“As a kid in Israel, my dream was to become a psychoanalyst and a filmmaker,” Ofra Bloch said in a telephone interview from her home in New York City. “Later on, I became a psychoanalyst but I never dared to go to filmmaking school. So when I decided to make a film, it was sheer chutzpah because I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t have any technical skills. But I knew what I wanted to see.”
Her clear vision led her to make “Afterward,” a new documentary that explores the lingering and cross-cutting trauma embedded in generations of Germans, Israelis and Palestinians. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is sponsoring two screenings at the Cleveland International Film Festival.
Six years ago, when Bloch, 69, began working on her first full length feature, she intended to center her lens on the lingering generational trauma among German non-Jews and second and third generations of decedents of Holocaust perpetrators. After the director left Germany, however, she realized she had an incomplete story.
Growing up in Israel, “you can’t avoid trauma. It’s always present,” she said. Living through wars and under the long shadow of the Holocaust, Bloch was raised to fear and hate both Germans and Palestinians. She needed to include the Palestinian account of trauma and reckoning in her film. After completing the interviews and beginning the editing process, she recognized there was one more layer to uncover: she couldn’t tell either story without embedding hers as well. The triad of viewpoints would complete the narrative.
“I connect them,” Bloch said. “There’s no way those stories can exist, floating, without the presence of the interviewer, me the Israeli. During those interviews in both places, memories started surfacing. I had recurrent dreams that were coming out of nowhere, just by the act of immersing myself in the lives of these people. [My experience] became such an integral part — the glue of the film.”
In that way, her documentary resembles “My Promised Land,” Ari Shavit’s examination of the Israeli creation story along his own family tree, with room for ruminating on the 1948 destruction of Palestinian family trees in the Lydda Valley.
“We’re not exactly in the same place ideologically but [our work] complements each other,” Bloch said of Shavit. “He’s really trying to examine the intricacies of the Israeli society, in the past and the present. It’s really a perfect pairing, in that way.” Shavit’s book won the Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction prize in 2014.
With such a strong personal reaction to her subjects, Bloch determined she should approach the interviews with the objectivity of a therapist.
“As a filmmaker, I had to learn to just listen to people, to do what I do in the office as a psychoanalyst,” she said. “Which means to be very present, without judgment, without necessarily agreeing with what people were saying to me. To give people the space to talk about their experience. When people are able to share that, it creates a dialogue. Without listening to the ‘other,’ without active listening, there is no movement toward any solution.”
She leaned on those therapist skills when interviewing Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin, who in 2005 co-founded Combatants for Peace, a grassroots coalition of Israeli and Palestinian activists working together to stop the violence. But two years later, his 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier while she stood outside of school. Bloch marveled at Aramin’s ability to remain focused on the mission and to honor his daughter’s legacy in his non-violent work. “It taught me that pain is just pain,” she said. “It doesn’t have a nationality.”
During the interview with Aramin, they visited one of the playgrounds that Combatants for Peace built in Abir’s honor. There Bloch had her moment of reckoning.
“Even though I lived in the U.S. for 39 years, I am complicit in some way,” she said. “Being an Israeli, I am part of the problem. I believe this is the reason I made this film….Six years of work and energy and funding, because this is my little contribution toward resolution of the conflict.”
Moviegoers can watch “Afterward” at one of two screenings: Saturday, March 30 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 31 at 12:05 p.m. Tickets are $14 for film festival members, seniors and students; $16 for others. Receive a $1 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: ANWO.
Join us for the Cleveland premiere of “Afterward,” a 94-minute documentary from Jerusalem-born psychoanalyst Ofra Bloch that explores the lingering and cross-cutting trauma embedded in generations of Germans, Israelis and Palestinians. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is sponsoring the film at this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival.
Bloch, who lives in New York City, began making the documentary intending to focus on the second and third-generation descendants of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, her attempt to shed hostility she carried against Germans as a people.
After filming began, however, she recognized her own prejudices – especially against Palestinians, a group she was raised to hate — were preventing her from telling the full story. She expanded her scope to include sit-down interviews with Palestinian men and women, including a professor who lost his position for taking students to Auschwitz. These testimonies give viewers a perspective on generational wounds stretching back to the 1948 Nakba, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs in the creation of Israel.
“The film points towards a future — an ‘afterward’ — that attempts to live with the truths of history in order to make sense of the present,” Bloch said in an interview. “My wish is that at the conclusion of ‘Afterward’ viewers will see how easy it is to move from a mindset of a victim to that of a perpetrator. ‘Evil,’ for lack of a better word, can be unearthed in each of us given the ‘right’ conditions, regardless of our religious or ethnic background.”
Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer-winner for his investigative book “The Looming Tower,” called Bloch’s documentary “a brilliant personal exploration of the psychological obstacles to peace in the Middle East, and the tectonic plates of history that have brought two peoples to this tragic impasse.”
Tickets are $14 for film festival members, seniors and students; $16 for others. Moviegoers can receive a $1 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: ANWO.
HBO will turn Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land into a television documentary, CEO and chairman Richard Pleper announced at the 2015 INTV media conference in Jerusalem.
“The book left me awestruck and as moved as I’ve been maybe ever,” Pleper told the crowd. “When I first approached him, I said to Ari that I’ve waited my whole adult life to find this book.”
Published in 2014, “My Promised Land” is a carefully crafted narrative history, weaving family memoir, documents and hundreds of interviews with Arabs and Jews. The book, Shavit’s first, took home the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction.
No release date has been set, but Israeli filmmaker Dan Setton, whose previous work has centered on Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has been tapped to direct.
The biggest laugh during Ari Shavit’s serious, passionate talk about the Middle East came at the end, when a questioner at the City Club of Cleveland asked the Israeli journalist about the Kurds.
“Look,” Shavit said. “There are no good guys. There are no Canadians in the Middle East. So you have two options: You opt out and say, ‘I’m a purist; I don’t touch it; it’s all contaminated.’ Or you say, ‘It’s a rough world out there, and promoting the lesser evil is doing the right thing.’”
In “the world’s most unstable region,” Shavit insisted that the United States must stay in the game: “I think the distinction should be not between moderates and extremists but stabilizers and de-stabilizers. America should lead an alliance of stabilizers. . .Jordan is better than Syria. And the Kurds are very, very promising.”
Shavit, 57, a columnist for Haaretz, a major dailynewspaper in Tel Aviv, made his first trip to Cleveland in September to receive the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in nonfiction for his first book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. The book, five years in the making, received enormous critical attention for being frankly critical of the displacement of Arabs from their land in 1948 while still insisting on the morality of Zionism.
Speaking slowly, Shavit began his remarks as a gracious guest, praising the decency of the American Midwest and placing the City Club — the longest running free speech forum in the United States — in the line of civic institutions that the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated as essential to the American experiment. Shavit reiterated his respect for the United States, and stressed the continuity between “your great democracy” and Israel’s “frontier democracy.”
He underscored this parallel: “This summer was traumatic for both democracies…We had rockets and tunnels and you had beheadings. Who would have thought of it just a year or two ago that we would once again see this Medieval evil.”
Shavit identified two hazards depleting Western influence in the Middle East: “the fatigue of two wars and an economic crisis that took the oxygen out of the room,” and what he described as an “intellectual weakness” among Western elites, chastened by this history of imperialism, in confronting “Third World evil.” Shavit spent much of his half hour elucidating the perils of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. “Nothing is more evil than ISIS but other are more dangerous,” he warned.
The former paratrooper and philosophy major insisted that he is still an optimist, a believer in the vibrancy of his people and his hosts. “We have an amazing Israeli society,” Shavit said, pausing, as if weighing the messiness of democracy. “But we have horrific politics—worse than yours.”
Ari Shavit, a columnist for Jerusalem’s daily newspaper Haaretz, spent five years writing My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel in English and Hebrew simultaneously. A former Israeli paratrooper, peace advocate and great-grandson of Victorian-era Zionists, Shavit carefully examines a fraught and difficult history, interweaving family memoir, multiple documents and hundreds of interviews with Arabs and Jews. This important, clarifying book asks why Israel was created, what it has achieved, what went wrong and if it can survive.
We spent a few minutes with Shavit prior to this year’s ceremony, and he expressed his gratitude to the jury for recognizing his work:
On the cusp of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, join awards manager Karen R. Long for a personal introduction to the titles being honored this year. Long will offer a speed date with each book, and an introduction to the Lifetime Achievement winners on Wednesday, September 3 at noon. Her presentation will kick off this fall’s Brown Bag Book Club at the Cleveland Public Library downtown.
In subsequent weeks, the series will then break out to examine each of the 2014 award-winning books in turn. Beginning Wednesday, September 10, readers will gather at noon with expert librarians to consider the poetry, novel and nonfiction works in the spotlight this year:
Tickets to the September 11 awards ceremony at the Ohio Theatre are available here. (Stand-by tickets are guaranteed due to no-shows.)
Karen R. Long served as book editor of The Plain Dealer for eight years before becoming the manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Long is a vice president for the National Book Critics Circle, where she is a judge for its six annual prizes, awarded each March in New York City.
Karen will give her talk on the 2nd Floor of the Main Library Building, in the Literature Department. Interested guests will be able to check out the featured books after the talk. Questions? Call the library at 216-623- 2881.