Reviews

Harrowing

Stephen Osborne

In 1974, Susan Sontag’s film Promised Lands, shot in 1973 in Israel during the weeks following the Yom Kippur War, and which might be called an encounter with Israel at war, was panned in the New York Times by a reviewer who objected to Sontag’s refusal to interpret the war, to summarize the conflict or to offer any of the nostrums so necessary to “serious journalists,” and instead to offer a direct record of her encounter with charred corpses, charred battlefields, charred machinery, people in the streets, markets, fields and pastures, the faces of the mourners at a mass funeral, the spiritual terrors of a traumatized soldier. The Times reviewer sniffed in conclusion that the war is “just too factually complex to be treated as a tone poem,” and in fact the spectrum of the film is as necessarily wide and as limited as an outsider’s viewpoint can allow it to be: there are few women and few Arabs, and the only commentary is provided by two academics who articulate opposing positions on the war. The Times critic complained that “the Sontag film won’t increase your understanding of Israel”—which is precisely why the power and validity of Promised Lands remain undiluted forty years later. This is not a documentary; it is, however, an overpowering aesthetic and emotional experience, a true happening (to use a rather tired term from the art world of the seventies), and every moment is fully compelling. The closing episode records a therapy session in a psych ward: two psychiatrists treat a soldier suffering from PTSD with the latest in “shock” therapy by assaulting him with the sounds and motions of the battlefield: pounding on the bed, screaming at him, slamming the furniture, playing tapes of bombs exploding. The patient screams and moans; he could be praying; he weeps; he writhes and throws himself to the floor. The effect is terrifying and unforgettable, an image of war relentlessly destroying the living. Promised Lands is a harrowing experience, especially in front of a theatre audience. On its first release it was banned in Israel. It has been recently remastered and can also be found on YouTube.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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