Berlin — After an impressive few years of Israeli films showcased prominently at the Berlin Film Festival, there was a conspicuous dearth of Israeli fare this year. The Berlinale, which ran from February 9 to 19, has a reputation for tackling political issues. This year, it decisively chose to highlight films from hotbed countries, including Egypt, Yemen and Syria, which were supplemented by talks and panels about the impact of the Arab Spring on filmmaking. Programmers went for films that pushed hot political topics, including Alison Klayman’s documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” about the Chinese artist and dissident.
One of the few Israeli productions in the festival selection was Silvina Landsmann’s excellent low-budget documentary, “Bagrut / Lochamim” (“Citizen / Soldier”). Her film, which won a special mention from the Caligari Film Prize, follows a civic education class run by the IDF for soldiers at the end of their military service. The three-week-long course is designed for soldiers who do not yet have a high school certificate. Landsmann’s camera captures the heated debates between the liberal teacher and his students, many of whom hold borderline racist views about their Arab neighbors and, at times, about ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The director herself remains invisible, soberly observing the lively discussions about human rights, the philosophical and practical implications of defining Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, as well as religious and social tolerance. The decibel level is often one notch below shouting. In this respect, the film can feel like a non-fiction version of the much-lauded 2008 French film “The Class.” But unlike in that film, and possibly due to military discipline, the students here always maintain decorum.
Charismatic, well-spoken and persuasive, the teacher is not interested in preaching, but will keep the conversation going despite the students’ reflexive objections to his assertions of Israeli wrongdoings. The lessons often revolve around history, moral philosophy and political events, and the teacher succeeds in getting his stubborn students to open up and debate the vital issues facing Israel today from less draconian and defensive positions.
If Landsmann errs cinematically, it is in her insistence on focusing on the ever-present guns in classroom, schoolyard and auditorium, unnecessarily hammering home a point that could be made more subtly, about the effects of compulsory military service on Israeli society. Aside from that, her visual instincts are spot on, even when capturing the students outside the classroom, chilling out or getting one-on-one tutoring in Jewish ethics. By using this soldiers’ classroom as a microcosm of Israeli society at large, Landsmann manages to tell an important story from an unusual angle.