Twenty-two Israeli thesps give voice to Palestinian and Israeli testimonies after the second intifada in Shlomi Elkabetz’s rigorous and powerful hybrid of docu and fiction. Based on written reports (there are no direct links between stories, only between experiences), the pic strips the accounts down to basics, with actors speaking directly to the camera, making it impossible to escape their challenging gaze. Made very much for Israeli consumption, “Testimony” is courting controversy at home; offshore Jewish fests with right-leaning agendas will avoid, though others should sit up and take notice. Euro satcast is another likely outlet.
When “Testimony” preemed in late May at Israel’s Cinema South Festival, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat complained of its inclusion and walked out. Her argument, that Elkabetz (“Seven Days”) doesn’t include the testimony of Israelis affected by terrorist attacks, willfully ignores the peculiarities of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian soil and thus the entire thrust of the film.
Israeli actors portray Palestinians as well as Israeli soldiers, and the testimonies are delivered exclusively in Hebrew. The choice of language is significant: After years of hearing horror stories, sated Israeli audiences tend to tune out, but translating the words into their own tongue makes them more difficult to ignore. Elkabetz is explicit in his intentions, stating his aim is to “turn the viewer into a witness” and turn the language of the occupier “into his own nightmare.”
The Palestinian stories tell of deliberate humiliation, brutality and sadism. The Israeli soldiers speak of fear and the addictive nature of power, cultivated under arduous work rotations that foster short tempers at best and shocking cruelty at worst. Elkabetz doesn’t introduce politics here, instead focusing on the withering effects of the occupation. Each actor is set within a calm landscape, and their testimonies are interspersed with simple shots of unpopulated panoramas, reminding viewers that the conflict is constantly positioned as one of territory. The irony of a peaceful, even iconic countryside as the backdrop to these disturbing accounts couldn’t be clearer.
Thesps portraying Palestinians, beginning with the helmer’s sister Ronit Elkabetz, project the necessity of bearing witness and are unfazed by confrontation, though fear occasionally slips from behind a guarded steeliness. Those playing soldiers have a defensive side, conveying a need to emotionally protect themselves from a situation forced upon them.
At the pic’s end, Israeli-Arab singer Dikla performs, in Arabic, a song whose lyrics repeat “to you” and “with you,” insisting on the viewer’s involvement with the testimony. Noted photographer David Adika makes a confident debut as feature d.p., employing an unflinching eye that boldly sets performers in the landscape, giving both an equal solidity.