Law & documentary (in these parts)

I have been meaning to write this review since I first saw ‘The law in these parts’ (henceforth LTP) in Jerusalem back in January 2011 but I’m taking the opportunity now because it has just been released on DVD and I’ve finally had chance to re-watch it. Its available to order or stream here and worth every cent of the meagre $4 that Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz is asking. You can watch the trailer here:

Before I begin I want to recommend watching this documentary alongside another great Israeli documentary made earlier this year: The Gatekeepers (see my review here). You’ll see why I make the connection and together both films provide a powerful critique of the rule of military law in Israel. Put these together with the documentary Five Broken Cameras (review to come) and you really have a poignant commentary on how the legal magic works in practice.

I have a special interest in this film because in so many ways it is a documentary version of my PhD research. Shot in a style which clearly owes much to Errol Morris (I’m thinking both Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure), Alexandrowicz has set in front of the camera a single table and chair. In that chair sit the legal architects of Israel’s Occupation. The phenomenology here is paramount, the positioning of every object, not least the camera, is intended to create the effect of a trial.  Standing accused is the figure of the military lawyer, or rather eight of them. In my own work I have been interviewing military lawyers in very similar positions to those who feature in LTP but I have been especially interested in those who give ‘operational advice’ on targeting to the IDF (see my previous post here). The documentary takes a broader – and much older – demographic which includes Supreme Court judges (including Meir Shamgar) and military prosecutors, among others. The effect is that we get a probing insight into the multiple roles which military law/yers play in the Israeli military apparatus.

Screen shot: on trial
Screen shot: on trial

Alexandrowicz makes clear from the start that his “subjects” shall not be given a fair trial. Before we dismiss LTP as “biased” or insensitive toward those who it represents, it is worth taking a minute to think about why the director would chose the method of a staged and unfair trial in order to tell a story about the role of law in Occupation; one doesn’t have to be a genius to figure it out. Those who now stand accused participated in and helped create a system which has never been invested in fair trials, nor in principles of justness. The military lawyers themselves admit this. Here, for example is a candid testimony from Ammon Strashnov (Deputy Military Advocate General 1985-1987):

“As a military judge you don’t just represent justice. I think that a civilian judge represents justice, and society in general. As a military judge, you represent the authorities of the occupation,  vis-à-vis a population that sees you as the enemy. You’re conducting a trial against your enemy. It’s an unnatural situation. As long as it’s only temporary, fine. But when it foes on for 40 years? How can the system function? How can it be just?”

In a very smart and creative move, the director – and by extension the viewer – take the position of  judges. Those who once subjected others to law are now subject to our gaze and the power of representation passes from the military lawyer to the film maker. Multiple layers run through LTP, and this is a documentary which recognises its own subjectivity and relishes in it. Indeed, the film opens with a reflection on the nature of documentary before turning to the subject of law:

The common understanding is that a documentary depicts reality, unlike a narrative film which tells a fictional story. That definition may be true but it’s not precise enough. In the film, I will document a legal system: A system which organizes the rule-of-law in the territories we conquered in 1967. This is a unique system. Very few people understand it in depth.

And then this:

I present the rulings and events as I understand them. Because in the world of the film, I rule on what reality is.

The subjectivity of law, and perhaps even its violence is repeated and mirrored by the film itself, but the key difference here is that unlike the lawyers, the documentarian recognises himself. If, as Teju Cole wrote on Twitter this morning, “”neutrality” is the favorite voice of power”, then documentary as a genre must recognise its own power to structure reality and not merely represent it. LTP does this wonderfully and does so while passing a very smart judgement on the law. Most forcefully, LTP reaches for a critique which is seemingly straight out of Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence before letting the lawyers speak for themselves (!):

“The law that organizes people’s lives is entrusted to certain people. People like the protgonists of this film. They are legal professionals. All were members of the Israeli military legal corps. These legal professionals, and many others, are the people who wrote, developed and implemented the law in the Occupied Territories. A legal professional’s work is hidden by its very nature, it’s carried out in a language most of us do not understand. The film’s protagonists’ work remained behind the scenes of familiar historical events, and, in my opinion, never received the exposure it deserved. Their work was never filmed but it is documented in hundreds of thousands of pages: military orders, legal opinions, and court rulings that tell the story of the law.”

A quick word on method  is important here. LTP brings to life an archive which would seem to have little life. Archival work is often arduous and unless you know what you are doing it is easy to get lost and never find what it is you are looking for. I thought about going into the Israeli military archives, but was warned off both by Alexandrowicz (we had the chance to talk after the screening in Jerusalem) and by the military lawyers I interviewed. Language is the main problem here – the archives are all in Hebrew – but as I thought more about it, even when one speaks the language of the archive, one is still presented with the important question of how to bring it to life, whether in writing, documentary, art or otherwise. LTP takes a novel approach in that it combines (often old) written records with ‘live’ oral testimony, but what is even more powerful is the way that old  video footage plays in the background while the interview is being conducted. The military lawyers are invited to watch the footage of events in which they participated and we – the audience – watch the lawyers watching the footage. The lawyers are also asked to read their own legal decisions and judgements. The effect sends shivers down your spine but one really has to watch it to experience this affective dimension. Some of the lawyers are old men now and they are being asked to see and read things which they have preferred not to think about for many years. In a particularity powerful scene Alexander Ramati (Military Judge 1980-1981) is shown footage taken from events which he stood trial on:

“Its moving” he says, clearly emotional, “I remember it more or less, I remember all these things… But I’ve never seen it this way […] Deciding whether or not to sentence someone to death isn’t an easy thing to live with”


Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 3.49.09 PM
Screen shot: Alexander Ramati watches events over which he presided as Chief Military Prosecutor

Ramati’s words bear testimony to the fact that LTP achieves at least some of its goals. Documentary, and particularly its visual and affective elements, provoke different ways of seeing (the law). When I first saw LTP it was in a packed Israeli crowd in a small bookshop in Jerusalem. Among the audience was a military lawyer. During the Q&A with the director she told him that she disagreed with his presentation of the role of military law in legitimising the occupation but she said that documentaries like this were important precisely because most of the Israeli public don’t know about the existence of military lawyers, and certainly are unaware of the internal machinations of how military law works. She said that seeing the documentary moved her and that she could envision a day when military lawyers have to answer not to their chain of command, but to civilian and public scrutiny and for this she thanked the film-maker.

Perhaps documentary is a more effective way of fusing the legal and the visual than the music videos of my last post (it’s certainly a lot smarter), but again the all important question remains: who is the audience? Whatever we make of these attempts to ‘travel’ with the law to different mediums, I’m positive that this documentary, even as it traffics in almost exactly the same material as my own work, produces a whole series of effects which would be impossible to achieve through the written word…and still less a PhD thesis. Watch it!

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