Like an Ernie Pyle for the video age, Israeli documaker Gil Mezuman trains his unblinking video lens on his comrades in arms in “Jenin Diary,” chronicling the emotional aftershocks felt just after a March 2002 ambush in the Palestinian city of Jenin that left 13 Israeli soldiers dead. Given the strong subjectivity (starting with the title), those expecting a balanced take on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian battle should look elsewhere, but Mid-East and docu-oriented fests should grab up this missive from the frontlines.
Made with an unbridled honesty that betrays only the slightest censoring by military authorities (bleeping or removing from subtitles a few apparently militarily sensitive references), pic would seem unthinkable for an American to make under the ever-scrutinizing eye of the Pentagon (though this extremely light censor’s touch bluntly contrasts with the handling of Mohammed Bakri’s contentious docu about the same town and battles, “Jenin, Jenin,” the first feature banned from Israeli screens in 15 years). “Diary’s” Mezuman, a reservist, was a member of the unit struck down in Jenin, giving him unique access and trust.
A brief graphic intros the situation, and the camera trains in on Eli, replacing slain commander Oded two days after the incident. In the first of a series of group discussions that emotionally ground the docu, officers and grunts alike fret over the dilemma of having to leave men behind during the ambush, knowing they would have been picked off, and saying they didn’t know the fighting would be so dangerous.
As self-doubts rush through the platoon, the higher-ups discuss why reservists with no training in tight urban warfare rather than special forces were sent into such a volatile zone as the heart of Jenin, well known as a center for Palestinian militants.
After a troop meeting of extreme mood swings that plays as much like a group psychodrama as a military confab, the unit goes back into Jenin for some “mop-up.” The sense of wasted lives extends to a funeral finale that’s only partially cathartic.
Rudimentary tech elements are a given, but the ways in which Mezuman homes in his camera on his brothers-in-arms are a visual and audio wonder.