'Censored Voices': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
For once, the talking heads don't talk but listen.

Israeli director Mor Loushy's second documentary feature unearths previously heavily redacted interviews with soldiers who fought in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Contemporary Israeli perspectives on the 1967 Six-Day War finally see the light of day, after having originally been heavily redacted, in Censored Voices, the absorbing if never quite groundbreaking second feature from non-fiction filmmaker Mor Loushy (Israel Ltd). The backbone of this film, executive produced by Morgan Spurlock, is provided by a series of audio interviews with soldiers recorded less than a month after the conflict ended, which draw a more nuanced picture of the cost of even a very short war such as this one, suggesting that Israel’s fighters weren’t necessarily all efficient killing machines but (gasp!) human beings and the enemies not abstract evildoers but also, well, human beings. Though entirely unpalatable for those who like their war histories in strictly Manichean terms, more liberal festivals and broadcasters should consider adding this to their lineup.

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Future bestselling author Amos Oz and his colleague and editor, Avraham Shapira, collected audio interviews with soldiers in the days following the Six-Day war as the rough material for a book. As per the film, only about 30 percent of what they collected was allowed to be released at the time by the army.

The interviews aren’t about the soldiers’ deeds -- heroic or otherwise -- during the war but about how they felt. On paper at least, the swift war marked a huge victory for tiny Israel, which conquered Sinai, Jerusalem, the West Bank and part of the Golan Heights even though it had to fight off armies from Egypt, Syria and Jordan. But that’s the victors’ rather facile version of the outcome. By Oz’s own admission, he wanted to conduct these conversations to explore “a sense of sadness” that contemporary news reports didn’t seem to address. “It may not do a great service to national morale but might do a small service to the truth,” says the author, who like all the subjects is filmed as his four-and-a-half-decade older self listens to his own youthful voice of the original recordings.

The faces of the listeners are often framed in close-up by cinematographers Itai Raziel and Avner Shahaf as they listen self-consciously to their own hesitant, awkward laughter from the past; their eyes shifting uneasily or their brows frowning slightly when they are confronted with a younger self who occasionally seems extremely naive and at other times might be surprisingly articulate or even prescient. Most of the interviewees aren’t even identified until the end of the film, underlining how Oz’s sadness was something that seemed to permeate practically all that came back from the battlefield (or at least, all that are featured here).

This effective visual conceit thus not only adds images to audio-only material -- a necessity for it to become a movie at all -- but also provides a subtle and entirely silent, modern-day running commentary of sorts on the confessions, as wise-seeming old men are confronted with unedited versions of themselves just a week or so after their wartime experiences. However, one has to wonder whether this particular directorial choice had any influence on who could be featured, as some of the original 1967 interviewees might not have wanted or been able to be filmed some 45 years later.

To make sure the film doesn’t become too static, Loushy also includes archival footage shot during the war, a lot of it in black-and-white and ranging from what looks like army documentation footage to both on-air as well as B-roll material of an ABC correspondent following the progress of the war. This material has been carefully edited to match, as often as possible, the description of what the soldiers describe, though clearly this is footage that’s not directly reflective of their own experiences.

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Not unsurprisingly, the war heroes are revealed to often be impressionable human beings, most of them still very young when the war broke out and still trying to process what happened to them psychologically when they’re being taped. One of the interviewees states, rather plainly: “I had an abysmal feeling I was evil.” Another one adds: “All of us, Avinoam, Zvika, Yithzaki, we are not murderers. In the war, we all became murderers,” trying to find a justification for the fact he had to kill people and struggling to reconcile the fact that he did with the notion he is and has always been a decent human being.

Taking this reasoning one step further -- and this is where many staunch pro-Israel defenders might get their knickers in a twist -- several of the soldiers who were involved in the deportation of Arabs from the newly occupied territories draw a comparison that is eerily echoed in the accompanying black-and-white footage of the forced expulsions: “The whole evacuation of civilians, that’s not why I went to war,” says one, while another adds: “We’re so horrified by the Nazis and keep talking about them. Here, we’re doing something not so different”.

Another soldier: “When you see a whole village go, like sheep, wherever they’re taken, and there is no sign of resistance, you realize what Holocaust means.” His older self, listening to his youthful confession, then bites his lip and nods ever so slightly, before the voice continues: “I remember that day, I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

Expertly assembled across the board, Censored Voices tries and largely succeeds in providing a corrective to the idea that Israel’s 1967 victory was a quick and clean operation. No war, however short in terms of combat days, ever is.

Production companies: One Man Show, Know Productions

Director: Mor Loushy

Screenplay: Mor Loushy, Daniel Sivan, Ran Tal

Producers: Daniel Sivan, Hilla Medalia, Neta Zwebner

Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Danna Stern, Dagmar Mielke, Nick Fraser, Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick, Ethan Goldman

Co-producers: Melanie Andernach, Knut Losen, Jenny Raskin

Directors of photography: Itai Raziel, Avner Shahaf

Editor: Daniel Sivan

Music: Markus Aust

Sales: Dogwoof Global


No rating, 84 minutes