Thanks to Netflix, viewers outside of Israel can catch a glimpse of a compelling 2012 Israeli film that premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. A “triumph of low-budget filmmaking,” as Variety calls it, Room 514 is a cinéma-vérité-style meditation on psychology, morality, identity and politics. Set in two locations—an IDF interrogation room and a city bus, and with such a small personnel footprint that even the one required extra is the director himself—the film follows the attempt by Anna (Asia Naifeld), an IDF soldier three weeks shy of being released from her military service, to extract a confession from a soldier accused of beating a Palestinian man.
Written and directed by Sharon Bar-Ziv (an actor in the 1987 Israeli hit film Late Summer Blues), Room 514 raises sticky questions about the incendiary admixture of law, politics, gender, security and justice in the project of Israel’s West Bank occupation. The erotic undertones of military machinations are never far from the surface as viewers are treated to sexually-charged interrogation sequences, and extended sex scenes between Anna and her commander—where else, but in that same interrogation room.
As her commander tries to warn her away from pursuing the case (“This is bigger than drugs, than bribes, even bigger than arms. It’s politics,” he tells her), and her Russian mother incessantly calls her on her cell phone anxious about impending household bills, Anna’s determination hardens.
“A true fighter knows the difference between black and white” Anna says to one soldier, urging him to testify against his commander, as she slips her arm around his shoulders. It is an act that oscillates between flirtation and maternal comfort.
It’s not incidental that the justice-seeking character is both a woman among men, and a more recent arrival to Israel who is surrounded by IDF combat fighters whose military pedigrees go back generations.
Certainly the film has artistic and entertainment merit on its own. But I still wonder about the political-cultural implications of a given work of art, especially one set against an ongoing political and moral dispute that has yet to be resolved.
Specifically, is Room 514 an example of the shoot-and-cry genre, whereby a thin mea culpa is issued while the acts of aggression continue, or is the film potentially politically subversive? Probably somewhere in between. And like most complex films, it is up to the viewer—and the sort of subjectivity he or she brings to the viewing—to decide.
There are at least two questions being asked in the film. First, there are the larger questions of whether Israel should remain in the West Bank or withdraw: there are snide accusations from one soldier to another—an accusation that’s quickly denied—about being a “leftist” who opposes the occupation. From the vantage point of the interrogation room, with all its intimacy, one gets the sense that for these soldiers, the West Bank, and its stories, are a world away.
Then there are the lower-order questions of “operational advantage,” the precise ethical question on which the investigation hinges. Here, the viewer soon learns that what may appear operationally advantageous to a soldier in the field at a given moment may have tragic consequences for many, consequences whose echoes are felt across ethnic and national lines.
There is a sad reality at play here. As long as there is an occupation involving Israeli troops, much of the focus of Israeli strategic lawmaking will be around bringing those boys (and girls) home every weekend. So when one soldier cries that the laws out there don’t protect his men, one is reminded of the chokehold with which the occupation holds both Palestinians and Israelis. A military, especially one which has as its stated ethic a defensive and deterrent posture—a military that fights only wars of “no alternative” using “purity of arms”—is terribly out of place as a day-to-day occupier of Palestinian men, women, and children. And both peoples are paying the price.