Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Daniel Deronda & HotHouse: Nationalism then and now

In the past few days I've watched two very different DVDs: a BBC TV adaptation of George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda; and HotHouse an Israeli documentary on Palestinian prisoners. The first is a lovely piece of period fiction telling the story of a 19th Century English gentleman in search of purpose and identity. The latter presents the impassioned and sometimes chilling stories of those detained by the State of Israel; both avowedly guilty fanatical killers, and apparently innocent political organizers.

These two amalgams of moving pictures that are moods, ages and worlds apart have in common one very interesting theme. Mixed in among the many streams of argument are prominent discussions of nationalism and the desire for political determination. In Daniel Deronda, there is a major sub-plot involving the early Zionist dream of creating an Israeli nation state in Palestine. In HotHouse, the words democracy and self-determination are tossed like a challenge at the viewer, as the prisoners try to justify their actions.

Daniel Deronda is a lush Victorian plot boiler in which the title character is raised among the English elite never knowing his birth parents. His journey toward self-discovery is framed by his competing love interest in two women. Gwendolyn Harleth is a fair haired English beauty who he helps to overcome the youthful selfishness that trapped her in an abusive marriage of convenience. Mirah Lapidoth is a dark Jewish singer who he rescues from a suicide attempt, and for whom he takes on the surrogate quest of locating lost family members; bringing him into contact with London's minority Jewish community and making him more aware of the prejudice they faced.

Daniel becomes convinced that the only path to true happiness is through taking on a cause beyond oneself. Following the course of the story's many twists, he realizes his crusade must be the political struggle for the nation of Israel. Eliot has been criticized for this, both in her own time and from those with the advantage of historical perspective.

Contemporary critics wanted to expunge the Jewish parts of the novel and focus solely on Gwendolyn's side of the story, which is a very compelling treatment of the dependency thrust on women in a patriarchal society. This dislike may have been a simple bristling at the portrayal of the critics' own bigotry, or a belief that the life of commoners wasn't a worthy literary topic.

There are modern readers who have viewed the novel as an early attempt at Zionist propaganda. To defend Eliot, she was simply trying to portray the very real oppression Jews faced in England at the time. In the midst of the hate, discrimination and obstacles to success Jews experienced as a minority culture in Europe, it's easy to understand the desire for a country of their own where they could carve out a political identity.

The realization of that dream 70 years later put the Israelis in a much different position, however, forcing them into a role reversal. They are now the majority having to contend with the political demands of a minority culture, and it's that topic that is the subject of HotHouse.

The documentary has generated controversy because it takes an unflinching look at Palestinians who not only admit they've abetted suicide bombings, but show no remorse for their crimes. There is an email circulating around the Internet that is urging people not to see the film. In full disclosure, I work for the company that distributes the title. I don't presume to tell people what they should or shouldn't watch, but I can say that I found it fascinating and in no way a glorification of those heinous acts.

In one haunting sequence, a former TV anchor gleefully recounts how she reported the details of a restaurant bombing she personally organized. The director's goal isn't to make light of the deaths of innocents, but to portray the utter certainty of the perpetrator that what she did was justified. Her fanatical conviction that the murder she made possible was a moral retribution for crimes committed against her people is the hard reality standing in the way of any negotiated peace.

The men and women interviewed all see themselves as part of the political struggle to win a Palestinian state. Some have convinced themselves that sowing death and destruction is the only tactic available to them. Others recognize the necessity for diplomacy and negotiation. Some are rightly confined for multiple life terms and would return to the cycle of hate and violence if they were ever freed. Others inhabit a more ambiguous area, alleging arrests for demanding true democracy and a real political voice in the shaping of their destiny.

To me, the most intriguing segments of the film are those depicting the interactions between the prisoners and the Israeli staff. There is a camaraderie that's developed between the wardens and the elected spokesmen of the prison factions, as they negotiate rules and privileges. A mirror society has sprung up within the cell blocks, with hierarchies and divisions of labor. The Fatah and Hamas organizations are actively grooming prisoners to be political leaders once they return to the outside world; serving time has almost become a prerequisite for getting elected.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of the most intractable problems of our time. Having a better understanding of the complexities of the points of views on both sides of the divide is a necessary starting point for any resolution. HotHouse is an admirable effort at accomplishing just that.
Post a Comment