Soldier/Citizen: Berlin Film Review

Berlinale Film Festival
Unfussy mid-length college documentary intermittently illuminates middle-eastern political/social issues.

Silvina Landsmann's doc follows Israeli soldiers who work towards the high school diploma's they never achieved.

A fly-on-the-wall classroom documentary with a difference, Soldier/Citizen (Bagrut Lochamim) straightforwardly observes Israeli conscriptees as they study towards belatedly obtaining their high-school diplomas. Shot almost six years ago, a reported 76 hours of rough-edged footage has been whittled down to a brisk if talky 68 minutes - a length much more suited to TV play than big-screen exposure. Festivals geared towards politically-themed non-fiction might nevertheless want to check out this functional fourth work from Argentina-born, Israel-raised director/cameraperson Silvina Landsmann.

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Leaving such a gap between the shooting and public premiere was a risky proposition given the ever-shifting nature of middle-east politics, although certain aspects of Soldier/Citizen deal with general, universal and timeless issues of education, human rights and tolerance. Landsmann's hand-held digital camera, recording images in boxy, TV-standard 4:3 ratio, gets in among some fiery debates during this optional three-week course - designed to help those performing Israel's military service more productively integrate back into civilian society.
Landsmann is particularly drawn to a politics/civics class taught by the laid-back, middle-aged Eyal, who in measured tones forces his 'pupils' - most of them men in their early twenties - to examine their pre-conceived ideas. The biggest impact is generally made by those with the loudest voices - most notably the proudly unreflective Dror: "I'm a robot and a soldier," he barks, very much the image of the gun-toting patriot in uniform. While energetic chatter is the order of the day, some of Eyal's charges remain less than fully engaged, slumping over their desks in barely-concealed boredom.

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The viewer may also find that these discussions on intractable Arab/Israeli matters become a little hectoring and repetitive, to the extent that Landsmann and her editor Gil Shnaiderovich might have been better off including some more varied material. As it is, the classroom sequences are only briefly and infrequently punctuated by scenes showing leisure-activities and down-time in this leafy (civilian) college whose activities are partly funded, we see, by an American charity. Only in the latter sections is any written work seen to be done, the film wrapping up in standard school-doc fashion with the soldier/students smilingly obtaining their final grades.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 10, 2012.
Production companies: Comino Films
Director / Producer / Director of photography: Silvina Landsmann
Executive producer: Marek Rozenbaum
Editor: Gil Shnaiderovich
Sales Agent: Doc & Film, Paris
No rating, 68 minutes.