Tragic Israeli Doc Innocence Makes Convincing Plea Against Conscription

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Tragic Israeli Doc Innocence Makes Convincing Plea Against Conscription

Few countries can understand the kind of military indoctrination underway in Israel like the United States. Depending on what half of the country you come from, it’s more than likely you have a relative who followed the trajectory from gun hobbyist to spiteful fetishist in the last 20 years. It’s not unlikely that you have a Facebook friend more upset that Kyle Rittenhouse is being sued than by the 582 mass shootings this year that have killed 604 people in the U.S. So when an American sees footage of an Israeli elementary schooler holding an M-16, the horrible truth is that it’s not as shocking as it should be. But documentarian Guy Davidi’s Innocence only starts there, providing a harrowing multimedia case against his country’s conscription and the pressure squeezing the Israeli children staring down its barrel.

Refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces has been around as long as Israel, predominantly publicized by open letters or graffiti from active service members, or in loose organizations of high schoolers. The main issue isn’t just that they must be trained to kill in order to stay in their country—what one subject of Innocence calls a “compromise”—but that they’re being put to use as an enforcing instrument to what the Human Rights Watch is finally calling apartheid against Palestinians. Davidi, who left his IDF service after three months, already made a movie about this a decade ago: 5 Broken Cameras, co-helmed by Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat. Here, his focus is back on Israel, with the implied question being “If you can’t care about Palestinians, how about your own children?”

Davidi underlines the history that’s led up to this deadly, tragic modern era by giving a voice to students and soldiers alike, but especially to those who didn’t survive the transition from one to the other. Innocence uses the words, letters, poetry, artwork and home video footage of soldiers who took their own lives during the course of their training to craft a crushing portrait of social railroading where victims feel like they have no way out. This revelation—that we’re hearing dead ex-soldiers—rolls towards you slowly and unavoidably. You might not realize it the first time Innocence tells you. You might subconsciously tune it out. This narration, from those like Halil Givati Rapp, isn’t just compelling audio, but a respectful reconstruction of life. They are tracked back from the brink to the beginning, shrunk down from front line soldiers back to frustrated kids tired of camcordered questions from mom and dad. What’s so startling is how omnipresent their fate in the military is no matter when on Davidi’s shifting timeline we catch them. There are varying levels of acceptance and coping across the subjects, but a consistent resignation to the status quo. It’s so intimate, so personal and raw, that it’d feel exploitative—voyeuristic—if the content of the letters weren’t so bluntly clear: Conscription did this.

For parents, “this” is a dead child. For Israel, it’s bad PR. Davidi shows the complicity throughout: Without active resistance from authority figures, children are overwhelmed by the military’s greedy hands. We see children weeping as they squeeze off their first rounds of ammunition; we see children climbing on tanks, getting their faces painted by soldiers at a perverse military Field Day; we see children that know if you touch a certain fence, you’ll alert the armed guards. But as much as some kids go along with it all, either unquestioning or blithely patriotic under the watch of their teachers and parents, others stand out. Lonely and unassimilated.

Davidi, the anti-Riefenstahl, uses sweeping imagery and heart-wrenching audio to convey dissent, apartness, fear and weakness. He is not just philosophically opposed to jingoistic hatemongers, but artistically opposed to their typical images. A drone camera shoots soldiers from above, isolated on rocky desert terrain even when with their unit. They march together, but the individuals are still alone. In contrast, uncorrupted kids pile upon one another in classrooms and on merry-go-rounds. In training, teens roughhouse after rigorous sprints and chant together in huddles. But the soldiers-to-be are scored by the concerns of their passed-on peers: Disillusionment, insecurity, suffering. When a kid vomits, then tells his CO that he wants to keep going, we don’t see endurance. We see the physical ache, suppressed in order to fit in, of what Innocence can only confirm to us after the fact. Meanwhile, the present-day kids (or, as the IDF sees them, soldiers-to-be) voice their concerns aloud, charmingly blunt.

Some of the most moving sequences are composed of body cam footage from soldiers, fisheyed and circular, seen by gunfire and flarelight as the corners of the screen fade into shadow. We can hardly see them at all, they’re so close to the darkness. Where we’re used to seeing propagandistic unity in military nonfiction, with units of hearty, confident young people, we instead get questions, conflict and doubting eyes throughout the classroom-to-combat pipeline.

Innocence’s constant, poetic voiceover and onslaught of harrowing images compels us just as strongly in the other direction as a hawkish piece of bloodthirst. Don’t worry, we still get snippets of the latter. Racist little teens, chanting “death to Arabs” alongside their older neighbors in the streets, clash with a single naysayer. But Davidi makes it hard to hate or even dismiss them. They weren’t allowed to succeed, weren’t encouraged to be good. “At least I’ll die without going bad,” one soldier tells us after his suicide. But one of the best things about Davidi’s work is that it becomes hard to think of those that succumbed to the IDF, or even the most conservative corners of its ideology, as “bad.” With an influence net, woven tight and cast wide, as potent as Israel’s, there’s little blame to be put on individuals when so much blood is on the hands of systems.

Director: Guy Davidi
Release Date: October 16, 2022 (Chicago International Film Festival)

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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