Feb 4, 2010

On Promised Lands

Shot for five weeks during during the waning days and aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Susan Sontag's first and only documentary Promised Lands is one of the most perceptive and troubling looks at the seemingly never ending Arab-Israeli conflict. Of her four films, it's the one she considered her most personal; history has revealed it to be her most relevant as well. Promised Lands is part visual poem, part cinematic essay. Its an overwhelmingly sad work, yet one which treats both sides with something approaching empathy and fresh intellectual engagement. It dispenses with title cards and objective voice over, dwelling instead on the daily activities of soldiers and civilians, both inundated with the psychological effects of war.

Intellectuals and physicists fill in the ideological gaps on both sides of the debate, but the film's engagement with the literal conditions of war is its most profound aspect. People of both faiths continue to pray to their God as soldiers lie on the fields of battle, graves yet to be dug. PSTD suffering men reenact their worst nightmares for sympathetic male nurses. Palestinian children go to and from school in the Gaza Strip under the watchful guard of armed Israelis.  While containing quite a bit of hard information and no small amount of political editorializing on the part of its interview subjects, it is these  images, some as haunting as any I've seen in a war documentary, that allow this work to stand the test of time as none of the prodigious author's other film output has. It opens tonight at Anthology for a week long run.