'This Is My Land': Toronto Review

Toronto International Film Festival
A first documentary feature that bites off more than it can chew

Israeli-born, Paris-based documentary filmmaker Tamara Erde contrasts education in Israeli and Palestinian schools

The is-the-Pope-Catholic conclusion of the documentary This Is My Land, from Israeli-born, Paris-based director Tamara Erde, seems to be that education can be something of a double-edged sword, capable of opening minds as much as brainwashing future leaders. As the rookie filmmaker follows teachers and their classes at six different schools in Israel and Palestine over the course of a year, students are taught extensively about their own national identity and historical struggles while unsurprisingly little (if any) attention is given to those on the other side, with only a mixed Arab-Israeli school suggesting a possible way forward. Despite a somewhat muddled assembly and a mountain of material that seems pretty self-evident for anyone who has ever read a newspaper since Arthur James Balfour signed his declaration in 1917, this feature should nonetheless appeal to documentary and liberal Jewish festivals and broadcasters.

The film goes back and forth between visits to different classrooms in Israel and Palestine, often simply documenting what is being taught, though there are also short interview segments with both teachers and students. More time with especially the latter would have been welcome, because — with the exception of an articulate 17-year-old whose grandmother survived the Holocaust — the few allowed to say a few words here all feel like faceless students who, one supposes, simply repeat what their teachers or parents say since they've only got a few seconds so there's no sense of their own personalities or independent capacities (or lack thereof) of thought. 

In the class of Oren Harzmann in Haifa, Israeli, kids are asked about their vision of the country in 20 or 30 years, and most of the responses seem to suggest that they live in fear of Arabs "taking even more of their land." Progressive Palestinian teacher Zaid Khadash tries to teach his pupils about the limits of freedom ("freedom ends where the freedom of others starts"), the difference between Israelis and Jews, and, somewhat bizarrely, what it must be like for an Arab in an Israeli prison, complete with each pupil having their mouth taped shut.

Johnny Mansour teaches at a school in an Arab-Israeli village in Galilee, and he’s written a textbook that was never approved by Israel’s Ministry of Education because it dared to name Palestine, while Menahem Ben Shachar — who teaches at a Talmud Torah School in Itamar, an Israeli settlement on the West Bank — says he "doesn’t feel censored" because he only teaches the Torah. When his students are asked what the solution to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict might be, most agree that it’s up to the Israeli army and government (one assumes they mean by use of military force).

Noor Jaber teaches at a boys’ school at the Balata Refugee Camp in the Palestinian city of Nablus, very close to Itamar, and admits to avoiding things in class she feels uncomfortable about, so her pupils’ answers to questions such as "What can you do if your rights are taken away?" are along the lines of "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" — not exactly practical advice. From spending just a little time at these schools, it’s clear that the lessons and attitude of the teachers and children in the region have been, at best, warped to accommodate the propaganda and threats of violence that they are confronted with on an everyday basis, though Erde’s treatment of the material is too superficial to suggest in any detailed manner how years of struggles on both sides have infiltrated both teachers’ personalities and the contents of the lessons (both Israeli and Palestinian authorities seem to monitor quite closely what is taught).

Erde and editors Audrey Maurion and Barbara Bascou have organized their material into a small segment at each school before moving on to the next and then returning to each school later in the film, so there’s little sense of a school year passing or how children’s views might have changed under the influence of their teacher. Generally, there’s a sense that the subject Erde has wanted to tackle is much too vast, with quite a few of the things she captures in very short scenes — including a visit of Israeli students to a concentration camp in Europe or the reactions to Israeli Memorial Day by Israeli and Palestinian students — very much worthy of their own non-fiction features.

This is particularly true of the most interesting school Erde visits, the Eve Shalom/Whahat Al Salam ("Oasis of Peace") bilingual elementary school, where Israeli and Palestinian kids are taught together by two teachers, one Israeli and the other Palestinian. The discussions in this classroom are by definition less one-sided and more dynamic, and could have easily filled an entire film and gone much deeper than Erde does here, as it would have allowed the personalities of both the teachers and their charges to emerge more fully.

Cinematography, handled by the director herself, has occasional focus issues though sound work is fine. Siegfried Canto’s rhythmic score contains some ethnic elements that complement the landscapes of the region, filmed from a moving car, though the film’s title seems to be inspired not by the beauty or importance of the contested actual lands but the animated viral video This Land Is Mine, from Sita Sings the Blues director Nina Paley, which is watched in one of the classes and which shows how since time immemorial, people have been literally at each other’s necks over who gets to control what is now Israel and Palestine.

Production companies: Iliade & Films, Saya

Writer-Director: Tamara Erde

Producers: Tatiana Bouchain, Oury Milshtein

Director of photography: Tamara Erde

Editors: Audrey Maurion, Barbara Bascou

Music: Siegfried Canto

Sales: Films Transit International

No rating, 93 minutes