Oliver Stone’s excursion into Israel and the West Bank — trailing cameras, translatorsand facilitators — itself becomes the story of “Persona Non Grata,” an often engrossing pic that contrasts situations as much as cultures. Formal interviews with Israeli leaders in official government buildings are set against clandestine meetings with masked Palestinian figures in bombed-out basements. Stone’s docu, which airs on HBO on June 5, is sure to spark controversy, if only because of its subject.
A succession of top Jewish leaders from left and right calmly but passionately present the Israeli position in softer to harder terms. Former Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu declares the primary obligation of a government is to defend its people, and denounces Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a man who sows terror. Former Labor government topper Ehud Barak notes that reaching an agreement at Camp David was like asking him and Arafat to jump out a window holding each others’ parachutes. Laborite Shimon Peres opines that perhaps Israel was wrong to ask that Arafat renounce all future Palestinian claims, since those claims were not on the table and you do not ask a man to negotiate away his dreams.
On the Palestinian side, imagery triumphs over words, as Stone, despairing of his constantly postponed interview with Arafat, wanders the alleyways and rubble-strewn streets of Ramallah, gathering impressions and making note of posters of suicide bombers and other fallen martyrs pasted up on walls. (“They’re like rock stars,” Stone exclaims.) In the absence of a flesh-and-blood Arafat, Stone offers fragments of archival footage from Arafat’s past — a kaleidoscope mosaic where colorful belly dancers shimmer next to invading black-and-white tanks.
Unlike the Westernized Israelis, who speak English fluently and possess a global frame of reference, the young members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade find their lives so circumscribed and defined by the Israelis that even their weapons are purchased from venal members of the occupying forces.
Much of the pic revolves around the filmmakers’ constantly deferred attempts to interview Arafat. Stone and company must negotiate the complex logistics of crossing checkpoints, a daily source of frustration for Arabs who work in Israel. As tension and violence escalate around the “Passover massacre” that explodes a few days after the crew’s arrival, culminating in the destruction of Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, it becomes increasingly clear that all Stone is going to get is a handshake and photo op with an aged Arafat, sitting like a toothless lion surrounded by friends and advisors.
Though first-person docus abound, anyone venturing into this particularly volatile battleground, particularly a figure as politically identifiable as Stone, is bound to experience a fair amount of flak. The director makes no attempt to disguise the catch-as-catch-can nature of his venture, nor his exercise of a certain editorial license.