"Pourquoi Israël" ("Israel, Why", without a question mark) is Claude Lanzmann's first documentary. Lanzmann is famous for his most prominent work, "Shoah", a lengthy yet powerful and unforgettable history of the Jewish genocide during WWII. "Pourquoi Israël" examines life in Israel twenty-five years after the birth of the state.
Lanzmann said that he was in Germany to study philosophy when the Jewish Agency became the Provisional government of Israel in 1948, therefore not at all aware of what was going on in Palestine. Not a fervent Zionist himself, Lanzmann is nevertheless haunted by what makes Jewish identity and anything related to this topic. It is interesting to note that Lanzmann started to shoot footage for "Pourquoi Israël" right after writing "Elise, ou la vraie vie" ("Elise, or Real Life" -- see that entry) which was a film on the Algerian war. Indeed, it may seem a little odd that someone who is clearly against colonialism would support the survival of Israel, but Lanzmann takes on a non Manichean approach (I wouldn't say "objective", that's something else) when he depicts the achievements and contradictions of the Israeli nation. Through a series of scenes, where the director spends time with many different people (German-Jewish migrants, dock workers, intellectuals, police, prison inmates, and the newly arrived -- especially from Russia), Lanzmann shows that the normality of a "state like any other" is actually abnormality itself. "How peculiar is a place where there are Jews and nothing but", he once stated in an interview.
Is "Pourquoi Israël" "Shoah" before "Shoah"? Yes and no. It is already a lengthy collection of interviews (it lasts almost three hours; that's short by Lanzmann's standards), but it has a faster pace, some mise-en-scene here and then and, yes, some humor, as the film often addresses much lighter issues than "Shoah" (as one may expect). In any case, Lanzmann's works are meant to make you think. As always, you have to be ready to absorb their content and make something out of it.
The title of the film is often incorrectly given as a question ("Why Israel?"). The documentary is rather an answer or an explanation. That is why it is still relevant to watch this documentary, even today (the film premiered in a difficult context, just when Yom Kippur war broke out in 1973), for most of the problems Israel still faces are exposed here. Lanzmann started to make extensive research for "Shoah" right after the release of "Pourquoi Israël", obviously the second part of an insightful trilogy on what is "Jewishness" today (the third part being the documentary named "Tsahal").
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