States of UnBelonging is less of a thesis than a question which unravels before the viewer. Like the Israel-Palestine conflict which it investigates, the film is often undefined and challenging. In fact, it is hard to categorize States of UnBelonging. One can consider it a documentary since it investigates a certain socio-political problem in our world. On the other hand, the movie’s style and introverted tone characterize it more as a “film essay” — a personal expression of its director, Lynne Sachs. Either way, States of UnBelonging is refreshing for the fact that it avoids the cookie-cutter documentary formula, electing to treat the investigation as a personal journey rather than treatise.
The film’s narrative follows certain recurring elements. The initial investigation is provoked by Sachs’s interest — or better said, shock — over the 2002 murder of Israeli filmmaker Revital Ohayon and her two sons in a terrorist attack on the kibbutz where she lived. Sachs is not only transfixed by the similarities between herself and the victim (an independent filmmaker, mother and Jew), but also by Revital’s choice to live in the kibbutz which borders Palestinian territory. Sachs applies the latter question to Israel in general and questions why so many people are willing to risk their well-being and, in extreme cases, give their lives to “the land that devours its own.”
Sachs is not the only one who contributes to the film’s narrative. Her investigation is communicated through correspondence with a former film student, Nir. His footage makes up a large section of the actual film. Their e-mails contain correspondence about the developing project, paired with general thoughts from Nir, a resident in Israel who faces the daily threat of terrorism, and Lynne, who only has the experience of watching the events on television.
This unique narrative is accompanied by poignant interviews with the family of Revital Ohayon, including her brother, mother and husband. Sachs also inserts clips of Revital’s previous films. In one of the movie’s more poignant scenes, we watch videotape of a daycare in Revital’s kibbutz the day after the funeral for her and her sons. The students, none more than seven years old, talk somewhat surrealistically about the funeral, what they should do with the toys of Matan and Noam (Revital’s murdered sons), and what it means to be dead. A young boy interrupts the discussion to talk about hearing television commentators saying that the Palestinian terrorists have the mindset of a dog. We think how shameful it is that the seeds of misunderstanding are being planted at such a young age, but at the same time one must wonder: “How can you blame the kid for hating the people who have killed his friends for doing nothing but existing at someone else’s inconvenience?” The scene is one of the most powerful which demonstrate Sachs’s central observation, that the “encounter with death is so immediate in Israel.”
It is important to note that States of UnBelonging is a visually engaging film. Sachs’s work is an eclectic mix of news clips, simple hand-held camera footage of Israeli cities, as well as shots of moving crowds and cars, contrasted with stirring still-lives of empty playground swings. From these sources, Sachs creates an engaging collage out of which a portrait of a nation slowly emerges.
Despite this beauty, themes of resolution are distressingly elusive for both Sachs and the viewer. Despite the director’s best efforts to show signs of hope, we feel that Revital’s murder is simply one more in an unending spiral of violence. However, the director does suggest some hope. If the film’s message can be pinpointed (which is doubtful due to its complex nature), I think one can find it in interviews with Revital’s husband, Avi Ohayon. If anyone has the right to be angry at his situation, it is this calm man who has had his family stolen away from him in one sharp, painful instant. However, Avi’s plea is not one of hate, but rather a call for resolution. He insists that for any resolution to take place, we must not see people as members of groups or political units, but simply as people who may be related to that woman sitting next to you on the bus, or that elderly man in the bookstore. Only when we think in human terms instead of political ones is there any hope of progress. Certainly Sachs’s film is a step in the right direction.