Those watching Tamara Erde’s painfully timely “This Land is My Land” might think of two characters connected to the 1930s, when Israel was still a dream. One is Woody Guthrie, whose most famous song is referenced, so perversely, in the title. The other is Jean Renoir, whose much too-often-quoted line from “The Rules of the Game” observes that the terrible thing about life is that “everyone has their reasons.” Everyone in Erde’s film has his or her reasons. The upshot promises to be terrible.
The Israeli-born filmmaker, in constructing her first feature-length documentary, visited six independent Israeli and Palestinian schools – one a joint Arab-Jewish operation – to see what children are being taught. What she discovers is far more about indoctrination than education; a system, or systems, that reinforce fears, validate biases, have little tolerance for opposing viewpoints and are creating a generation that will not only indulge their worst instincts, but feel righteous while doing so.
Erde, as she must given the circumstances, takes a Wiseman-esque approach to the classroom, observing, and absorbing the milieu. As she informs her viewers at the outset of the film, she grew up in Israel, and was never exposed to the Palestinians’ point of view, much less their history, until she did her military service and got interested in who the enemy was supposed to be. What we don’t really get from her is how much worse the daily lesson plan is today as opposed to when the director was a child. That it would be any better now seems all but impossible.
The documentarian’s dilemma is that turning a lens on someone makes them change their behavior. While some of the conduct we see in “This Land” is clearly being performed for the camera, the performance does not include a softening of political attitude. Quite the contrary: Several of the teachers seem to revel in their ability to maintain a steady course of jingoistic pedantry; the students interviewed are usually a pathetic reflection of their instructors’ blinkered worldview. Erde doesn’t cast judgment, really, although several editing choices are intended to juxtapose the bewildering and the appalling. That there are reasons for her subjects’ animosity doesn’t exactly slip by her, either.
Her other excursions include an Israeli high school in Haifa, an Arab school in Ibilin, a boys’ school in Ramallah, a Talmudic school in a West Bank settlement and UN school in a refugee camp. But the most interesting one is to school that incorporates students of Israeli and Palestinian descent alike.
There, two teachers – one an Israeli man, the other an Arab woman – spar intellectually, edit each other’s instruction, and try to steer their students toward their own worldview. The woman is interviewed at length (the man must have declined) and is a reasonable, intelligent Palestinian who merely wants to guide her students toward attaining some kind of self-affirmation in the face of what she sees as institutionalized racism and a skewed view of history. At one point during class, she makes the equally reasonable and inflammatory statement that only Israel, among nations, claims to have been given its land by God. Palestinians look no further than their ancestors, she says, which gets a rather weak protest from her teaching partner — who is caught on the horns of an intellectual dilemma that reflects much of the Palestinian-Israeli argument. Erde, in her cogent if dispiriting fashion, makes the conundrum clear in all its glorious murk.
“This is My Land” premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.