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With new eyes: Sundance films look back at age-old conflicts

Cars drive along Main Street in front of the Egyptian Theatre during Sundance Film Festival on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP)
Cars drive along Main Street in front of the Egyptian Theatre during Sundance Film Festival on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP)
Scott Roth, Scott Roth/Invision/AP

In 1967, Israeli soldier Amos Oz returned from fighting in the Six Day War to visit the parents of his fallen friend, Mishi.

In a recording just days after the war ended and Israelis recaptured Jerusalem, Oz recounts how people regarded him as a hero. But he felt differently when someone tried to console Mishi’s mother, assuring her that his death meant a free Jerusalem. She replied tearfully, “The entire (Wailing) Wall isn’t worth his fingernail.”

Oz is one of many long-silenced Israeli voices in director Mor Loushy’s documentary, “Censored Voices,” which debuted at Sundance this month. It’s one of a few films — like the Northern Ireland-set drama “’71”— that look back critically at longstanding conflicts and the human costs of war.

In "Censored Voices," Loushy reveals government-censured recordings from Israeli soldiers who paint the Six Day War wholly different from how much of the Western world sees it: Not as an Israeli victory against annihilation at the hands of surrounding Arab countries, but as a nation’s questionable transformation from a defensive David to a Goliath who exiled and murdered Arab civilians to the bewilderment of its own troops.

“We’re so horrified by the Nazis,” one soldier says in a recording, “but here we’re doing something not so different.”

Between last summer’s fresh tensions with Gaza and Israel and the American public’s support creeping more toward Palestine, Loushy’s timing is apropos. It’s a side of the decades long, post-Holocaust story of the Holy Land that Loushy says must be told to move toward peace.

“I would like people to take a long look into our present life, not only in Israel but all over the world, and see how easy it is to lose our way in war. How quickly high ideals seem to fade away and leave us with a reality we didn't wish for,” Loushy said. “Wars have a tendency to start righteous and end in a whole other place all together.”

‘Jerusalem of gold’

The recordings featured in “Censored Voices” may take those who support Israel aback, as they fly in the face of how the media portrayed the aftermath of the struggle.

“Jerusalem is happy, shining, smiling. A city of light and joy,” one of many newsreels gushed about the days after the war. “A Jerusalem of gold.”

Soldiers tell chilling stories of Arab prisoners so desperate for water that they would throw themselves at the feet of Israeli troops to kiss their boots, only to vomit any spare sip they were given in seconds.

In one recording, a soldier recounts his commanding officer’s response when questioned about killing some 15 unarmed Arab men who were evacuating Israel with their families. “When you chop wood, chips fly,” the soldier recalls his commander saying.

Another remembers watching non-Jewish refugees evacuating nearby Jericho and feeling nothing but empathy as a child of the Holocaust.

“I could see myself in those kids being carried in their parents’ arms,” he said. “The Arabs were having experiences similar to ours during the war.”

This wasn’t what the majority of Western culture thought when they looked at Israel’s victory. In the aftermath of the Six Day War, the narrative — even for Israelis like Loushy — became one of prosperity returning to Jerusalem as Jewish Zionists took back what they considered their homeland.

“I was brought up with the narrative of how after the Six Day War, the whole country was celebrating the historic victory,” Loushy said. “I found out that there had been another voice, a different voice that had been denied. It felt like a punch in the gut.”

Looking back for a new future

The bias applied to ethnic and religious conflicts makes films that look at the history of these conflicts important, James Madison University professor of psychology of ethnic conflict Matthew Lee said.

Young people in Poland or Germany, for example, see films addressing the Holocaust as a way of understanding it. Lee says this is a needed form of psychological healing.

"(Movies) can foster empathy toward the people depicted in the films," Lee said. "Many non-Jews were able to more fully realize the extent to which the (Holocaust's) massive devastation and destruction of Jewish culture and livelihood upon seeing films that could depict the atrocity of the situation."

They needn’t all be documentaries, either, as Sundance’s “’71” demonstrates. That film follows British soldier Gary Hook through the violent ordeal of being left behind during a riot in 1971 Belfast. Identifying as neither Catholic nor Protestant, Hook becomes a casualty in a war he feels he has no place in.

“Artistic representations can help us process what happened and prevent future conflict from happening,” Lee said. "Producing films to promote alternative new perspectives is the pursuit of social justice.”

Even when making a film like “Censored Voices” that deals with a specific conflict, Loushy says the themes are universal: Any war, fought for any reason, has repercussions that sometimes only hindsight can make clear.

“Every viewer can apply it to the wars in his or her own country, to the psychology of war, a glance into the soul of the human race in war,” Loushy said. “I would like the end to also hold a spark of optimism about always having to listen to the other voice. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll wake up to a different reality.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson