POV: So in your own words, what’s The Law In These Parts about?
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz: The Law In These Parts is a documentary film that explores the legal and justice mechanism of the occupation, of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The way the film is made is that we actually look at the history of this legal system that was put in place right when the territories were occupied in ’67. And it’s a system with which Israel actually creates laws and makes order and presumably justice for the occupied Palestinian residents in the occupied territories.
The film is created out of a very thorough and vast research and is condensed into the history portrayed over a few issues that are progressing through time. And the basic material of the film is interviews that I conducted with legal officials of the Israeli officers in the legal corps who are actually the people who created this system, implemented it, developed it, operated it. And the film is based on these interviews with context and archive footage that I assembled in order to tell the story. Basically the film deals with the mechanism of the system, but it asks questions about, basically about rule of law, about the possibility to create justice in a situation of occupation. And I would say its main question is can a democracy or a country that considers itself a democracy uphold its basic principles, it’s basic democratic principles, its belief in rule of law while actually achieving goals that are, are quite contrary to these principles? What happens to the legal system of that country? What happens to the soul of it?
POV: When did you first conceive of the idea?
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz: This project in a way evolved out of another film that I made, a film that was released in the year 2000 called The Inner Tour. And that film which I won’t get into now was a very different film from this one, but it did study the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And the subjects of the film were all Palestinian, Palestinian families who were taking part in an organized tour in Israel.
Because that film had just normal families in it, there were children in the film. And when you make a documentary, you sort of become part of the life of the people that you shoot, or they become part of your life. And a few years after the film was finished and out, these children who have become young adults began to be arrested and be tried. Mostly for the felony of throwing stones, resisting the occupation. So it was a few years after the film, four or five years that I got a phone call from a family that I had been in touch with since the film and they said that one of the sons of the family had been arrested. He was almost 16 at the time. And that he was going to have a remand hearing in a few days. He’s been arrested for three or four weeks, they haven’t seen him and they would like me to come to the military court for the remand hearing.
Now I’ve never been in one of these courts before. And so actually this hearing was the first time that I’ve seen a military court from the inside. And I continued following the trial and other trials of the people that I knew. And after a while I decided that this issue of these courts in which Israeli judges and prosecutors and Israeli system tries exclusively tries Palestinians, these courts were something to look into. When I started looking into these, into this issue I realized that the courts might not be the issue, but the law, that when you have a, when you have a court, you have to have some kind of law behind it which you implement in the court.
So I started studying the law of occupation. And after a while I understood that I would like to make a film about this issue, both because it was something that I felt that Israeli society, but, but also the world has to become aware of understand. And for another reason, which was that I felt that this system this legal system, this justice system which can actually not provide any justice because it’s one people doing justice for another people who don’t have political rights, is actually a metaphor for something very strong in Israeli existence. I mean it’s the fact that we sort of live two separate and contradicting ideologies. On one hand, we really see ourselves as part of a democratic, western world and we really feel that these are the basic principles on which the state is founded.
On the other hand the state has some very big projects, among them, the occupation and the expansion into Palestinian territories. And while not attempting to give the residents there political rights, that these are goals that are, that sort of contradict the first set of principles that we try to live by. And I felt that these military courts and all this system of creating laws and having order and having supervision of the Israeli legal system over this, over this project, is kind of a metaphor for where we’re at. How we try to combine these two contradicting things and where and how these two things are not combining, at least in my view, and are just falling apart and the efforts are getting greater and greater to combine them and the damages as well.
POV: What was your approach to the subject?
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz: Even when I understood what was the subject that I wanted to discuss, finding the way to make this subject into a film was perhaps the most complicated cinematic task I’ve been involved with, because the law is a very dry thing. It’s anti-matter as far as cinema is concerned.
My first idea was that the film that I would make would be archive footage from these periods, stock footage juxtaposed with these legal texts thus telling the story. But the dryness of the, the texts and the way history here was documented did not manage for this combination to really tell the story. And I understood that I would need to go to the human aspect. Now one thing that I had pretty much defined with myself is that, for the reasons that I’m telling the story and the audience, my primary audience being the mainstream Israeli society, I am not going to try to get the story from its victims or let’s say from the people, the subjects of the law. I was more interested in what the involvement of the system can say about us. And, and that’s why I decided to try to tell it from the Israeli side. And I started approaching people who had been involved that I, that I had seen in the research that have been involved in actually thinking and creating this system, developing it, being part of it, all of them were Israeli legal professionals who at one point or another had been legal professionals in the army.
Some of them later became actually quite important figures in the normal Israeli legal system. And I started approaching these people and to my surprise they had agreed to talk. And so I decided that the primary material of this film would be my conversations with these people, with the people who had actually done their job and made, created this system and make it work. And I had to study, I mean some of these interviews had to be prepared literally with months of work, to study the person’s work, because in order to engage in conversation I had to know what exactly what is the stuff that this person had dealt with, what did he write, what was his legal opinion? And I started conducting these interviews. And later I started to edit these interviews into the story, juxtaposing them with the legal material and with the footage. The footage that somehow shows how these dry legal issues translate themselves into life for the people who are actually living under these laws.
And at a certain point I understood that this sensitive subject, this charged subject would need one more element. And this element was actually exposing my power as a documentary filmmaker in creating the documentation, the subjectiveness of it, how much control I actually had over the material and over the interviewees. And this is something that exists in every film, but it’s usually transparent. And I had understood that in order to convey the message of the film, convey how law, which we all consider to be a standard and is somehow transparent structure which we all believe in and adhere to. But I found, I felt that exposing the power of cinema would help me expose the power of the law over people that have no control of it. And somehow that’s how the film got its compete form.
POV: How did you convince your subjects to participate?
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz: I think it’s important to say that from the people who appear in the final version of the film on screen, about half of the people are not happy with the film or with the message of the film or with the fact that they had agreed to give an interview to it. It’s not the first film I make about the subject, so my positions, my perspectives are known. But when I approached the subjects I was naturally more neutral that the film is. I was also, I had…. The way I conducted the interviews was also not in a conflictual way. It was discussing the subject, but not fighting over it. So in a way I think what happened is that juxtaposing the things that they said within this conversation, with the reality that I presented on one hand and on the other hand even with the words of other interviewees, which sometime created the tension or the context that we understand what all of them say, this created in a way a perspective that was not theirs, at least part of the interviewees. The words are theirs. The perspective not necessarily theirs.
There was no argument about the facts. But some of them are not happy with the perspective. So basically the way that I did it was to, you know to be prepared to talk about facts, not about opinions. Sometimes to ask opinionated questions. I mean all the interviews went to places where it was clear to them that I’m presenting an opinion that’s, that’s not consensus. But it was always based on what was written in the decision and things that happened. I would say this is one of the main techniques. Not to be myself, to just sort of discuss the matter and let things come out.
In addition to the fact that I conducted the interviews not in a conflictual way, I later found out that there might have been another important issue that I wasn’t aware of. There have not been any films about this specific subject, although there have been many films about the occupation, about the conflict. The legal system was not ever explored. But it was in writing, there were studies published about it, there were critiques published about it. But only after I finished the film, I realized that the studies and critique were usually based on reading the laws, reading the procedures, talking to the legal professionals who’d actually done the work against the system, either in the military courts or in the high court.
But in fact, no one ever approached these people. And for some of them, the work that they did in the military as legal professionals was a very high point in their career, if not the highest point, because they have been involved in things that determined you know fates of political actions, of conflicts within the big conflict. And they had this big history in them that no one had ever asked them about. So I think this did play a part that even though it was me who came to ask, someone has finally come to talk about it. And I think, at least for some of them, this was a reason to talk.
POV: What was your stylistic approach?
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz: So making a film out of this material was a big challenge. And there were questions of content and questions of form. I had not long relationships with the subjects that I’ve shot. I met each of them once for a short meeting, some of them twice. But I had a general feeling that I was going to shoot something that was very cold. They had agreed to talk but… I felt that this was not going to be a flow of warm memories and there was something very distant and cold. And so my crew and I decided to sort of push this effect further. Instead of shooting you know in locations familiar to them and in an intimate way, we decided to shoot the film in a way which actually would make the subjects aware the whole time that this was actually going on, there was this mechanism of cinema going on.
And we had made our cinematic choices of how to shoot it with I would say the inspiration of legal proceedings, whether it’s a commission or a trial. So basically this is a film that’s comprised of two shots, except for the archive footage. It’s a frontal shot and a side shot. And the frontal shot, the subjects are sitting slightly higher than me on a desk looking down in a way as if when you’re sitting in a courtroom in the audience, that’s kind of how the judge would look at you, kind of looking down at you in a way. On the other angle, the side shot, it, it a little bit reminds you of people giving testimony. When you sit in a courtroom or in a commission and someone would give testimony, they would mostly do it with your back to you, when you’re the audience or they’re assigned to you. So in playing with these two angles, we were trying to create this feeling that these people were actually in a way giving testimony to something. It’s of course related to the subject matter very much. And even though the interviews themselves are not very reflective, sometimes the body language reveals more of how they might be thinking about these issues, or at least it gives that feeling.
So basically the set up of the film is very, very simple and very, very tight. And it was a big gamble because the idea to shoot the film in two angles is something that…. You don’t know if it’ll work or not and you’re stuck with it once you do it, this is what you have. But I feel that for this subject it was very, it was a good decision to do something very tight and very small. It creates the right atmosphere.
Another stylistic choice that I’ve made during the process of making the film was making the actual choices of a director and editor apparent through the narration of the film. Choices like who do I choose to interview? Who do I not choose? I’m choosing to interview the Israeli lawmakers. I’m not choosing to interview the Palestinian person who was on this trial, even though I did locate her. I know where she is, I could have asked to interview her, but I’m not. Why am I doing this?
After a scene finishes, I sort of remind that this 6-7 minute scene was made out of footage that, that is three hours. What was left out? Making the audience wonder about these choices was also a gamble and it was part of what I think The Law In These Parts is a film that asks for an active viewing.
I think the fact that I make the audience aware of the cinematic apparatus puts the viewer in a position in which he receives the information that he gets from the film and the perspective, but he’s also in a position of questioning myself, the filmmaker and, and the perspectives he’s getting all the time. And so this, the danger is this, is that you would have audiences that would say, okay, he actually onscreen admits that this is all very subjective, so why should I even listen to it? And you know they will just shut off. But what I was hoping for and I think works is that there is a large part of the audience that is willing to try to analyze me but at the same time, sort of follow what I’m doing and accept that perspective.
And I think if they, they accepted while having been aware of the way that it was constructed, their acceptance is in a way maybe stronger than if it would have been just another film in which there is a message being conveyed and they identify with it. So this was what was behind my decision to actually expose the cinematic apparatus while exposing the legal apparatus.
POV: Can you talk about how the legal system of the Israeli Occupation evolved?
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz: I think that finally one of the things that I feel I had the privilege to portray is how a system works. How a system, which is operated by educated, I would say, moral people, at least not, not less moral than me and you, how people who feel that they have strong ethics and morals can become part of something in which the result, at least in my perspective is quite immoral. And I think what happens in the film is that for a while, at least this is the way I tried to construct it, for a while you, as the normal mainstream viewer, you kind of you can really understand the logic of what they’re doing. And you can follow it and you can say to yourself, yeah, I would probably have made the same decision, being part of the system.
And then at a certain point you as a viewer you become uncomfortable with this because the things that are discussed are less and less things that you would like to really get behind. But you’ve already made this identification. You kind of see yourself in these people. And this was something that I was looking for as an effect while structuring the film. Now I think when we talk about the issue, there is a question of time.
When international law was written and someone had made the plan of how a military should control an occupied area or how a state should control occupied area until there is some kind of solution, no one thought of 45 years. I don’t think anyone thought of 20 years. So time here is of the essence of the thing. That perhaps after a year or five years, this was still pretty much on the level, if you balance the circumstances with, with the needs.
But once you, once you implement something that is supposed to be temporary, that is defined in international law as temporary and then you keep it for a much longer period than temporary could be interpreted and then you also use the loopholes that this kind of system, which is basically we have to remember, it’s not democratic. The people who are living under this law have no way of influencing it, they never go to the ballots, they don’t vote for the military government, yes or no. They have no way of influencing, they’re just subjects to this. So as time passes by and generation after generation and the army continues to be the legislator, thinking out of the interests of Israel, then you basically finally you can’t get anything right be… because there’s a war going on, the people living under the law hate it, don’t recognize it, don’t recognize the court, for them, this is all one big game. The people who are implementing it are part of the state that has some interests that are, that are in contradiction to the interests of the people who are living under the law. So how can this work? And how can this achieve justice?
Already in the first year, when you look at the legislation you see how the law begins to be changed a little bit in order to give tools to the military. For instance, in order to suppress resistance. So you see how the reference to Geneva Convention and to international law which were actually in the material that was prepared before the war are replaced with other wording for this not to exist anymore, or you see how measures, punitive measures that were not in place before are put into the law by some legal tricks, bringing it through the saying that this actually was part of the former law and it still exists here so we can use it, punitive measures such as home demolition, such as deportations. These were things that the army wanted to use pretty quickly in order to control the area, but were actually not in the law that was written before the war.
So this is one example of how the law suddenly become subject to changes that are actually not because of the standard that we wanted to use, but because of the circumstances. And then I think one of the most important examples is everything that happened with Israeli citizens moving to live in the occupied territories. What’s called the settlements or settlers. So basically international law in Geneva Convention has a stance against the occupying state, or the occupying power moving its citizens into occupied territory, into territory that’s considered occupied and not part of the state. And in Israel there was a movement that became stronger and stronger that wanted to settle these territories. So how would…how would the law deal with that?
You have documents that I refer to in the film from 1967 in which legal advisors were asked to answer this question, reviewed the subject and said, well, we shouldn’t do it. But then the political motivation to do it was stronger. And so the law had to begin to adhere to the reality. And the high court of justice of Israel which was the highest legal institution that was supervising the occupation had to answer some questions about this. So what did they do? And basically what you see is that the political motivations become stronger than the law and the law sort of organized itself in order to allow the political processes to take place. And I think today we see, in a way we see the result. One of the big criticisms of this film is that people come to me and say, how could you make the law be the, you know the power behind all this? This is not what law does. This is not what legal advisors or judges do. The motivations are political, the processes are political. And the law is only trying to consider these processes and control them and regulate them, justify them. And it’s not the main issue.
But I think and I agree, I mean I agree that looking at the perspective of the legal system is not the main issue of the occupation. But I think that looking at the system and looking at what happens to law in these kind of circumstances can teach us a lot. It can teach us about what, how the basic values of democracy are endangered in these kinds of situations. And the fact that actually if we want to keep our society running according to democratic principles we really have to make a choice between taking actions that actually contradict democratic principles or not taking them. And I think the settling of the West Bank is a strong example which is also important because many times when you, when people want to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the core issue would be security. And if even people that agree that there is a compromise in human rights and in the rights that the Palestinians get, they would say, okay this is, this is on one side, but on the other side you have security and you have the security of Israeli citizens which I totally identify with because living in Jerusalem, I think about this every day when I walk in the street.
And so this is, this is how the equation is sort of posed to the public. There’s security and there’s human rights. But when we look at something like the settlements we have to ask ourselves, is this actually security? Is this initiative of moving Israeli civilians, Israeli citizens into an occupied territory, can this be considered security or can this be considered as creating a security problem which you later have to solve with creating more laws and more courts and try more people and try and arrest more people?
The argument that this film makes would not reach someone who believes for instance in the rule of the Torah or the rule of the Koran are more important than rule of law. More important than democratic principles. But people that consist a big part of the society in Israel who do consider rule of law, who do consider democratic principles to be the core values of the state, I think that looking at the subject, one of the things that come out is that we really have to make a choice. It can’t be both, both democracy and occupation. We really have to make a choice. And the way our legal system has to make these great efforts to get around this contradiction and in my view is in a way falling apart because of this is really something to think about and think about that choice.
POV: What do you want American audiences to take away from this film?
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz: I think my primary hope is that as many American citizens as possible become aware to these important perspectives that have to do with the occupation, with the way that it evolved, and with its present status. And this is because that even if the formal U.S. policy is not supportive of this project, of occupation and expansion and Israel occupy and expanding into the West Bank, even if the U.S. policy doesn’t support it, the administration does support it. And in that way the American public supports it.
And I think it’s important for American public to question this for the benefit of Israel, for the benefit of the U.S. and above all, for the benefit of Palestinians who are actually living in this situation for over 45 years. So I think that would be my primary hope. But I definitely think that the film does carry some universal dilemmas and questions that are as relevant for the U.S., perhaps even more relevant for the U.S. I mean the U.S. being such a huge superpower, it definitely takes actions similar to our occupying the West Bank, using systems like military law in order to suppress enemies on one hand or to control places where the U.S. has interests in the other.
And I think it’s good to look at our case which I find is a sad case. But I think it’s possible to look at our case and learn from it. And I would hope that American public does feel that this film can be educating for it both regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regarding U.S. issues.