Reimag­in­ing A Movie That Dis­ap­peared

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By A.J.Gold­mann

In 2000, the Is­raeli De­fense Forces pro­duced a ma­jor fea­ture film that tack­led one of the army’s most taboo sub­jects, the ris­ing num­ber of sol­dier sui­cides. The IDF Army Spokesper­son’s Film Unit, headed by Michael Yo­hay, was given vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited ac­cess to the army’s re­source: he­li­copters, tanks, hun­dreds of ex­tras and per­mis­sion to film at a topse­cret mis­sile base. The film was ti­tled “The Dis­ap­peared” (“Hane’elam,” in He­brew) and starred Lior Ashke­nazi, a well-known tele­vi­sion ac­tor who was an­gling to be­come a film star. Just weeks be­fore the film’s planned re­lease, the plug was pulled on the project for rea­sons that are still not en­tirely clear. True to its ti­tle, the film, which had cost the IDF $1 mil­lion (back then, an enor­mous sum for an Is­raeli pro­duc­tion), van­ished with­out a trace. To this day, the film and even­tual its sup­pres­sion re­mains a well guarded army se­cret.

A new film about “The Dis­ap­peared” shares its ti­tle with the cen­sored film. It’s an ex­per­i­men­tal doc­u­men­tary that dar­ingly (and some­what mad­den­ingly) tries to con­jure and evoke im­ages and scenes us­ing sound, mem­ory, ti­tles and other non­imag­is­tic means. For “The Dis­ap­peared,” Is­raeli film­mak­ers Gi­lad Baram and Adam Ka­plan con­ducted au­dio in­ter­views with cast and crew mem­bers from nearly 20 years ago. Along with brief ex­cerpts from the screen­play (read out by Yo­hay), they play over black or white screens that are empty save for sub­ti­tles and in­ter­mit­tent VHS static.

Baram, known for the 2015 doc­u­men­tary “Koudelka: Shoot­ing Holy Land,” spent his mil­i­tary ser­vice in the Army Spokesper­son’s Film Unit work­ing on the orig­i­nal “Dis­ap­peared.” As a lo­ca­tion man­ager, he helped shep­herd the film from pre­pro­duc­tion to post-pro­duc­tion. The ex­pe­ri­ence stayed with him, but it wasn’t un­til sev­eral years ago, af­ter a screen­ing at the Jerusalem Film Fes­ti­val of a film about mil­i­tary law in the West Bank that he con­sid­ered in­ves­ti­gat­ing the story be­hind “The Dis­ap­peared” and its dis­ap­pear­ance. Ka­plan, a for­mer class­mate from the Beza­lel Acad­emy in Jerusalem, be­came Baram’s co-di­rec­tor.

“When you en­ter a process like this you try to keep your mind as open as pos­si­ble,” Baram told me over a beer af­ter a screen­ing of the film at the Ber­lin Film Fes­ti­val. “The minute we un­der­stood that there’s go­ing to be no chance for us to ob­tain any vi­su­als, for us that chal­lenge was a kind of present. In the end, when we went to in­ter­view the peo­ple, the de­ci­sion was very clear. It was ei­ther a sui­ci­dal de­ci­sion or a coura­geous de­ci­sion. There was no cam­era. It was only about record­ing the voice.”

“It’s not easy to know that you’re go­ing to shoot a film and you’re not go­ing to shoot it,” Ka­plan added with a wry laugh. At the same time, there was a strong case to be made for de­lib­er­ately not show­ing any ma­te­rial re­lated to a film that is ef­fec­tively cen­sored. From this ma­jor con­straint, the film­mak­ers’ artis­tic de­ci­sions fol­lowed. “We wanted to keep all the ghost-like left­overs of a film, and that’s mu­sic, spo­ken text and sub­ti­tles,” Ka­plan said. The only part of “The Dis­ap­peared” that has made it into the doc­u­men­tary rel­a­tively in­tact is El­dad Li­dor’s orig­i­nal sound­track, a propul­sive and Hol­ly­woody score than in­vites the au­di­ence to imag­ine what sort of im­ages “The Dis­ap­peared” may con­tain.

Given that the orig­i­nal “The Dis­ap­peared” was such an enor­mous un­der­tak­ing, it’s sur­pris­ing how dif­fi­cult it is to ob­tain any in­for­ma­tion about the film. For Ka­plan, the dearth of ev­i­dence is a prod­uct of the pre-dig­i­tal age in which the film was made. “Ev­ery­thing about that film is that tran­si­tion pe­riod. It’s a pre-Google film, so it doesn’t ex­ist on­line,” says Ka­plan.

“This was also the pre-bloom­ing of Is­raeli cin­ema,” added Baram, point­ing out that Ashk­ne­nazi, the lead in “The Dis­ap­peared,” even­tu­ally got his big screen break a year af­ter that film was shelved with Dover Kosashvili’s “Late Mar­riage,” one of the first films that helped usher in a flow­er­ing of Is­raeli cin­ema that is still with us.

The orig­i­nal “Dis­ap­peared” had a pre­de­ces­sor in “Two Fin­gers to Si­don,” an army train­ing film about the Le­banon War that was orig­i­nally in­tended only for sol­diers, un­til the sol­diers them­selves suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned that it be re­leased to the pub­lic, to make their trau­matic war ex­pe­ri­ences palat­able to their loved ones. It ended up screen­ing at the 1986 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. In the words of its di­rec­tor, Eli Co­hen, “Two Fin­gers to Si­don” por­trayed “peo­ple fight­ing in a war with­out the only lux­ury a war can give — the knowl­edge of who is good and who is bad.”

Com­pared to that, a film that cast a light on an un­sa­vory topic with the aim of help­ing the army iden­tify and pre­vent fu­ture sui­cides seems rel­a­tively un­con­tro­ver­sial. Why op­po­si­tion to the film should have been strong enough to have the film ef­fec­tively banned is one of the mys­ter­ies that Baram and Ka­plan ex­plore in their “Dis­ap­peared.”

“It con­fus­ing,” said Baram. “It could be an in­ter­nal ego thing be­tween gen­er­als. It could be that the army got cold feet about deal­ing with such a charged sub­ject. Or it could be that the film is not good enough, or some­body thought it was not good enough. Or it could be that it wasn’t the right time, as the army, right as the film was about to be re­leased, was just go­ing into the sec­ond In­tifada. Or it could be all of that to­gether.”

Af­ter one and a half years of re­search and roughly 30 in­ter­views, the film­mak­ers man­aged to lay eyes on a film that few peo­ple have seen. “It took us that long for us to get hold of a boot­leg,” Ka­plan said. “We were in­vited to some­one’s house at eight in the morn­ing to watch this film that we’d heard so much about.” Be­ing that they were both so per­son­ally, even emo­tion­ally, in­vested in “The Dis­ap­peared” by that point, Baram and Ka­plan both felt that they were in no po­si­tion to com­ment on the film’s artis­tic mer­its.

In a sim­i­lar spirit, the ques­tion of whether the film will re­main in the limbo to which it has been con­demned up un­til now doesn’t seem to worry the doc­u­men­tar­i­ans, whose own “Dis­ap­peared” is far more con­cerned with phi­los­o­phy and aes­thet­ics than with be­ing a work of ad­vo­cacy. “It’s sit­ting on a shelf in the army ar­chive, gath­er­ing dust and that’s it. Now, why they still keep it so se­cre­tive, I re­ally can’t tell you. If you ask me per­son­ally it doesn’t make too much sense. But it doesn’t con­cern us and the film we’ve made,” claims Baram.

As a veteran of the army’s film unit, ex­am­in­ing “The Dis­ap­peared” also was an op­por­tu­nity for him to probe the con­tra­dic­tions in­her­ent in the film di­vi­sion and their man­date. “This unit em­bod­ies some­thing im­pos­si­ble. On the one hand, it’s 100% mil­i­tary, with uni­form, with dis­ci­pline, ro utine, an agenda. On the other hand, it’s sup­posed to deal with the cre­ative, which is ex­actly the op­po­site for the mil­i­tary.”

“This strong con­trast also ex­ists in the orig­i­nal film,” adds Ka­plan. “It’s both di­dac­tic and it’s a film made by cinephiles that has ref­er­ences to Spiel­berg or Truf­faut. This du­al­ity con­stantly ex­ists in ev­ery small de­tail of the story. And we were very keen on un­der­stand­ing and pre­sent­ing that.”

A.J. Gold­mann is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based

in Ber­lin.


WHITE ON BLACK: A film still from the doc­u­men­tary ‘The Dis­ap­peared.’


THE EMPTY SPACE: Adam Ka­plan and Gi­lad Baram.

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