Duki Dror’s Journey of the displaced
By: Dr. Yael Munk, Open University and Sapir college
“Stranger here, stranger there, stranger everywhere. I wish I could come home, baby, but I’m a stranger also there.” From “Diary” by David Perlov
This popular song, quoted in David Perlov's documentary, “Diary,” expresses precisely the feeling that arises from the whole of Duki Dror’s films. This is the story of people who used to belong to a certain place that now is no longer theirs. People who became victims of wars, of oppression and prejudice, and as a result, were forced to leave their country and home. People for whom the land they step on is not theirs and will never be. This feeling of having no roots is the main feature of Dror's displaced heroes, all victims of the global and capitalistic new world, a world in which the weak are often expelled off their land. And the land remains silent, passing from hand to hand with no resistance, only providing the background to scenes of alienation of the man returning to the land, an alienation which forever will express the failure of the weak and weakened wherever they are, foreignness as a formative experience which Dror documents in all of his films.
This article deals with one of the recurrent themes of Dror's films: displacement. Duki Dror, one of the most fertile young directors in Israel today, consistently deals with this theme in its different configurations, thus revealing the ever-changing faces of today's Israel. In the past decade, Israeli culture has been enriched by a flow of emigrants, coming from all over the world. The general response to these unexpected cultural resources was that the many voices expressed in the documentary filmmaking create the polyphony of multiculturalism, so characteristic to Israel. And indeed the last ten years have been characterized by an unprecedented blooming of documentary filmmaking. Dozens of films are being created each year, many of them with the support of the New Israel Fund for Film and Television, others with the support of various television channels. Therefore it may be sometimes difficult to identify a creator's unique voice, the voice of one who follows a unique stylistic and thematic line in his art, the voice of the auteur. Duki Dror’s voice is as such - a unique voice that continues a long line of creators with personal statement - a statement that this article will try to coherently unfold.
As opposed to many local documentary filmmakers, Dror studied in the United States and not in Israel. He did not plan to become a documentary director but aspired to make feature and experimental films. But unexpected circumstances have led him to documentary. As he graduated from film school he was searching for a job in the industry and found out that the program for rehabilitation of prisoners in Chicago prisons was looking for a cameraman to film their experimental program of prisoners teaching other prisoners to read and write.
As time went on the project evolved into a dramatic story and became a film called – “Sentenced to Learn.” The film was aired in prime time in the US and later in a retrospective of American documentary in the prestigious documentary festival Cinema Du Reel in Paris, along with canonic filmmakers such as Leacock and Weisman. For Dror it was discovering the power of the documentary film.
Upon returning to Israel, Dror directed a very personal film, a diary of a kind called: “My Fantasia.” The ironic name which refers to the “Fantasia” Chanukah lamp factory owned by the family, uncovered deeper topics, topics which deal with what was to be the main concern of the filmmaker in all of his works up to now: migration and exile, memories of the minority in days of cultural displacement. The reason Dror made this film was the return of the family's repressed memories as the image of Saddam Hussein daily appeared on television. The days were the first of the Iraq war, and the director who just returned home from the States, felt like a stranger in his own home, watching his family watching the images from Iraq on television. For them it was not only the threat of war but also observing their long lost land appearing on the screen, this same land they left behind many years ago in order to live in a new land, Israel. However, the director who was born in Israel could not understand his relatives' outstanding interest in the country they left many years ago. He started to ask the questions and from here the way to inquire about the family’s unspoken past was short. He walked in between the machines in the lamp factory owned by his father and uncles, trying to collect information about what drove them to come to Israel, to leave behind their culture and language and pretend they don’t long for it. As his investigations continued it became clear that one link was missing. The answer was found inan old photo in which his father and two of his friends are seen chained to fetters on their legs. It was a yellowing photo that no one wished to talk about. But the son, the director, was already on a roll and it was impossible to stop him. Towards the end of the film, upon endless inquiries of his father and uncles, the secret was out: it unfolded the story of his father’s arrest which was a result of informing by one of the Jewish federation agents, his hard labor in prison, and mainly the humiliation which went along with the last moments in his home land. At this point the fantasy was blown at once. The factory is being closed down due to low income, and at the same time the father, who wished his past to remain in the shade is being forced to return to the traumatic experience that he did not want his children to be exposed to. It appears that immigrating to Israel was not the happy fulfilment of the old wish stated in the prayer: “Next year in Jerusalem,” but also the result of his father's unbearable humiliation that forced him to deny his mother tongue and culture.
As the factory closes down its gates, so is the fantasy of the director to own one clear identity within the Zionist vision, shattered. As opposed to the experience of most of the people in Israel, the frequent appearance of the Iraqi president on television did not arouse the director's anxiety; it rather pealed the silent envelope around the family's tragic displacement. And the parents, who invested all their energy in protecting the children (for instance, changing the family name to make it sound more Israeli), have found out, along with viewers of the film that the experience of displacement passes on to the next generation. It’s a fact that the son, the director, is now torn between “here and there,” only that “there” is America.
In this early film by Duki Dror, it’s already possible to identify the theme he will investigate in all his films: the tearing between two biographical and geographical milestones. What is the real character of the place that is called exile? Is it the place where our fathers were raised or the place where they ended up due to decisions made by national leaders, people who design ideologies? In other words: this: is exile here or there? And maybe the answer could be found in the song quoted at the beginning of this article: exile for the expatriate has become eternal. It reaches him wherever he goes. It has already left the geographical plane and has become a state of mind.
The bridge between here and there is the key to the journey of Johar Abu Lashin, the hero of "Raging Dove." Abu Lashin is a Palestinian born in Nazareth, who became a world-boxing champion, married an American woman and purchased a horse ranch in Tennessee. But it seems that for some the American dream is not an answer. Johar Abu Lashin, who at first saw himself as an Israeli hero, (being interviewed on Israeli talk shows, taking photographs with the president), rediscovers his real identity as a Palestinian, and aspires to correct the injustice he caused to his people. For this cause it is not enough to put away the Israeli flag and to raise the Palestinian one. This requires a more extravagant action. Wishing to repay his family and his people for the honor that he received in the USA, he initiates a world championship fight in his hometown, Nazareth. But Nazareth is not America and it’s impossible for the city to organize a championship fight (the film follows the never-ending logistical problems that the American organizers of the fight have to confront). At last the fight takes place and Abu Lashin who wins, decides to go one step further and bring his fame as a gesture to the Palestinian authority on its Declaration of Independence Day. For this reason he arrives at various Palestinian offices, and at last at the office of the president, Yasser Arafat, who welcomes him enthusiastically and offers to pay for the fight which is to take place in Gaza.
It seems like everything works well and all of Abu Lashin’s wishes come true. But just as he expresses his happiness he learns that the champion title has been taken away from him on account of not participating in any fights in the past six months. Apparently Arafat did not fulfill his promise, and now Abu Lashin has to go back to America to try and regain his lost title. At the same time things are not smooth at home too. His wife decides to leave him and his horse ranch is up for sale in order to cover his debts. In his despair Johar Abu Lashin goes out to look for local fights. He wonders from one small town to the next. The last scene, taken in front of a typical American town background, shows that he still has faith in the future, and does not except this as the end. But the film does end with a hero who has no home land, as he himself states, a man with no land who lives in exile hoping to one day regain his champ title, and maybe his land too.
The film itself shows his return as unsuccessful trials to a place that is not prepared to receive him. During the fight in Nazareth, the crowds shout: “my home is not a suitcase.” In the eyes of his fellow town people he is considered a traitor, and therefore a man who cannot return home any longer. Sharing the fate of Dror's other characters Johar is destined to live in exile, on fighting arenas all over the states. He has become a displaced man who is holding on to life through a dream that will probably never come true.
In “Raging Dove” Dror succeeded in creating the classic drama in its most precise form. It is no wonder the film has won the first prize in the “Doc Aviv” festival and in other documentary festivals around the world. The film is built as a classic narrative that develops towards a climax into which strong emotions drain (and what builds emotions better than boxing fights at the crowded arena?)
THE JOURNEY OF VAAN NGUYEN
The tormented longing for a lost identity of oneness is precisely what Dror's latest film deals with. “The Journey of Vaan Nguyen” was born out of an idea by the scriptwriter Violet Shitzer, and evolves around Vaan Nguyen, a young Vietnamese woman who lives in Tel Aviv. Vaan is the daughter of a family who arrived in Israel when a decision was made by the Israeli government at that time, to join the international efforts to save thousands of Vietnamese refugees who escaped the war cramping into small fishing boats and sailing to an unknown destination. The state of Israel saw this act as a humanitarian gesture that would contribute to its positive “Western” image and place her with other countries which chose to absorb the refugees. Once they arrived here the refugees were aided to learn the language and the culture of the new home. Among archival footage of that period, which appears in the film, we see the refugees reciting whole sentences in Hebrew. The man who has filmed this footage, Zadok Farintz, told Dror that he was astonished to realize that the viewers did not grasp the irony in the absurd situation in which the Vietnamese refugees break their teeth trying to pronounce words in Hebrew. (This archival footage points to Israel’s position at the time of consenting to help the refugees, giving the Vietnamese refugees a similar yet different status than that of the Jewish immigrants). It was impossible not to notice the slanted eyes and the heavy accent that characterized this group of newcomers. Vaan’s father, after twenty years in Israel, a father to five daughters who were born there, all speak and write in Hebrew, three of them served in the Israeli Armed forces, continues to work in a Chinese restaurant while speaking Hebrew full of errors. In his film Dror asks what characterizes this foreign identity that is etched on the displaced. Vaan backs up his search writing in her diary: “I long to become an Israeli, like everyone else here, without people asking about the origin of my slanted eyes…”
The reality abruptly takes a turn when Hoimai, the father, decides to visit his homeland twenty years after he has left. There are a few reasons for this visit: first, to try and regain the lands of the family that were deserted when they escaped. Second, the fear of watching his girls growing away from the Vietnamese language and culture and the even greater fear of watching them become displaced just like he is. The complexity of this situation is being well expressed in a scene in which the youngest of the girls plays outside with an Arabic friend. Their conversation is in Hebrew yet they both sound and appear foreign in their own home.
The director, Duki Dror, and the cinematographer, Philippe Bellaiche, who has worked with Dror in his previous three films, follow Hoimai in his journey back to Vietnam. Together they experience the way to his home village. Vaan’s father recognizes his old home and brings up memories of the past. At the same time he describes the past in his diary. His descriptions are matched by archival footage of the war. Footage taken from karaoke music video tapes, which the Vietnamese refugees watch weekly, illustrates his descriptions of a land at war too. These tapes create a visual package of the story of their lost homeland.
As the journey progresses, the father discovers that regaining the lands is not easy. With the change in rulers they were passed on to new owners and now he has to prove his ownership. At this point he asks his assertive daughter, Vaan, to help. Dressed in European cloths she appears foreign to the place. Getting together with the family in Vietnam is no simple matter. The family members hug her warmly but pretty soon the mentality gaps appear. The daughter’s persistence leads the father to various places. Together they confront different people in the area where he grew up and slowly the understanding that there is no way back is starting to clear up. Vaan’s assertive nature is starting to dismantle, and father and daughter decide to go back to Israel, realizing they have failed to regain what was once theirs. Again the tragedy of the displaced is on stage: Vietnam did not save a place for the ones who have left. The lands will not be returned to the family, but at least Vaan had the opportunity to experience the old land and to feel the gap between herself and the place where she could have lived. Vaan and her father each write down their personal impressions from the journey in their diaries, and they each come to terms with the fate that imposed being away from home and making them strangers in their own homeland.
Dror is pleased with the film even though he says that the characters are not dramatic: “At the most turbulent moments Vaan’s father is smiling instead of breaking a table. He behaves according to the cultural codes on which he grew up. These people have difficulties expressing their feelings and I wanted to enable them to express their tragedy which is the tragedy of their people who were scattered all over, dividing families and dislocating them off their land.”
The story of Vaan, like the story of Abu Lashin, tells the story of the director, the story of a man who went a long way and found that foreignness will follow wherever he goes. This feeling does not depend on the ability to adjust to a new place. Seemingly these foreigners live among us behaving as expected. What Dror tries to bring out in his films is the hidden wound, the wound beneath the skin which comes to life in unexpected moments, while watching an image on the TV screen, hearing a familiar voice or tasting the tastes of home. For these reasons the director has a tendency to talk about failure. This is not failure in the regular sense, but the failing to unite with the place, with the history, and say to yourself: this is me and that is my home.
On the ground of the feelings described in Dror’s films, the famous sentence uttered by Dorothy, the hero from “The Wizard of Oz”, has never sounded more out of place; “ There is no place like home,” she claimed, and in that sentence she expressed the American yearning in the 30’s to create citizens who are totally committed to their own home and to their national home. Dror’s films describe an opposite feeling. They unfold the existential discourse led by the postmodern man, who is at constant fluctuating situations of migration. From Dror’s films we can only paraphrase Dorothy’s words into: “There is no such place as home…”