The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs, the 1998 TV Series

Nor­ma Per­cy has pro­duced doc­u­men­taries on some the world’s most volatile regions, with The Death of Yugoslavia (1995), Iran and the West (2009), The Iraq War (2013) and most recent­ly, Putin Vs the West (2023), which was reviewed by me ear­li­er here

But in 1998 she made a six part series on what is sure­ly the most con­test­ed cor­ner of the entire globe; The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs.

What Per­cy man­ages to do, some­how, is to per­suade prac­ti­cal­ly every sin­gle one of the prin­ci­ple play­ers to sit down and talk to her, on the record. The rea­son they agree to do so is that she allows them to artic­u­late their views, what­ev­er they are, which she presents in a trans­par­ent and entire­ly neu­tral manner. 

Here, we hear from a host of Israeli defence, for­eign and prime min­is­ters, includ­ing Ben­jamin Netanyahu, Shi­mon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, a wide range of com­bat­ants, nego­tia­tors and min­sters from both the PLO and a num­ber of its splin­ter groups, from for­mer U.S. pres­i­dents Jim­my Carter, George Bush and Bill Clin­ton, from for­mer KGB oper­a­tives, Jordan’s King Hus­sein and from an array of senior diplo­mat­ic and mil­i­tary fig­ures from every cor­ner of the region.

It’s both com­pre­hen­sive and con­sis­tent­ly illu­mi­nat­ing, with prob­a­bly the most sur­pris­ing rev­e­la­tion being the fact that it was in fact the Rus­sians who’d qui­et­ly trig­gered the Six-Day War in June of 1967.

They’d looked at how stretched the Amer­i­cans were over in Viet­nam, and had con­clud­ed that open­ing up a sec­ond war front in the Mid­dle East could be the final nail in their cof­fin. So they put a great deal of effort into con­vinc­ing every­one in the region that the Israelis were amass­ing troops on their bor­der with Syr­ia. Which, plain­ly, they were not. 

They even went so far as to try and con­vince the Israelis that that was what they were doing, even though they knew per­fect­ly well that they were mak­ing the whole thing up!

Then, in the after­math of that war, after Yass­er Arafat and the PLO had plant­ed them­selves in Jor­dan, a fac­tion with­in the PLO took it upon them­selves to go to war with their hosts, on the grounds that they clear­ly weren’t being suf­fi­cient­ly sup­port­ive of them. 

And before he knew it, King Hus­sein found him­self under attack from Russ­ian-pro­vid­ed Syr­i­an tanks that were on their way to Jor­dan, fund­ed and sup­port­ed by Egypt, to help their Pales­tin­ian broth­ers with their fight against the Jor­da­ni­ans. Arab against Arab. 

So the King turned to the only mil­i­tary force capa­ble of com­ing to his aid. But the Amer­i­cans insist­ed that they could have noth­ing to do with what was going on. It would have to be the Israelis. So the King of Jor­dan was final­ly res­cued by the arrival of Israeli jets, that sent the Syr­i­an tanks scur­ry­ing back to whence they’d set off from. 

King Hus­sein of Jor­dan, by the way, exudes effort­less grace and charm, and is the most mar­vel­lous adver­tise­ment for breed­ing and the kind of edu­ca­tion that only obscene wealth can pro­vide you with. And the con­trast he pro­vides to the sight of those sim­i­lar­ly schooled clowns who’ve been knock­ing the fur­ni­ture over in West­min­ster for the past decade or so is, to put it mild­ly, stark.

There are, inevitably, one or two gaps. I was sur­prised that there was no ref­er­ence to the way in which the price of oil was used by the Arab coun­tries in the wake of the Yom Kip­pur War in 1973. Notwith­stand­ing which, this is a land­mark tele­vi­sion series. 

But it’s impos­si­ble not to note that, for all the vio­lence, blood­shed and hatred that was then in the air, when the series end­ed in 1998, that was, we now know, a high point in Israeli-Arab relations. 

What­ev­er about the first 50 years, the next 25 would, unimag­in­ably, see a sig­nif­i­cant deterioration.

Very unusu­al­ly, you can see all 6 episodes on YouTube:

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!

Shadow of Truth, another TV gem from Israel

Shad­ow of Truth

It’s hard to avoid describ­ing the doc­u­men­tary series Shad­ow of Truth as Israel’s Mak­ing a Mur­der­er (reviewed ear­li­er by me here). Released at round about the same time, in 2016, it was sub­se­quent­ly picked up by Net­flix and became one of their most watched true crime series, before being picked up and aired recent­ly on BBC4.

And, if you’re hap­py to accept my enthu­si­as­tic rec­om­men­da­tion as suf­fi­cient, I sug­gest you stop read­ing now, go away and watch all five episodes, before com­ing back to read the rest of this albeit con­scious­ly brief review. 

Notwith­stand­ing which, I don’t think it’s giv­ing too much away to assume that any­one who sits down to watch a five episode docu series on a famous and infa­mous mur­der tri­al will do so expect­ing at some point to be pre­sent­ed with some class of a twist.

So, and with­out giv­ing any­thing away, here very broad­ly is how it begins. A teenage girl is bru­tal­ly mur­dered in a leafy, bub­bled sub­urb in the Israeli hin­ter­land. And the first episode presents us with a clear and appar­ent­ly un-con­testable expla­na­tion as to exact­ly what hap­pened. Up until that is the final 20 sec­onds, when some­how, we appear to have the rug pulled from under us.

And in episode two, every­thing we thought we knew about what had hap­pened is, remark­ably, turned com­plete­ly upside down.

Cre­at­ed and direct­ed by Yotam Guen­del­man and Ari Pines it stirred up quite the storm when it was orig­i­nal­ly screened in Israel. Con­stant­ly sur­pris­ing, painstak­ing­ly researched and utter­ly com­pelling, it’s a loud and ring­ing endorse­ment for a free and inde­pen­dent media landscape. 

Which is as fun­da­men­tal for a func­tion­ing democ­ra­cy as main­tain­ing a clear sep­a­ra­tion between the judi­cia­ry and the vest­ed inter­ests of polit­i­cal parties.

Watch the trail­er for Shad­ow of Truth here:

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!

Shoah: the Most Important Documentary of the 20th Century

I spent an entire day ensconced in the IFI cin­e­ma in Dublin in the 1990s to watch all 7 ½ hours of Syberberg’s extra­or­di­nary epic “Hitler, a Film from Ger­many”, from 1977. Susan Son­tag had famous­ly said of it that it was “one of the 20th century’s great­est works of art.

Which had struck me at the time as sound­ing unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly wool­ly. But once you watch it you appre­ci­ate her choice of words. It’s not a film, or a doc­u­men­tary, a dra­mat­ic re-enact­ment, essay, opera, mime or the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion, and yet it draws on all those forms as a means of approach­ing its ungod­ly subject. 

But it’s only now that I’ve final­ly sum­moned up the courage to sit down and watch all 9 ½ hours of Claude Lanzmann’s mon­u­men­tal “Shoah”, from 1985, doc­u­ment­ing the holocaust. 

It is, as it needs to be, con­stant­ly har­row­ing and as such is a much-need­ed anti­dote to some­thing like Schindler’s List

Filmed over 11 years, Lanz­mann makes some remark­able choic­es. There’s no use of archive footage. Instead, he inter­views absolute­ly every­one he can find and talks to them, calm­ly, in a per­func­to­ry way, about what they can remember. 

And one of the first things that strikes you is how young every­one is. This is the mid 1970s, bare­ly 30 years after the IIWW, so many of the peo­ple he inter­views are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. 

He talks to some of the very few sur­vivors of the holo­caust, most of whom speak to him from their homes in Israel. To some of the casu­al wit­ness­es who’d been liv­ing and work­ing there in Poland, as the camps in Tre­blin­ka and Auschwitz came into being. And to a num­ber of SS offi­cers, whom he secret­ly films and records. 

And because he under­stands how fun­da­men­tal­ly impor­tant it is to doc­u­ment all of this, and to not allow his emo­tions inter­fere in that process. And because he’s pre­pared to spend 11 years doing it, and will only release the result in its entire 9 ½ hour form, the result is a film that’s qui­et­ly mes­meris­ing. And cumu­la­tive­ly dis­turb­ing in its insis­tence of unhur­ried­ly por­ing over all the details, one by one. 

And the phrase that, inevitably, keeps return­ing is Han­nah Arendt’s famous “the banal­i­ty of evil”.

But one of the things that has changed over the past cou­ple of decades is our view­ing habits. Few of us would ever have actu­al­ly got around to spend an entire week­end in the cin­e­ma watch­ing all 9 ½ hours of a doc­u­men­tary on the holo­caust, how­ev­er much we might have intend­ed to.

But watch­ing a less than 10 hour doc­u­men­tary on one of the most impor­tant events in mod­ern his­to­ry is far less improb­a­ble today, giv­en our cur­rent appetite for binge-watch­ing all sorts of unde­serv­ing dross, which we’re more than hap­py to waste hours and hours doing.

Every­body should put aside 10 hours to watch Shoah. It’s appalling. And mes­mer­iz­ing. And is one of, if not the most impor­tant doc­u­ments of the 20th century. 

Watch the trail­er for Shoah here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month, on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!

Russia on the BBC, Part 2: Adam Curtis’ TraumaZone

Adam Cur­tis first emerged from the con­fines of con­ven­tion­al BBC pro­gramme mak­ing in 1992 with Pandora’s Box, in 6 parts, and he’s been plough­ing his glo­ri­ous­ly idio­syn­crat­ic fur­row there ever since. 

Rather than con­ven­tion­al doc­u­men­taries, what Cur­tis pro­duces are filmic essays, in which he explores the con­tra­dic­tions that have result­ed from the rise of tech­nol­o­gy, the malaise of con­sumerism and the cat­a­stroph­ic mis­takes made by the var­i­ous empires that have risen and sunk over the course of the last one hun­dred and fifty years. 

His most famous films to date are prob­a­bly All Watched Over By Machines of Lov­ing Grace, in 3 parts, from 2011 (reviewed ear­li­er by me here), which casts a cold eye over evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, glob­al cap­i­tal­ism and the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment. And Bit­ter Lake, from 2015, a bril­liant autop­sy on how the West end­ed up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And his lat­est, Rus­sia 1985–1999: Trau­ma­Zone, What It Felt Like to Live Through The Col­lapse of Com­mu­nism and Democ­ra­cy, to give it its full title, is his best to date. Notwith­stand­ing the fact that two of his trade­mark stamps are absent. Gone are both his silky if point­ed voice over, and his care­ful choice of music, which usu­al­ly acts as coun­ter­point and com­men­tary to the images they accompany.

That’s because, he says, these images speak for them­selves. Which they do, and don’t. And that’s an entire­ly good thing. 

What’s he done is to gath­er up all the out­takes, all the reams and reams of footage left over, after the var­i­ous BBC cor­re­spon­dents have filed their report on what­ev­er was going on then in Rus­sia, and used them all to pro­duce a por­trait of Rus­sia as it sinks into anarchy. 

The result is a 7 hour jour­ney, in 7 one hour parts, chart­ing the dis­in­te­gra­tion of what had been the Russ­ian empire. It’s at times charm­ing, qui­et­ly mov­ing and con­sis­tent­ly cap­ti­vat­ing. There is a con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive, but that’s cov­ered in about one of its sev­en hours. 

There’s Afghanistan, and Cher­nobyl and Gor­bachev, open­ing up Sovi­et mid­dle man­age­ment to prof­it shar­ing and con­sumerism. And those man­agers team­ing up with orga­nized crime, to rob and pil­lage the state-run busi­ness­es they were sup­posed to be nur­tur­ing. And the ram­pant crime, cor­rup­tion and vio­lence that follows. 

There’s Yeltsin, out­ma­noeu­vring Gor­bachev, embrac­ing untram­melled cap­i­tal­ism, and the cat­a­stroph­ic eco­nom­ic col­lapse that that caused. And the rise of the oli­garchs that fol­lowed, as Russ­ian indus­try was raped and stripped clean. And the nation­al­ism that emerged in response. And Chech­nya, and the fright­en­ing sense of an aston­ish­ing­ly rapid descent into unimag­in­able vio­lence, cor­rup­tion and soci­etal disintegration.

But dur­ing the oth­er six hours, we see; grad­u­ates get­ting their degrees in soon to be inde­pen­dent Ukraine, as a mass grave dat­ing back to the Sovi­et peri­od is dis­cov­ered right next to where the cer­e­mo­ny is tak­ing place.

An old woman trav­els hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres, from the mid­dle of nowhere, to some­where else in the mid­dle of nowhere, in the freez­ing cold, to gath­er and take back pota­toes, so she has some­thing to live off.

One of the many out­takes so won­der­ful­ly made use of in Bit­ter Lake.

Teenage girls are schooled in how to com­port them­selves in beau­ty con­tests. The Moscow police force prac­tice shoot­ing guns, aid­ed by the record­ed sounds of gun fire, as they can’t afford to use actu­al bul­lets. Pro­to punk rock bands per­form in under­ground clubs. Thou­sands of the des­ti­tute and home­less sleep in sleep­ing bags on the floors of vast train stations. 

And row after row after row of emp­ty shelves are silent­ly gazed at by the hun­dreds and hun­dreds of peo­ple, who queue every day for hours in super­mar­kets, in the hope of find­ing some­thing, any­thing, to eat.

You get an extra­or­di­nary and vis­cer­al sense of the sheer size and vast scale of the coun­try, strad­dling as it does 6 time zones, and the abject pover­ty that the vast major­i­ty of them had to live in, in unspeak­able con­di­tions. As a tiny, minis­cule minor­i­ty enjoyed a pas­tiche of cap­i­tal­ist excess in a hand­ful of gar­ish, city cen­tre clubs and sub­urbs in parts of St Peters­burg and Moscow. 

And in amongst all of which, there’s Gor­bachev, get­ting side­lined. And Yeltsin, get­ting drunk. And a coun­try, being picked apart, and left to rot and fester.

Until final­ly, a qui­et, unas­sum­ing bureau­crat promis­es to restore order. The oli­garchs shrug, and think, why not. It’ll still be us call­ing the shots. And so a func­tionary from the for­mer KGB is hand­ed the reins of pow­er. And sure enough, order is indeed soon restored.

What’s so com­pelling about Cur­tis’ film, is that it man­ages to both tell that sto­ry, with­out being bound to mere­ly tell that sto­ry. It’s that, and so much more.

You can see the trail­er for Trau­ma­Zone here:

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month, on All the best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!

Russia on the BBC, Part 1: Putin Vs The West

Putin Vs The West, 2023.

Nor­ma Per­cy makes the sorts of doc­u­men­tary series which shouldn’t work but some­how do. And, after the equal­ly reveal­ing Iran and the West, from 2009, and The Iraq War, from 2013, she this month presents us with Putin Vs The West, screened recent­ly on the BBC. And which is yet anoth­er extra­or­di­nary win­dow on to today’s geopo­lit­i­cal landscape.

What she does is to per­suade many, and often most, of the prin­ci­pal play­ers to sit down and talk to her about some of world’s most con­tentious trou­ble spots. And the remark­able fact is, that as soon as senior diplo­mats, civ­il ser­vants and even for­mer world lead­ers vacate their posi­tions of pow­er, they’re more than hap­py to spill the beans about the con­fi­den­tial and high lev­el con­ver­sa­tions they were only recent­ly privy to. 

Iran and the West, 2009.

Far from being bound by any sense of omer­ta, they’re all too ready to tell tales out of school. They are, it turns out, no bet­ter than the rest of us. And it makes for riv­et­ing viewing. 

The most reveal­ing of Putin Vs The West’s three remark­able episodes was the sec­ond, detail­ing the plight of Syr­ia in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. One of the first to react to the chaos that then erupt­ed was Gaddafi, who turned on the peo­ple of Libya with a vicious­ness that even they were unac­cus­tomed to. 

So the West went to Rus­sia hop­ing to per­suade them not to veto the sanc­tions they want­ed to impose on him, assum­ing that their request would be denied. But at that time, in March 2011, Medvedev was pres­i­dent and, to their sur­prise, he enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sup­port­ed the idea of sanc­tions. So long, of course, as there were no talk of regime change. Absolute­ly not, the West assured him.

So Rus­sia abstained in the UN vote, but with­out impos­ing its veto. And the sanc­tions were passed. 

The Iraq War, 2013

But Putin, who then held the junior post of prime min­ster, pub­licly chas­tised Medvedev for hav­ing fool­ish­ly tak­en the West at its word, and for not recog­nis­ing the ‘cru­sade’ the West was on to destroy them. And sure enough, two months lat­er the West declared that actu­al­ly, the only thing that would save Libya was in fact regime change. 

Medvedev was furi­ous, and Putin used the West’s betray­al of him as the cen­tral plat­form in his bid for re-elec­tion, which, the fol­low­ing year, he won in a landslide.

A year lat­er, in 2013, John Ker­ry trav­elled to Moscow in the hope of repair­ing rela­tions between East and West, so that they could join forces to do some­thing about Assad and the hell he’d been unleash­ing on the peo­ple of Syria. 

Haven’t you learnt any­thing about your ruinous efforts at regime change, they replied. Look at what hap­pened after your dis­as­trous inter­ven­tions in Libya, and in Afghanistan and Iraq before that. 

But when evi­dence sur­faced that sum­mer that Assad had begun using chem­i­cal weapons, Obama’s famous red line had been defin­i­tive­ly crossed. And Oba­ma joined forces with Hol­lande and Cameron, the French pre­mier and British PM, deter­mined to inter­vene in Syr­ia with air strikes. 

But when Cameron put mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion to the vote in Par­lia­ment, he lost. And sim­i­lar­ly, Oba­ma learnt that he would very like­ly lose a sim­i­lar vote in con­gress. So when Putin, very much to everyone’s sur­prise, offered his word that he would under­take to force Assad to sur­ren­der his chem­i­cal weapons, if the West promised to refrain from tak­ing mil­i­tary action, Oba­ma, to everyone’s amaze­ment, agreed. 

Which, obvi­ous­ly, was an extreme­ly good thing and was absolute­ly the right deci­sion. But the way it was reached was, to put it mild­ly, murky. And, polit­i­cal­ly speak­ing, it was a dis­as­ter. The West had blinked. Red lines were, clear­ly, mean­ing­less, and the West was mired in dis­uni­ty – Hol­lande felt par­tic­u­lar­ly left out in the cold. 

The Black Sea.

A year lat­er, in 2014, Isis took over swathes of Syr­ia. And the fol­low­ing year, two days after address­ing the UN assem­bly, and to everyone’s com­plete aston­ish­ment, Putin sent his air force in to bomb Syr­ia, under the guise of attack­ing Isis – which of course was exact­ly the same excuse that the West was using for doing the same thing else­where. And for the first time in decades, Russ­ian troops were deployed on for­eign soil. 

The West’s response? It decid­ed to do noth­ing. Which, again, was absolute­ly the right response. But the mes­sage that it sent out to Putin couldn’t have been clear­er. The West was weak, divid­ed and spent, and Rus­sia was back on the world stage. And in a part of the world that was vital to its strate­gic interests. 

To the north, it had gone into east­ern Ukraine in 2014, with the cru­cial access that gives it to the warm water ports in the Black Sea – and in response to which, again, the West had done noth­ing. And to the south, it now had a pres­ence in the Mediterranean.

None of which, to be absolute­ly clear, in any way excus­es what Putin has so unfor­giv­ably inflict­ed on the peo­ple of Ukraine. But it does help explain his actions, and put them in context. 

We’ve very quick to mar­vel at how blind­ly peo­ple in places like Rus­sia accept the pro­pa­gan­da they’re fed. But we rarely stop to ques­tion the pic­ture we’re being giv­en. Putin is not the insane, unpre­dictable, car­toon vil­lain we’re con­tin­u­al­ly pre­sent­ed with. He’s pur­su­ing a clear polit­i­cal strat­e­gy that has its roots in the re-uni­fi­ca­tion of Germany. 

Thir­ty years ago, the West promised Rus­sia that that re-uni­fi­ca­tion would cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly not result in any expan­sion of NATO into the east of Europe. Since when, 14 of the 15 coun­tries to the east of Ger­many have all joined NATO. All but one; Ukraine.

What this film demon­strates so well is that Russia’s attempt­ed inva­sion of Ukraine is every bit as com­pli­cat­ed as the rea­sons behind the sec­ond world war, which so many peo­ple like to com­pare it to. And is no more black and white than that was. 

Paint­ing Putin as an irra­tional lunatic is lazy and lets us off the hook. Because it fails to acknowl­edge the arro­gance that we’ve dis­played towards Rus­sia since the breakup of the Sovi­et Union. And it con­ve­nient­ly ignores the chaos we’ve inflict­ed on numer­ous oth­er coun­tries over that same time.

None of which, final­ly, should in any way be read as any kind of sup­port for those two insuf­fer­able clowns that we Irish have sent over to the Euro­pean parliament. 

And none of which will do any­thing to ease the suf­fer­ing of the poor peo­ple of Ukraine.

Watch the trail­er for Putin Vs The West here:

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!