Silvina Landesman’s documentary “Soldier/Citizen” summarizes a decades-old debate in 68 minutes, capturing the heated dialogue of a three-week course in civic studies offered to young members of the Israeli military. When they’re forced to question their existing allegiances by their worldly teacher, his unwilling disciples grow increasingly frustrated as they hit walls in their belief system. The course becomes their collective therapy session.
Positioned as part of a curriculum for soldiers to obtain their high school diplomas, the class manifests a national mindset in visual terms as students wear their uniforms and keep weapons close at hand while sitting in the classroom and engaged fiery discussion. Their stubborn resistance to any form of sympathy toward the Palestinian experience means that the professor can push their buttons with ease. When he raises the notion of pluralism in the opening minutes, he faces immediate backlash: “Why don’t you use Arabic for this fancy talk?” one student barks, defining the stonewalling of intellectualism that follows.
Diving into the action and staying put, Landesman owes much to her editor as “Soldier/Citizen” breathlessly encapsulates hours of dialogue into a fluid and thoroughly engaging experience. The narrative only gets off track with fleeting tangents that elaborate on the overall educational program. The drama clearly lies in the classroom alone, a self-contained universe of contradictions and anger.
Adding to its representational value, the filmmaker never identifies any of the participants by name (although a few slip by over the course of various conversations). Even the crafty middle-aged instructor, whose generational distance from his students enables him to strike a balance between comprehending their fury and pushing against it, takes on an abstract dimension: He’s the voice of reason in a room of one-sided polemics, and skillfully keeps the back-and-forth in flux. Each time he guides a dogged student into the wall by uncovering the holes in their knowledge, the zig-zagging culminates in a near-comic punchline. Among other revelations, they learn that their government exempts Arab citizens from military service, that ultra-orthodox Jews (“the penguins,” as one calls them) reject the existence of a secular Zionist state, and their own teacher has close Arabic friends. “I didn’t know that,” goes their typical refrain.
And yet for each “gotcha!” moment that points to intellectual progress, the students remain fixed their beliefs. They laugh off the possibility of negotiation (Can a suspected terrorist delay gunfire with a last-ditch call to the High Court?) and nimbly excuse their naivete because, as one of them puts it, “we’re just kids.” The teacher’s bemused expression sometimes belies his commitment to a cause and hints at defeat, but the man relentlessly challenges assumptions whenever he can get that far. Usually, his audience shuts down any attempt at an empirical argument. “It’s easy for the world to judge us because we need its approval,” a soldier fumes, but they nevertheless display hints of introspection when faced down.
Despite the way it tussles with polemics, “Soldier/Citizen” is essentially an apolitical plea for better methods of social discourse. Landesman renders the modern consciousness of Israeli youth culture in provocative physical terms. The camera simply watches, but the filmmaker curates a guide to the challenges of stimulating dialogue when one side is committed to an existing conclusion. Defending the actions of pro-Palestinian activists, the teacher claims, “they’re defending the right to life.” That one gets shot down without hesitation: “Do it when it’s over.”
The teacher understands such circular argumentation too well, backing down with a meek “OK” whenever they wear their ideological blinders too tight. His respect for those boundaries makes the case for a “Soldier/Citizen” sequel 20 years down the road. The current movie ends with a test the soldiers must pass to conclude the course, but the questions it poses lack the same tidy resolution.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Barely over an hour, “Soldier/Citizen” likely won’t hit theaters anytime soon, but should play well on the documentary and Jewish festival circuits; it could also find a welcoming home on public television.