In “The Law in These Parts,” one of Israel’s most creative nonfiction filmmakers places judges and attorneys on the cinematic witness stand to explain Israel’s contorted 45-year-old military legal structure governing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Adopting a postmodern method quite different from that of his remarkable “The Inner Tour,” Ra’anan Alexandrowicz poses his questions from a legal angle, and finds these minds stumped by a system they’ve professionally defended. Pic’s Sundance world docu jury prize will raise its profile, with good prospects for positive verdicts from doc and Jewish-themed fests and Euro cablers.
According to the filmmaker, it was the arrest of a Palestinian youth filmed in “The Inner Tour” that began his investigation into the legal system that governs Palestinian non-citizens in the territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. Little known by the general Israeli public, the enforcement of laws and governance in occupied lands is overseen by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). As a result, any Palestinian arrested in occupied lands is subject to a military brand of law quite unlike civilian-based law.
The resulting Kafkaesque system was the byproduct of assumptions that it would be temporary, and would give way to a different, permanent legal structure once the phase of occupation ceased. At the heart of the upside-down logic of the IDF’s ongoing governance is that the sheer passage of time has legitimized this temporary solution. But to apply Israeli law in these circumstances would, the judges try to explain to Alexandrowicz, effectively be granting citizenship to Palestinians.
Alexandrowicz positions his seated interviewees — some looking reluctant, others puzzled, still others contentious — at a table on a raised platform in front of a large green screen on which is frequently projected archival footage of arrests and trials of Palestinian suspects. The judges and attorneys often turn to watch the footage being simultaneously seen by the doc’s aud, resulting in a postmodern approach that invites the viewer into the director’s inquiry.
The film takes a particular look at the 1968 case of accused terrorist Omar Mohammad Al-Qassem, who led a Palestinian Liberation Army guerrilla unit against the Israeli army before his arrest. His claim of POW status was rejected by the court’s judge, on the grounds Qassem didn’t rate per the Geneva Convention as an enemy combatant. Yet, Alexandrowicz notes to his interviewees, Qassem also was not a civilian in any conventional sense. So what was he?
The pic particularly shows military thinking applied to what were fundamentally civilian matters in determining the legal basis for Jewish settlements in occupied land. Justice Meir Shamgar, who emerges as a major figure in the film, describes how he arrived at a legal framework for allowing settlements, inspired by the Ottoman-era “Mawat” (or unused) land provision that OK’d occupiers to reside in areas not used for farming or dwelling.
Shark De Mayo’s lensing brings visual density to the filming of talking heads, with the heavily researched archival footage on the green screen creating a theatrical effect — and serving to jog those heads’ memories.