "never gives off a partisan air. Indeed, it goes out of its way to provide an even-handed approach."

As for the USS Liberty

The incident involving the Liberty does not appear in any of the versions of this film. Kalina explained it to me this way: "There are only a certain number of things you can put in. We all had to choose among a million facts. And if you put it in, you have to explain it and that becomes a substantial chapter." That struck me as a reasonable and practical explanation because the attack on the Liberty remains controversial, to this day, and has been the subject of several books.

Zvi Dor-Ner, the executive producer for the WGBH film, said: "This was indeed a tragic event which involved loss of American life. However, after several investigations, it was determined that the attack was a mistake on the part of the Israelis. They apologized to the US government and paid restitution to families. While we could have included the details of this story, we choose not to because ultimately the events of this incident did not prove to be relevant to our story which sharply focused on the countdown to war between Israel and the Arab nations. This unfortunate incident also did not contribute to the larger context of our story, which was the relationship between and the role of the US and the Soviet Union in the Six Day War."

Nevertheless, I have some sympathy for those who complained about this omission. In the PBS version, there were a number of references to the U.S. pondering its role in the crisis and to intelligence assessments. I agree that this is not an episode that can be easily addressed in a couple of spoken lines. But in another of my — it's easy for me to say — views, in which I'm not the one who has to squeeze 50 pounds into a 40-pound bag, it strikes me that for an American, and for that matter an Israeli, audience some way should have been found to mention this extraordinary episode and attack, whether intentional, as some still suspect, or, as official reports have concluded, a tragic mistake.

Here Are Some of the Letters

I'm disappointed (as usual) with PBS. Why was it necessary to air a version of Six Days in June that was edited to make Israel appear such an underdog? With respect to those six days, when is PBS going to air a documentary covering the abhorrent Israeli attack on the Liberty, and the ensuing deaths and maiming of U.S. Navy personnel?

Harvey Reading, Shoshoni, WY



Last night's show on the 6-day war was pretty good. However, I did wonder why it omitted all mention of an incident that should be of interest to everyone in your American audience, the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty on June 8, 1967, that killed 34 American sailors and wounded 173. It has never received an adequate investigation, despite strong evidence that the attack may have been deliberate.

Bloomington, IN



The story neglected to mention the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. This is a serious oversight in the reporting on the 6 day war. I construe it as a bias by PBS reporting. The result of such an unbalanced reporting only furthers the ongoing conflict between the US and other Middle East countries.

Steve Mangion, Newbury, MA



From the Six-Day War program last night I learned much about the complexity of events and emotions that led to the Six-Day War. I knew that Israeli defenders have always misrepresented it as an attack on Israel, since Israel had been the actual attacker; I did not know that an Egyptian attack on Israel was actually very likely though, perhaps, as the program suggests very strongly, not necessarily inevitable, given Nasser's noted hesitations.

But I was quite disappointed that the program's view of the war's consequences, as I remember and my notes suggest, emphasized Israel's occupation of the whole of Jerusalem and joy at victory and the immediate Arab "three Nos" reaction and dismay at the dashing of anticipated recovery of the lost 78 percent of Palestine . . . the ethnic cleansing of 300,000 more Palestinians following the 1967 war; and the land and water confiscations, settlements, wall/fence, systematic repressions and humiliations in the Occupied Territories designed to drive the remaining Palestinians from Palestine and to reduce those who do not leave to walled, unsustainable ghettoes on poorer land with a fraction of their water compared to what Israelis take.

William Slavick, Portland, ME


* Correction: Regarding the reference to the earlier story in the Gobe and Mail that praised the international version of the film shown in Canada for "not shying away from the deaths of 6,000 Palestinians during the war, something that's clearly described in every version except the one for PBS." The Canadian producers of the film told me that was a misunderstanding in the interview with the Globe and Mail reporter and that the producers were referring to the 6,000 Palestinians expelled from three of the villages.


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