A must-see for anyone interested in the Middle East, The Law In These Parts is a serious and engrossing new documentary about the history of Israeli military legal policy in the Palestinian territories. The prize-winning film is comprised of a series of original interviews with the men who created the laws in Gaza and the West Bank after Israel took control of these areas during the 1967 Six-Day War. Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, in an unusual twist, also questions his own subjectivity as he goes through his investigative and artistic process, forcing us to rethink the definition of documentary film.
The political question at issue here is not whether Israeli law in these parts is democratic. The answer to that question is an uncontroversial “no,” by any definition of the word. The concern here is with deeper issues of moral and legal justification, such as that for settlement building on seized land; the use of torture in interrogations; and the existence of two distinct Israeli legal systems, one for residents of the occupied territories and one for citizens.
As the film begins, we witness the construction of the barebones set, a simple desk in front of a green screen onto which archival footage will be superimposed. As a former President of the Israeli Supreme Court sits at the desk awaiting questioning, he points toward a cameraman at work. “What’s he getting over there?” he asks the director.
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Alexandrowicz proceeds with critical and in-depth questioning of nine retired military judges, prosecutors and legal advisors about their personal contributions to building the foundations of the legal system that remains in effect to this day. These detail-oriented interviews, professionally done, are utterly fascinating.
The men are relatively frank about their work. Judges openly discuss the conflicting interests they were faced with, caught between justice and their duty to the occupying military.
We hear explanations that, “You serve a system. It’s hard to shake that off,” and that the rule of law cannot always be a priority in decision-making because “you have to be practical.”
Such practicality also means that security for Israeli citizens “comes before human rights,” therefore anti-democratic measures are “limitations of the system.”
“Order and justice don’t always go hand-in-hand,” one of the military men professes bluntly. Another laments, “When it goes on for 40 years? How can it be just?”
Listening to these men we may conclude that, faced with an ongoing moral quandary, they often chose to prioritize personal and state interests over human rights and justice. Their work deliberately caused innocent people to suffer. At the same time, they seem like rather ordinary folk, sympathetic professionals explaining the complexities of their jobs. Which makes one wonder, what would political theorist Hannah Arendt have made of this film? Would she have cut through all the legal justifications and personal rationalizations and reaffirmed “the banality of evil”?
The realities presented are often painful to hear. For example, a few decades after Nazi officials categorized Jews as rats and vermin, one of the Israeli judges ruling on Palestinian Arabs likened the defendants to venomous snakes and beasts. How can we understand such hateful official rhetoric? Isn’t one of the lessons of the Holocaust that dehumanization by the state breeds structural violence?
Although these individuals created the laws, the larger state and military apparatus that they served comes across as the much deeper source of injustice. For instance, we learn that when a 96-hour administrative arrest law was deemed too short to be practical, there was institutional pressure to extend it; detention without charge lasting weeks or months was soon legalized with the stroke of a pen.
In exploring these and other details, The Law In These Parts also examines its own attempt to bring reality to the screen. What responsibilities do documentary filmmakers have to justice and fairness? What is a documentary film anyway?
Alexandrowicz’s questioning of his own subjectivity becomes increasingly compelling as the film unfolds. After learning about a Palestinian woman who was tried and convicted for providing succor and pita bread to Palestinian militants, the filmmaker tells his audience that justice demands that she be interviewed; her side of the story must get a fair hearing. Yet there is no attempt made to interview her. Why would the director so deliberately disregard this opportunity?
He explains: “This film is not about those who broke the law but about those entrusted with the law.” In other words, he has made an honest decision to forgo justice in the interest of his film, or to put it more plainly, in his own interest. Similarly, in explaining why he decided to edit and summarize part of a longer interview, the director describes his own role as being similar to the judges’: “I rule on what reality is.”
In giving us “reality as it is presented,” Alexandrowicz implicitly reveals his frustration at being unable to present objective reality. This approach has the effect of encouraging us to think critically about the very film we are watching. Without descending into moral relativism, it also promotes a healthy skepticism for all professionally told stories. After all, any report we ever receive about the world is reductive in its own way, primarily because people can never avoid choosing and emphasizing certain facts, while at the same time de-emphasizing and completely ignoring others.
This point is driven home by one of the legal architects, who ends his interview with a smile and the words, “That’s the maximum you’ll get out of me.”