by Richard Wagner
Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 11-12
Arthur Allan Seidelmann’s CHILDREN OF RAGE is a textbook example of a film promising more than it can deliver. For about a year, rumors of the “explosiveness” of the movie have circulated among cineastes. Blurbs and articles had heralded the film in such publications as Variety (the fact that they appeared in Variety, the profit-oriented trade paper, should have been adequate forewarning). It was proclaimed a “breakthrough” because it was to be the first fictional treatment of the post-1967 Israeli-Palestinian situation. But by trying to be fair to all sides, Seidelmann’s film has the efficacy of a marshmallow thrown against the ITT building.
Seidelmann’s chief defect is that he endeavored to be nice to everybody. He created Israeli and Palestinian characters of equal dimensions and equal believability. The plot is rather simple, used merely as a prop upon which the director can hang his attitudes out to dry.
When Aqmed, a Palestinian guerrilla, is killed, his brother Omar takes his place. Omar is wounded while disguised as an Israeli but escapes from the hospital to avoid questioning. Before being transported to the safety of the camps, he is treated by David, an Israeli doctor and friend of the family. David’s conscience persuades him to go to the camp to help alleviate the suffering. The resistance he gets from some of the militants culminates in the death of him and Omar.
There are four main characters, each of whom is a personified ideal, and a galaxy of minor ones. David, the doctor, is the epitome of libertarian rationality. He is an idealist, wanting peace and harmony among Jews and Arabs, yet with no concrete knowledge of how to achieve it. In his naiveté he blunders into his own death. Omar, the teenaged guerrilla, is the opposite with all visceral feeling and little thinking. He views all Israelis as evil and is willing to die blindly for his cause. Ibrahim, the Palestinian leader, sees the current violence only as the last resort. He just wants his Galilean farm back and is willing to listen to reason; he is the thinking Arab. Leila, Omar’s sister, is the emotional representative. Her interest is purely apolitical; she doesn't want to have happen to Omar what happened to Aqmed.
Seidelmann obviously wanted to present all sides of the Middle East question. His characters serve mainly as mouthpieces for his egalitarian opinions. He artificially constructs dialogue situations in order to expose all ramifications of the problem to the light. David visits his father, a European post WW2 immigrant. Seidelmann uses the confrontation as an excuse to show the conflict of classic liberalism vs. intransigent father, or young generation vs. old, if you will. The father trots out all the ancient pro-Israeli arguments (“We were here 2,500 years ago,” “We carved this land out of a desert,” etc., etc.). David’s lack of firm convictions leads to his rather weak retorts and the discussion reveals nothing new.
Again Seidelmann thrusts David into a one-to-one conversation and again he finishes second best. When Ibrahim comes to take Omar to the camp, David requests to go along. The two of them talk back and forth over the unconscious Omar. Both ask the question, “What do you want?” Ibrahim s response is his return to the ancestral farm; he puts forward a very cogent argument for his position. David’s reply is, “A week of peace.” Once again his want of political awareness prevents him from taking a forceful stand.
In addition to attitudinal flows, Seidelmann’s script has holes in it big enough to drive a tank through. Just to enumerate the more glaring ones:
1) When Omar first arrives at the camp, Ibrahim conducts a thorough inquiry into his credentials to ascertain that they are not a forgery. Yet when David asks to accompany Omar to the camp, Ibrahim, who has never seen him before, asks, “How do I know you are not a spy?” David replies, “I give you my word.” and Ibrahim accepts it. Can anyone seriously believe that a guerrilla leader would scrupulously check the papers of an Arab but instantaneously accept the word of an Israeli?
2) When David becomes the Palestinian camp’s doctor, Leila wishes to help him. He asks what qualifications she has. Her answer is, “I always wanted to be a nurse.” Incredibly, David uses her in that capacity. Is that all that is necessary to fulfill a childhood dream? What if she had always wanted to become a doctor? Would he have allowed her to treat patients? Further comment on such a ridiculous assumption would be redundant.
3) When he first sets himself up in the hospital, David stocks it with many and various medications. How did he obtain them? Are we to believe that the Israelis permitted him to saunter out of their hospital with cartons of pills, syringes, etc., especially after he had applied to Israeli authorities for permission to go to the camp and had been refused?
The film is important in one respect. Ibrahim is the first sympathetic portrayal of a Palestinian, instead of the usual U.S. equation of Israeli = good, ergo Palestinian (and by extension all Arabs) ,= bad. But even some of his reasons for certain actions are left vague. The question arises of whether or not to use terror, the words “Algeria” and “Vietnam” are conspicuously bandied about, followed by “Now it is our turn.” Just like that the decision is made. I strongly doubt whether that particular motivation has any historical validity.
Seidelmann’s casting also does nothing to establish any kind of realistic aura. Helmut Griem as David is much too Aryan-looking and wooden to be convincing. Olga Georges-Picot as Leila is more attractive than effective. Richard Alfieri as Omar and Simon Andreu as Ibrahim are what matinee idols should be—handsome, smooth, supremely confident. The professionalism they display is the diametric opposite of what the roles demand. In addition, Seidelmann employs the technique of romantic fade-outs at the end of each scene, further increasing the film’s detachment from reality.
The question that occurred to this viewer at end of the film was, “Is it pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian?” Seidelmann has created characters useful for articulating many viewpoints. But in so doing, he loses whatever focus and thrust the film could have had. Had he come down on one side or the other, the audience could have experienced some kind of reaction. As it stands, Arab sympathizers will love it for its depiction of the guerrillas in human terms and hate the Israeli military officers. Those who emotionally side with Israel will love the dogmatism of David’s father and hate all the Palestinians. Seidelmann’s film is, in effect, a cinematic Rorschach test to which people will respond depending on what they bring to it.