BBC 4’s ‘Storyville’ resurrects an old theme

The BBC Four’s ‘Storyville’ series – which describes itself as “showcasing the best in international documentaries” – has featured several Israel related films in its past seasons:

2013/14 season: “The Law In These Parts“, “The Village that Fought Back: Five Broken Cameras” (discussed here), “The Gatekeepers” (discussed here).

2015/16 season: “The Six Day War: Censored Voices” (discussed here)

On December 4th at 22:00 UK time, ‘Storyville’ will air a film titled “Forever Pure – Football and Racism in Jerusalem” which is described in the synopsis as follows:storyville-beitar

“Documentary which follows events at Israel’s most notorious football club. Beitar Jerusalem FC is the most popular team in Israel and the only club in the Premier League never to sign an Arab player. Midway through a season the club’s owner, Russian-Israeli oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak, brought in two Muslim players from Chechnya in a secretive transfer deal that triggered the most racist campaign in Israeli sport and sent the club spiralling out of control.

Forever Pure follows the famous football club through the tumultuous season, as power, money and politics fuel a crisis and shows how racism is destroying both the team and society from within.” [emphasis added]

Longtime readers will not be surprised by the BBC’s decision to showcase such an allegation: the actions of a specific group of hooligans at a specific football club have long been employed by various BBC journalists to promote sweeping notions of ‘racist Israel’.

The BBC, football racism and Israel

Obsession: four BBC ‘Beitar’ articles in under a week

BBC binge reporting on Beitar comes to abrupt halt

In which the BBC ignores prejudice in Israeli football

Comparing BBC reporting on English and Israeli football hooligans

BBC 4’s Storyville and the ‘Censored Voices’ that weren’t

On December 7th BBC Four’s ‘Storyville’ series aired a film it titled “The Six-Day War: Censored Voices”.

Readers in the UK can find the programme on iPlayer for a limited period of time here and it can also be viewed here.

Viewers saw the following at the beginning of the film:

Storyville tripled

That latter statement is of course inaccurate and misleading because Israel “as we know it today” does not include 90% of the land captured during the Six Day War due to the fact that Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian control under the terms of the 1979 peace agreement. No mention is made of the Khartoum Declaration and although the film does make use of archive footage to explain Nasser’s blockade of the Straits of Tiran, it is not clarified that the act in itself was a casus belli. Moreover, viewers receive no information concerning the repeated threats of annihilation made by Arab leaders against Israel in the run-up to the war, even though that topic is relevant to the film’s later content.

But the most interesting aspect of the airing of this film by the BBC is the way in which its claims concerning “censored voices” – including in its title – have been promoted and amplified apparently without adequate fact checking.

On the webpage devoted to the film, visitors find the following synopsis:Storyville webpage

“Documentary about a long-withheld piece of oral history – a series of tape-recorded interviews conducted with returning Israeli soldiers after Israel’s land gains in the Six-Day War of 1967. Led by the author Amos Oz, a group of kibbutzniks joined together in intimate, taped conversations directly after returning from battlefield.

At the time only a few of these recordings were permitted to gain a public hearing by the Israeli government, but this film reveals them to the public for the first time. The uncensored testimonies suggest that the soldiers were not euphoric about the outcome, but instead were profoundly depressed about what the victory cost.

In this brilliantly-conceived documentary, director Mor Loushy takes the old testimonies recorded by the Israeli soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the war, and plays the recordings back to the now-aged veterans and observes their responses.” [emphasis added]

Those scrolling down the page will find a section in which the director “answers the Storyville Q&A” which includes the following:

“I somehow always search for places that are difficult to get to. The tapes of Censored Voices were hidden for 48 years. It was hard to get them from Avraham Shapira, the editor of the book who initiated the conversations, and then it was hard with the Israeli censorship, but we made it!” [emphasis added]

Near the beginning of the film, viewers see the following:

Storyville 30 per cent claim

In other words, BBC audiences are encouraged to believe that they are viewing previously “long-withheld” material subjected to dark Israeli government censorship not once, but twice. But is that actually the case?

As Martin Kramer has documented, Loushy has in fact publicly acknowledged that her own film “was not censored at all”. Regarding the claims of earlier censorship, Kramer’s research shows that the story is nowhere near as simple and straightforward as Loushy and the BBC make out.

“Shortly after the June 1967 war, a book entitled Siaḥ Loḥamim (“Soldiers’ Talk”) appeared. It consisted of transcripts of tape-recorded discussions and interviews involving some 140 officers and soldiers, all kibbutz members. […]

The book struck a chord: Soldiers’ Talk was a phenomenal success, selling some 100,000 copies in Israel, and its kibbutznik editors and participants became minor celebrities, frequently appearing on the lecture circuit and in the media. Its fame also spread abroad: in the words of Elie Wiesel, this was “a very great book, very great,” thanks to “its integrity, its candor. No sleights of hand, no masks, no games. This is the truth, this is how it was.” Eventually the book was translated into a half-dozen languages, most notably in an abridged English version under the title The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk About the Six-Day War. The dialogues even provided fodder for a play performed in New York.”

In other words, the written version of that piece of oral history was not “long withheld” at all. As Kramer reveals, the first edition of the book “was printed privately for circulation in kibbutzim. Clearly marked “internal, not for sale,” and issued between drab covers in October 1967, it didn’t trigger the need for approval by the censor.” Later, as outside interest in the book grew:

“…the editors decided to pursue commercial publication—a step requiring submission of the private edition to the chief military censor, Col. Walter (Avner) Bar-On. There the project became stuck: […] “the chief censor proposed to delete nearly every politically loaded sentence, every sentence describing moral dilemmas such as looting, treatment of prisoners, refugees, etc.”

Had the process ended there, Soldiers’ Talk would have been gutted. But it didn’t end there. In January 1968, the editors contacted the army’s chief education officer, Col. Mordechai (“Morele”) Bar-On (no relation to Walter/Avner Bar-On), and pleaded for his intervention. Impressed by the project, he took it under his wing, asking the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, for permission to assume responsibility for all content that didn’t expose military secrets. Rabin agreed, and Mordechai Bar-On became instrumental in seeing the project through censorship. […]

Bar-On, later one of the founders of Peace Now, is still active at eighty-six and takes some pride in the fact that he managed to get Soldiers’ Talk through military censorship with few changes. “I became the spokesperson for the book [in the army],” he recently recalled. “Here and there I softened some sentence, but overall, not much.” […] When I asked him about the claim that the censor had nixed 70 percent of the material, he scoffed: “Maybe two or three percent.””

The clearly misleading claim of “censored voices” is obviously both promotional and political in motivation. Mor Loushy’s political aspirations for her film are not concealed in the Q&A appearing on the webpage or in the film’s promotional material.

“I stand 100% behind my film. I believe in the film and I believe in those voices. I believe that my son, who is two-and-a-half-years-old, needs another future in Israel. I’m fighting for a different future. I’m fighting for a better future – for a future of peace and for a future of two states side by side or any other solution. I don’t want to keep being in this bloody circle. I do believe that democratic states should be transparent in our history. If this film is a part of that, then I’m proud to be a part of that. Truly, I’m not afraid.”

However, BBC audiences who just viewed the film itself on Channel Four without visiting the webpage were given no inkling of the political agenda behind it. Neither were they given any clue as to the problematic presentation of some of the allegations made in the film, as Martin Kramer also notes.

“Footage is shown to illustrate some of the claims—bodies of enemy soldiers strewn along the road, refugees trudging with their possessions on their backs—but it isn’t actual footage of the scenes described by the speaking soldiers, and it bears no identifying captions. We hear voices making confessions or allegations, but we don’t know who is speaking, and the soldiers are identified by name only at the end. (“For the most part,” notes one American reviewer, “the men are treated as interchangeable.”) In these circumstances, the veracity of any individual allegation is difficult if not impossible to establish.”

Only in the fast-moving final credits are viewers informed that “the people shown in the archival footage are not the same individuals speaking on, or described in, the audio tapes created in 1967”.

Those familiar with previous ‘Storyville‘ choices of films relating to Israel (see below) will not have found its decision to broadcast an obviously politically motivated film, gravely lacking in context and purporting to give a platform to “censored voices” that were not in fact censored, surprising in the least.

Related Articles:

BBC Four’s documentary series ‘Storyville’ to show Palestinian propaganda film

BBC commissioning editor ‘explains’ his claim of ‘half-covered-up atrocities’ in Israel

Tonight: two to watch out for on BBC 2

On Saturday October 11th BBC Two will screen ‘The Gatekeepers’ at 21:45 UK time. The programme’s synopsis reads as follows:

“For the first time ever, six former heads of Israel’s domestic secret service agency, the Shin Bet, share their insights and reflect publicly on their actions and decisions.

Since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has been unable to transform its crushing military victory into a lasting peace. Throughout that entire period, these heads of the Shin Bet stood at the centre of Israel’s decision-making process in all matters pertaining to security. They worked closely with every Israeli prime minister, and their assessments and insights had – and continue to have – a profound impact on Israeli policy.

The Gatekeepers offers an exclusive account of the sum of their successes and failures. In the process it sheds light on the controversy surrounding the occupation in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.”

Gatekeepers on BBC 2

Following that, at 23:20, BBC’s Two’s ‘Newsnight’ will be hosting a discussion on the topic with a group of as yet unidentified guests.

“Evan Davis presents a discussion in which a panel of guests debate the issues raised by Dror Moreh’s documentary about Israeli secret service Shin Bet, which features interviews with six of the agency’s former heads.”

As readers are no doubt aware, this is by no means a new topic for the BBC.

Related Articles:

BBC uses ‘Gatekeepers’ to advance its own weary mantras on Israel

BBC Four’s documentary series ‘Storyville’ to show Palestinian propaganda film

BBC commissioning editor ‘explains’ his claim of ‘half-covered-up atrocities’ in Israel

h/t A

Earlier this month we noted a passage in an article which appeared in the Observer and was written by the commissioning editor of the BBC 4 documentary series ‘Storyville’, Nick Fraser. In that article Fraser wrote: 

Think of other half-covered-up atrocities – in Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa, Israel, any place you like with secrets – and imagine similar films had been made. Consider your response – and now consider whether such goings-on in Indonesia are not acceptable merely because the place is so far away, and so little known or talked about that the cruelty of such an act can pass uncriticised.” [emphasis added]

Thanks to a reader who wrote to Nick Fraser regarding his decision to broadcast the film ‘5 Broken Cameras’, some insight has now been gained into exactly which “half-covered-up atrocities” Fraser was thinking of when he wrote those words. Here is a part of his reply as it was received:

“First, I intend no slur in relation to Israel by referring to half-reported atrocities – you will notice that among those I noted in my piece was the British collusion in the Bengali famines, which was the work of British officials. The half-failure to acknowledge events is alas quite common – democracies are not immune to this trendency [sic]. Most Israelis would agree with me that the story of the massacre at Sabra and Chatila – not the work of Israeli soldiers – falls in this category. So, too, do the events that occurred in Lod in the war that occurred at the time of the founding of Israel – and the New Yorker excerpted an account from a book recently published.”

So, whilst Fraser is clearly aware that the Sabra and Shatila massacres were “not the work of Israeli soldiers”, he nevertheless did not see fit to include Lebanon on his list. He also elects to ignore the fact that Israel (unlike Lebanon) initiated a commission of inquiry into the events at Sabra & Shatila: a fact which clearly negates Fraser’s claim of a “half-failure to acknowledge events”.

But most revealing is Fraser’s citation of “the events that occurred in Lod” which, from his reference to the New Yorker, we can conclude he learned about from Ari Shavit’s book “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” because the chapter of that book relating to Lod was indeed reproduced in that magazine in October last year.

However, Fraser does not seem to have sought out any additional information on the battle which took place in Lod (Lydda) in 1948 from other sources and he appears to have adopted Ari Shavit’s narrative as accurate despite the fact that – as noted in this review of Shavit’s book:

“The section on Lydda focuses on another nameless IDF “brigade commander.” The source notes claim these are composite characters, but it harms the narrative and makes it read like historical fiction.”

Other issues concerning Shavit’s book in general and his portrayal of the events in Lod in particular have been raised by Allan Gerson and Professor Ruth Wisse. Our colleague at CAMERA, Alex Safian, took the time to fill in the parts of the story not told by Ari Shavit – and hence presumably unknown to Nick Fraser.

“In Shavit’s very deceptive and even contradictory recounting, Israeli soldiers led by a certain Lt. Col. Moshe Dayan, and armed with:

a giant armored vehicle mounted with a cannon, menacing half-tracks, and machine-gun-equipped jeeps

joined other Israeli forces attacking Lydda (and its neighbor Ramle) during Israel’s War of Independence. Led by Dayan’s marauding forces the Israelis took control of “key positions” in the town, but the next day fighting flared again, and:

in thirty minutes, two hundred and fifty Palestinians were killed. Zionism had carried out a massacre in the city of Lydda.

Is this really what happened? Well let’s start with the matter of the “giant armored vehicle,” a phrase which could only stun anyone the least bit familiar with Israeli military history. It was actually just a lightly armored scout car – with regular inflated rubber tires – standing about seven feet high and just six feet wide. Here’s a picture of the actual vehicle, at the Israeli Armored Corps Museum at Latrun:

"Giant" Armored Vehicle

Read about the rest of Ari Shavit’s numerous – and more grave – distortions and omissions in this article.

Clearly, Fraser’s promotion of the notion of “half-covered-up atrocities” in Israel is based on the wobbly foundations of a half-covered-up story which he obviously did not bother to research fully before putting into the public domain, but which fits in with his already existing narrative. Rather like the commissioning process for ‘5 Broken Cameras’, it seems.

In the same reply Nick Fraser wrote:

“As for your observations about FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS, the film-makers would dispute them. The film appears to us to be an honest account of some aspects of the Israeli occupation. It doesn’t pretend to be other than what it is – a partial account from one side. And, importantly, one of the film-makers is an Israeli, and thge [sic] film has been widely shown in Israel. STORYVILLE, the series in which the film was shown, exists to show provocative, interesting films. Having read all accounts of the film – in Israel and elsewhere – we felt it was appropriate to show FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS.”

Fraser continued:

“We are showing THE GATEKEEPERS, another excellent Israeil [sic] film, later this year.”

What a surprise.

BBC Four’s documentary series ‘Storyville’ to show Palestinian propaganda film

h/t A

In the February 23rd edition of The Observer the commissioning editor for the BBC Four documentary series ‘Storyville’, Nick Fraser, wrote on the topic of the Oscar-nominated documentary film about the murders of half a million people in Indonesia some fifty years ago – “The Act of Killing” – and why it should not, in his view, receive that award.  

Among the persuasive arguments presented, Fraser wrote:

“I’d feel the same if film-makers had gone to rural Argentina in the 1950s, rounding up a bunch of ageing Nazis and getting them to make a film entitled “We Love Killing Jews”.

He then added:

“Think of other half-covered-up atrocities – in Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa, Israel, any place you like with secrets – and imagine similar films had been made. Consider your response – and now consider whether such goings-on in Indonesia are not acceptable merely because the place is so far away, and so little known or talked about that the cruelty of such an act can pass uncriticised.” [emphasis added]

Can Fraser make an evidence-based case for his claim that Israel is a “place…with secrets” and “half-covered-up atrocities”? Can he objectively and factually maintain that Israel belongs in the same lumped-together category with genocide-blighted Bosnia and Rwanda? Of course he cannot, but that sentence perhaps gives us a glimpse of the accepted wisdom of the man in charge of commissioning “the best in character-driven documentaries with strong narratives”, as defined by the BBC.

Further on in his essay, Fraser wrote:

“But documentary films have emerged from the not inconsiderable belief that it’s good to be literal as well as truthful. In a makeshift, fallible way, they tell us what the world is really like. Documentaries are the art of the journeyman. They can be undone by too much ambition. Too much ingenious construction and they cease to represent the world, becoming reflected images of their own excessively stated pretensions.”

“Ingenious construction” is a very apt way of describing the editing process which brought about the creation of Emad Burnat’s film ‘Five Broken Cameras’, in which many of the most controversial scenes consist of footage from different occasions spliced together to create an impression of excessive and unprovoked violence on the part of Israeli soldiers dealing with the weekly riots at Bil’in. The product of that politically motivated editing process – combined with the amateur dramatics of some of the film’s Palestinian participants – does indeed “cease to represent the world”, instead promoting the political propaganda enabled by a deliberately distorted view of events on the ground – under the guise of factual documentary. As Nick Fraser might have put it, ‘Five Broken Cameras’ “teaches us nothing” about the realities of either the micro situation in Bil’in or the macro of the Palestinian political campaign which aims to shackle Israeli counter-terrorism methods and defame and delegitimise in the process. 

One would perhaps expect that a seasoned documentary watcher and commissioning editor such as Nick Fraser would be easily able to identify the propaganda genre and to distinguish between it and genuine documentary – and perhaps he indeed can. But nevertheless, Nick Fraser has elected to broadcast ‘Five Broken Cameras’ as part of the ‘Storyville‘ series on BBC Four on March 3rd at 22:30 GMT under the title “The Village that Fought Back“.

Storyville

Perhaps that Observer essay by Fraser provides a clue as to why this film is misleadingly being promoted by the BBC as a documentary  – i.e. “a film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject”. But what remains is the question of how an organization obliged under the terms of its constitutional charter to “[e]nhance UK audiences’ awareness and understanding of international issues” can justify the screening of blatant political propaganda under the guise of factual content.

e-mail: Storyville@bbc.co.uk