Courting Controversy

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s documentary raises thorny questions about the court system in the occupied West Bank.

11/15/2012
Special to the Jewish Week
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The legal system of the occupied West Bank is something of a conundrum. The tenets of international law that govern the actions of an occupying power are fairly straightforward, but they weren’t designed for a situation that has lasted 45 years.

For all that time, the law has been administered by the Israeli military, with military judges and prosecutors in the courts, but the possibility of appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court; decisions regarding Palestinians are handed down in those courts, but comparable legal decisions regarding Israeli settlers usually coming from Israeli civilian courts. It’s a jury-rigged system, if you’ll pardon the pun, which inevitably produces unsatisfactory results.

That is a mild version of the conclusion reached by Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz in his award-winning documentary, “The Law in These Parts,” which has its U.S. theatrical premiere on Friday, Nov. 16. Alexandrowicz’s name will be familiar from the powerful one-two punch of his first two films shown here — “The Inner Tour” (2001) and “James’s Journey to Jerusalem” (2003).

The year after “James’s Journey” was made, Alexandrowicz was an observer at the trial of one of the younger subjects of his 2001 film, a documentary about a busload of Palestinians visiting former homes in Israel. The young man was tried in one of the military courts and the filmmaker became fascinated by the unhappy hybrid that allowed someone to be tried in a democracy under a legal system over which he had no influence as a non-citizen in his own home. The experience sent Alexandrowicz on a journey of his own, researching the Law of Occupation and its history, reading through more than four decades of court cases and rulings, not to mention a great swath of international law. He then arranged interviews with nine of the men who shaped this particular corner of Israeli history, a roster of distinguished military jurists that includes a former president of the Supreme Court and three former military advocate generals.

The film opens with the film crew constructing a desk, much as these men constructed a legal system, while Alexandrowicz explains that “a documentary [supposedly] depicts a part of reality.” He continues, noting dryly that this definition is insufficiently precise, omitting a salient fact, namely that it is a filmmaker’s construction of reality. For the remainder of the movie he will periodically remind viewers that what they are seeing is not an unmediated slice of “the real world,” but his interpretation of it.

That interpretation emerges from his close questioning of his nine subjects, few of whom seem to have any qualms about the efficacy or fairness of the system they put in place. The Palestinians, he notes, are represented only indirectly in the film, through the use of “images from documentaries from the past 40 years, mostly shot by Israeli filmmakers,” which are projected on a green screen behind the judges. The result is an insistent and almost constant dialectical tension at work visually in the film, subtly inflecting Alexandrowicz’s statement that “this film is not about those who broke the law, but those who administered it.”

Unsurprisingly, the issues at stake are thorny at best. What is the status of the land? Is there a legal justification for the settlers seizing great chunks of it? Is there legal justification for house demolitions, administrative arrests, the use of secret evidence that the accused are unable to examine, witnesses they cannot confront?

Merely by presenting such questions, “The Law in These Parts” draws attention to the terrible disparity between Israeli courts and the occupation courts. Alexandrowicz’s rather dry delivery of his narration and the methodical, analytical and unemotional tone of his interviewees create another stark dialectic between law and justice. By the time the film is over, one cannot help but be moved by the comments of retired Lt. Colonel Jonathan Livny, who spent 23 years as a military judge, when he asks Alexandrowicz, “When it goes on for 40 years ... how can it be just?”

“The Law in These Parts,” written and directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, opens Friday, Nov. 16 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.

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