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Philosopher, author-essayist and culture critic Susan Sontag worked in just about every known creative medium. Besides her scholarly nonfiction books she wrote novels and plays and wrote and directed four movies. Although never a film critic, her influence on that specialty is measured by essays she wrote in the 1960s, one on the concept of 'Camp' and another on the Science Fiction film genre's celebration of the experience of disaster. It's more than a little strange that such a noted cultural and influential political activist should write the first serious critical words in English about the Toho movie The Mysterians.
Of Sontag's four films, the one that has persisted is her documentary Promised Lands. Sontag was a committed anti-war activist; later in her life she chose to live in Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1973 she and producer Nicole Stéphane took a camera to Israel for the last few weeks of the Yom Kippur War. The resulting documentary has no voiceover and no stated agenda. Sontag toured Israel filming what she saw and then went to the front lines. The oft-repeated story is that, after her tiny crew had been wandering over a tank battlefield for a couple of hours, filming wreckage and burned, unburied corpses, she was warned to watch out for land mines. When she asked what a land mine looked like, she was told that they can't be seen.
As pointed out by Ed Halter, the writer of the disc's liner notes, Promised Lands doesn't take a position on the war or even on the standoff between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Part of the movie does front statements by two spokesmen, neither of which argues a case for either side. Israeli scientist Yuval Ne'eman discusses the historical background of Arab anti-Semitism. Although the term "blood libel" comes up in passing, it's not a hate-filled speech. Ne'eman instead explains that intellectual Arabs see the eradication of Israel as necessary in terms of the loss of Spain centuries before -- Moorish Spain is considered the lost hope of Islamic culture, and must not be repeated. He finishes by stating that Israel's choice is dictated by reality: "You have to fight because we can't lose." The second commentator Yoram Kaniuk is more supportive of the Palestinian cause, and comments on the transformation of Israel over the 25 years since its independence. The nation of first-generation refugees and visionaries is becoming, in Kaniuk's opinion, a mini-America more concerned with material wealth. Promised Lands was banned in Israel as "damaging to the country's morale". In a disputed region that represents The Promised Land to diametrically opposed faiths, there's little tolerance for the questioning of the nation's official policies.
Sontag films at the Wailing Wall and at other familiar landmarks. In 1973, none of them have yet been buried in modern security precautions. We see a funeral for fallen Israeli soldiers. There's more potential political comment when her cameras tour a rather unpleasant wax museum dedicated to Israeli history> Almost all of the exhibits depict appalling historical violence perpetrated against Jews or violent activism against former tenants of Palestine. Sontag overlays these sequences with an active audio montage technique, often with sound effects unrelated to the pictures on screen. Prayer chants echo on the track, but not always in conjunction with similar images. What at first looks like random footage caught on Israeli streets begins to take more of a formal shape, as we realize that shots are being organized into rhythmic patterns. None of this editorial manipulation is ostentatious, nor does it go for "Film Board of Canada" pictorials. Its as if Sontag were trying to take a snapshot of an entire country at a particular place and time.
The last part of the film follows through with Sontag's determination to report the effects of war that were (and still are) omitted from almost all official news film. The camera wanders around an abandoned battlefield, showing troops moving on roads only a few yards from where a defeated tank force lies baking in the sun -- blasted machinery and the blackened corpses of men who clearly died burning in agony. A close-up of tank armor riddled with shrapnel holes tells the story. The better part of a reel shows us shell-shocked troops in an Israeli military hospital. Assisted by some strong soldier-aides, a doctor tries out a therapy technique that involves re-staging the battle environment for the disturbed patient. With the sounds of guns and bombs playing on a cassette recorder, the patient squirms in panic and tries to hide under his cot. Not since John Huston's Let There Be Light has a filmmaker given such an up-close image of the direct consequences of the fighting. The U.S. Army banned showings of Huston's film with the specious argument that it invaded the privacy of the patients pictured. Sontag appears to have been given free access to an active battlefield. We wonder what the doctor was told. Did he know that she was using his work as a sidebar in a poetic critique of war, or did he think she was documenting his therapeutic experiments?
Sontag's producer Nicole Stéphane had served as a producer on another famous war-related documentary, Frédéric Rossif's Mourir à Madrid from ten years before. She also garnered acclaim and celebrity ten years before that as an actress in Jean-Pierre Melville's first films Le silence de la mer and the provocative Les enfants terribles.
KimStim/Zeitgeist's DVD of Promised Lands contains a good encoding of the flat (1:33) color feature docu, which was filmed in 35mm. In her 1974 Vogue essay entitled Susan Sontag Tells How It Feels To Make A Movie (included in an insert sheet) Sontag talks about hauling a heavy tripod around behind her cameraperson for the five weeks it took to shoot the film. The essay also contains her astute thoughts on the nature of documentary filmmaking and her insights about filmmaking itself. At the end of filming, friends asked how the film turned out. Nobody had ever asked her about one of her books in those terms -- a writer is accountable for the end product but a film director is often the victim of forces beyond their control.
The insert sheet also contains the informative liner notes by the above-mentioned Ed Halter, a New York film critic. The packaging contains a card with a reproduction of the film's 2010 re-release poster.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Promised Lands rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.