Young Israeli soldiers who have not gained their high school diploma are given the opportunity to do so before they conclude their military service by going back into the classroom for three weeks to take catch-up courses. These include a citizenship class, and it is in these animated lessons that Silvina Landsmann’s fly-on-the-wall documentary was shot.
These are not your average classes. The students wear their military fatigues and guns lie around the room as might books or rucksacks in a normal school environment. It’s an incongruous reminder of how violence and the ever present threat of it has become a normal part of these young people’s lives.
Being a teacher is often a thankless task, and nobody would envy Eyal, the weary yet unflappable instructor whose job it is to encourage the adamant cadets to think more widely about issues surrounding the Israeli state: issues of nationhood, religion, ethnicity, tolerance, democracy and pluralism. Having just put in three years of mandatory military service, often stationed at checkpoints, the young men have been at the sharp end of Israeli-Arab relations, and their belligerence is understandable.
Nonetheless, they are challenging pupils. Asked by the teacher to name a nationality, the first suggestion is Jewish. The second is Muslim. One solider expresses a wish to emigrate, saying he would like to move to Switzerland, because it has no army and he speaks English; he is surprised when the instructor reveals that Switzerland has mandatory military service and is not an English-speaking country. Another cadet can be seen playing a violent computer game, oblivious to the impassioned debate raging around him.
Landsmann stands back and lets the subjects do the talking. All of the film’s action is at the college, and with few names mentioned the group of soldiers becomes representative, rather than personalized, so the viewer focuses on the opinions being expressed and wider implications, not on the individual characters. Though it deals with political themes, this is not a political documentary per se, but rather a film about assumptions, prejudice and efforts to challenge them.
While many of the views espoused are intransigent, Soldier/Citizen offers some cause for hope. The men are young and fresh from military service, but even so, many of them say they fervently wish for a Palestinian state. The mere fact that the Israeli army gives its less educated members the chance to debate these issues in this environment is impressive. The tutor is patient, wise and open-minded; if only the leaders in the Middle East were more like him.
Though the film wraps up with the students getting their grades, there is no real sense of closure – entirely appropriately given the subject matter. One student’s approach to Arab-Israeli relations sums up the intractability of the conflict in Israel. When he complains that Palestinians were responsible for some offensive graffiti, the teacher suggests that they might do that because he makes them wait eight hours to pass the checkpoint. “I make them wait eight hours because they do that,” he replies.
Debbie StoweDirector: Silvina Landesman