The Second Road Map

In it for the long haul: 'Route 181'

As the world prepares for Yasser Arafat to merge with the infinite, Ariel Sharon's Gaza pullout--a cagey low bet intended to fatten the pot--appears to be in question. And those now-ridiculed '90s words--peace process--just might be on their way to rehabilitation. One of the pleasures of the new documentary Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel is the cold, better-him-than-me satisfaction of encountering a genuinely divided society forced to cope with greater uncertainty about tomorrow than we've ever known. Where Americans come unglued by an ugly election cycle, the hardy teenage clubgoers of Route 181 simply shrug at suicide attacks. ("It gets so you don't even notice," one says.) The notion of permanent cultural partition--so anguishing to we who thought we were everyone!--is not only an accepted fact of life, but a point of pride. Route 181 is a meditation on the irreconcilable nature of two spiritually identical peoples: intransigent, quick to conflict, and proud of their permanent damage.

The Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan (who directed the superb Nazi war-trial doc The Specialist) and the Palestinian filmmaker Michel Khleifi (of the tender and poetic Wedding in Galilee) had an inspired idea: taking a car and a DV camera from the south of Israel to the northern tip. Along the way, they shot conversations--not with authoritative talking heads, but ordinary people: a fruit-smoothie seller, a barber, a pack of Palestinian kids on a field trip to a city monument. Just about everything in this 270-minute movie (which screens in three parts throughout the weekend) evokes the yawning chasms of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, in which the French documentarian visited the sites of defunct Nazi death camps in Poland and interviewed the locals. Like Shoah, Route 181 gathers much of its power from the seeming blandness of its landscapes, which resonate with a half-century of world-historical jujitsu. Also like Shoah, Route plays up the irony of the bland, plodding, step-by-step factual nature of its conversations, heard in stark contrast to the human suffering they discuss.

For example, the liveliest sequence in the movie depicts a Pioneers Museum manager, an old-time, unreconstructed first-generation Zionist who tells the tale of the Jews' undoing of Britain's partition plan with the antic, panting fervor of an elderly comic recounting a childhood snowball war. Elsewhere, a Palestinian barber recalls the story of the gang rape of an Arab woman by Israeli soldiers in 1947, a six-man atrocity that took place before the woman's bawling baby; the camera subtly reveals that, despite the tale's intensity, the barber never interrupts the precise haircut he's giving. In an Israeli truck stop, Grandma has filled the walls with biff-pow portraits of the Six-Day War. Standing beneath the soaring fighter jets, she sighs, "This is what makes me feel safe."

The most profound sequence--the moment at which Route 181 reaches the level of a Frederick Wiseman documentary--comes in a ceremony in the city of Lod's Centre for New Immigrants. The mayor, Lemuel Levy, and a woman with a microphone--a hard-smiling Karen Hughes type--welcome the day's special guests: a truckload of new Israeli citizens from Ethiopia. What passes over the faces of these largely middle-aged Ethiopes brings a mirthful tear to the eye as they're forced to drink wine and enjoy an impromptu concert of klezmer music. (It recalls those scenes in revisionist Westerns where stoic Native Americans have to endure burlesque shows and sawdust saloons.) Only seconds away, a group of American Evangelicals is planting a tree, and phonetically reciting the Hebrew God-is-great prayer in an accent of deepest Biloxi. One of them, squishing his teeny, reedlike tree into the soil, turns to exhort his fellow Americans: "Folks, git yer hands dirty with the dirt of Israel!" Little does he know: We're soaking in it!

I wish Sivan and Khleifi had had the courage to ask their side-of-the-road subjects about their cars, shirts, lunchroom menus, child-rearing issues, after-work routines, and, above all, their love lives. Instead, the filmmakers stay relentlessly on topic and adhere to their formula: juxtaposing Joshua and Ibrahim Six-Pack against the geological forces of history. I wish they hadn't asked things like, "What does the word Palestine mean to you?" (The response, from a slick kid in Ray-Bans, is a priceless variant on a central line from John Cassavetes's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: "The most important thing is to enjoy life.") And above all, I wish they had cut this movie down a bit. I suspect they wanted to put us into the timeless trance state that Wiseman's and Lanzmann's movies put us in. Or maybe they fell in love with all the faces. Either way, they have maybe two hours' worth of useful footage stretched over a long, attention- and commitment-crushing running time. (The movie might play better as a DVD, its stories clickable--or skippable--at will.)

Still, though Sivan and Khleifi run into plenty of standard eye-rolling disbelief on both sides, they also reap lots of privileged moments. Some of them are just interstitial shots of landscapes, plowed-up construction sites, and lonely piers that have that half-endearingly fertile, half-inscrutably sinister quality that Iran has in Abbas Kiarostami's drive-by dramas. Some of them are the poetic happenstance that documentarians live for, as when a crotchety old Palestinian woman who refuses to have her house bought out by the Israelis summarizes her remaining life's ambitions: "I want to live on my land, just the right distance from others." The biggest take-away Americans will get from the film's John-Doe-versus-anguished-landscape style is the astonishing way that people living in political crisis zones manage to remain devoutly apolitical. There may be a bit of a smirk in the depiction of an Israeli soldier's wedding, with A Fistful of Dollars playing over a PowerPoint montage of Occupation snapshots. But isn't there also a hint of admiration at the human animal's capacity to adapt to trauma? At his ability to turn an individual experience of the tragic into the stuff of every cheeseball wedding party?

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