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Saturday, May 1, 2009

Creating a catalyst for self-reflection

Japanese journalist's documentary on Mideast meant to raise unsettling questions


Staff writer

"One of the hardest missions for people is to face themselves in the mirror, to criticize themselves, to ask themselves really basic questions," says ex-Israeli soldier Avichay Sharon. "No one wants to touch sensitive nerves, no one wants to go underneath, scratch underneath within himself." Sharon is speaking in the film "Chinmoku wo Yaburu" ("Breaking the Silence"), a documentary by Japanese journalist Toshikuni Doi.

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Reflections: Journalist Toshikuni Doi releases his latest documentary on the Middle East. He hopes it will give rise to a variety of questions on a variety of issues affecting humans everywhere. COURTESY OF TOSHIKUNI DOI

It is Doi's fourth film, one that puts faces on the people of Palestine. It brings their stories, their situations alive like no news report does. It does the same for Israelis and former members of the Israeli Defense Forces, specifically those who have voiced their concerns over the tactics and techniques employed by Israel in the Occupied Territories.

They are the members of Breaking the Silence, a nonprofit organization co-founded in 2004 by Sharon, Yehuda Shaul and Noam Chayut from which the film takes its name and which collects testimonies from the soldiers who served in the territories during the Second Intifada.

For Doi, the film is meant to serve as just the mirror Sharon speaks of, a mirror that Doi, 56, hopes will bring about reflection on a number of levels, a number of topics, not just on the Mideast, For Americans, he wants it to conjure up images of Vietnam, of Iraq, for Japanese, of the forced labor of Koreans during WWII and of Nanjing. "If people just think this is a film about the Mideast, then I have failed," Doi says. "If it makes them think of many other things, things close to home, then I have succeeded."

The questions most people find hard to ask, Doi asked himself from an early age — What am I here for? What is my purpose? "I am the kind of person that needs to have a purpose in life, a goal, in order to truly feel alive," he says.

As a youth in a farming community in his native Saga Prefecture, Doi dreamed nearly obsessively of becoming a doctor. He was crushed when he was unable to make the cut. He became depressed and set off on a world journey with Gabon, Africa, and the grave of Albert Schweitzer as his North Star. "I wanted to get back to my essence and try to discover my life goal." His journey took him eventually to Israel in 1978, where he lived on a kibbutz and was asked if he wanted to visit the West Bank. It was the beginning of a long acquaintance.

Doi has been delving into the Mideast situation for some 30 years now, 24 of them as a journalist. He has written numerous books in addition to his films.

His focus is not exclusively the Mideast. Doi has written on a number of issues as a freelance journalist — Japan's Korean sex slaves, the "untouchable" children of India, children in Thailand orphaned by AIDS. It is Doi's professional trademark and private standard to travel to the scene, to spend long hours, days, months with people in an attempt to truly understand their stories. Time spent in on-the-site research more often than not means huge expenses, expenses that often cannot be recouped. "But," Doi says, "I don't think I've lost anything. I have lived, been moved, been angered. I have experienced things that can't be bought with money." He believes he is by far the richer for it.

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Lives asunder: Toshikuni Doi's documentary "Chinmoku wo Yaburu" ("Breaking the Silence") focuses on the people of Palestine, the occupation, and how it affects their lives. CHINMOKU WO YABURU

"Human bonds, compassion and consideration for others, humanity, warmth, the richness of spirit, these are the things I experience, the things I gain," Doi returns to the scene of the action over and over again, traveling to the West Bank for two months, returning to Japan for a month, then back to Gaza for another two. Now, having married at the age of 50, his travels are less frequent. His wife he met in Gaza. A Japanese teacher for the deaf, they met while his wife-to-be was doing volunteer work in Gaza at a school for the deaf.

What calls to Doi is not only the intensity of living where life is a daily struggle, with death always close at hand. Also a "fear of becoming numbed" has Doi catching flights out of Japan. Material affluence, he believes, is ruining Japan and robbing Japanese of their compassion, their imagination, their very ability to feel life. "I am afraid of becoming numb, of losing my sensitivities, afraid of losing the strength to think of and feel for other people's situations," he says. Being with people who are rich in spirit, "makes you richer, it makes you think about what is important in life."

With "Chinmoku" Doi strives to "look at both sides" but to mainly "show what occupation means. It's not the things that are easy to see, but the things that make living difficult. It's killing people slowly. Killing dreams." The same "numbing" Doi fears, the inability to feel for others, is spoken of by another Israeli veteran in "Chinmoku wo Yaburu." Dotan Greenvald shows a picture he took through his gun scope, the cross hairs trained on a civilian.

"You ignore the picture that you see in the scope. What if the picture was a boy, a 6-year-old? What if the picture was an old woman.? What if it's a terrorist? It's all the same. You look at it like an object. When you start looking at people like objects, I guess," Greenvald says, "it f***s you up."

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Israeli soldier Avichay Sharon CHINMOKU WO YABURU

"Now, I can see it was crazy what we've done, but I'm looking backwards. I was in a unit where everybody around you does the same thing. It's like going into a classroom and everyone says the board is black and it's actually green. Everyone says that, so, you start believing it. The board is black."

Shaul felt the same dehumanization, not only of the people through his scope, but of himself. "You stand in front of the mirror and see the horns on your head and you realize that you were a monster for three years," he says. "You realize what you did and what you took part in. And the most shocking thing is that it's you, yourself. You would like to believe it's another person," he says, "but it's the same man."

Sharon felt the same way. "Do you think that if on Wednesday I was driving my APC and running over cars — just running them over for the fun of it, because it is really a lot of fun — do you think that on Friday when I went home for my weekend leave that I drove like a person, that I stood behind someone at red lights? Why should I?" he says cockily.

"All the violence, all the hatred, all the frightening feelings, all the paranoia, everything. You take it with you and you bring it back into civilian life."

Greenvald, too, was aware that brutal changes took place in him. Some people, including his parents, think that he and other soldiers need therapy to help them readjust.

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Rami Elhanan, who lost his young daughter in a suicide bomber attack CHINMOKU WO YABURU

"My mother thinks that it was so hard there," he scoffs. "It wasn't hard. That's the point. It was so easy to become a monster. I'm not even sure I saw it, that I was becoming more violent. I became careless. I cared less. I cared less about humans. As time passes you forget they're human.

"The soldiers don't need psychiatrists. To say that you need a psychiatrist for this situation is like saying, 'the situation is quite fine. We're quite comfortable with it. We have to take care of you.'

"No! You have to look at the mirror and you have to take care of yourself," he says, anger flaring. "I was your soldier, not your son. I was your soldier. I was your fist against the other people. I was the fist of the Israeli government. This is the point."

His words raise goose bumps. Much of Doi's film does — a young Palestinian women fainting when she identifies the body of her dead brother, a man searching for his life savings in the rubble where his home had once stood, the anguish of a farmer whose ancient orchard had been torn up overnight, a young boy, traumatized by the bombings, screaming endlessly. Two hours plus, no narration, no music. Its starkness is its strength.

"Like a kuroko," Doi says of Japanese theater's prop assistants in black. "I want to bring to viewers what has moved me without showing the hand that brings it, without saying, heh, look at this! If I have been this moved by something, how can others not be?" he asks.

Israeli Rami Elhanan speaks of his great admiration for the veterans who are speaking out. "Most of the Israelis don't want to know, don't want to hear, don't want to look in the mirror and see the ugly face," Elhanan says.

"What these kids did that got my attention and admiration is force Israelis to pay attention to the price that we are paying for ruling and oppressing and occupying 3.5 million people without any democratic rights whatsoever. This price is too heavy."

Elhanan speaks from the heart, very much so. His 14-year-old daughter was killed when two suicide bombers blew themselves up on the streets of West Jerusalem in 1997. It was her first day of school. She was killed along with five others, three of them 14-year-old girls.

"Every morning you get up. You don't forget and you don't forgive and the anger eats you alive from within. But what do you do with the anger?" he asks.

"What is the practical thing to do, what is the wise thing do, what is the right thing to do? After a while you start asking yourself questions. If you kill someone else will it bring her back?"

"You have to choose. There are two ways. One of hatred and revenge an d retaliation, which creates an endless cycle of violence. The other is trying to understand what happened here. Why did it happen? What can cause someone to be that angry that he maybe is willing to blow himself up with little girls?"

Doi raises similar, often unsettling questions. He raises them about Japan as well and, in his book by the same name as the film, goes so far as to compare the experiences of Israeli soldiers to Japanese soldiers who took part in the Nanjing Massacre. He sees the same defensiveness in Israel as he sees in Japan, a defense that points the finger outward, but never inward. "If you want to have a museum for Hiroshima, have one for Nanjing too. Talk about abductions by North Korea? Talk about forced labor and Koreans in WWII," he says. "Talk about Okinawa."

"People who support Palestine get angry when I call suicide bombers terrorists. But terrorism is the killing of civilians for a political reason. Palestinian or Israeli, they're both terrorists. But there is no discussion about what is called terrorism and what isn't."

Elhanan would agree that the need for talk is crucial. "People do not understand that when you oppress 3.5 million people, put them into the corner, pushing them, pushing them, they will bite back. That is the nature of things everywhere in the world, all through history. You can call it terror. You can call it freedom fighters. You can call it any number of names," he says.

"In the end of every fighting there is talk. There is a negotiation table and you must talk. . . . You have to talk with your enemy. There are no two ways about it."

Shaul is far more pessimistic. When he speaks, it is often halting, and as if his words, his thoughts and memories, were painful. The discussions in Israel regarding the occupation are many. " 'Yes, occupation. No, occupation.' A lot of people talk about security. 'We need to defend our country.' But we don't realize that soon there won't be a country. We're all going to be dead inside. Deep inside, the society is dead."

Shaul offers an expression in Hebrew. "It means in English, learn from others' mistakes. You'll never have enough time to make them all yourself."

"Chinmoku wo Yaburu" (Arabic, English, Hebrew, with Japanese subtitles) begins a nationwide tour in Tokyo May 2 at pole-pole theater in Higashi Nakano. Doi will be present for all May 2 showings. Info for pole-pole theater is: (03) 3371-0088 or www.mmjp.or.jp/pole2/; for details see www.doi-toshikuni.net/j/index.html for more details. NHK will broadcast Doi's most recent footage on May 10 in "Gaza: Naze higeki wa kurikaesareru no ka."


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