Documentary filmmakers Gil Levanon and Kat Rohrer explore the current state of Israel and its connection to the outside world in their film Back to the Fatherland. Their honest efforts fall short as the story gets muddled within a poorly constructed structure and moments of questionable politics. (AG: 1/5 stars).
Review by FF2 Intern Anika Guttormson
Back to the Fatherland follows Jewish documentary filmmakers Gil Levanon and Kat Rohrer as they explore the modern day connections between the countries of Israel, Germany, and Austria. Levanon and Roher share the bond that both of their parents were affected by the Holocoust, though in wildly different capacities. Levanon is the descedant of a Holocaust survivor while Kat is the granddaughter of a Nazi officer. Throughout the film the two attempt to reconcile Israel’s current policies towards immigrants and Palestinians with their own liberal beliefs as they search for other young liberals who have left Israel.
In the opening of the film the two discuss the idea of leaving Israel for Berlin, Germany with Levanon’s Jewish grandfather Yochanan. The elder man is disgusted by the idea as he believes to this day that all Germans are detestable anti-Semites, but the two women don’t press him further. Many of the other prominent figures in the documentary also hold conversations with their grandparents as they attempt to balance their grandparents consistent distrust for Germany and Austria with the shifting politics of Europe and their desires to leave the country that they once called home. One such person is Dan Peled, who chose to leave Israel because of their war with Palestine, despite his grandmother Lea protesting his decision. This tension between their beliefs could have led to a deeper discussion on Israel’s politics but instead the documentarians choose to turn away from such conversations and focus on their shared love of art.
Some of the most powerful moments of the film, however, stem from the exploration of the relationships between the older and younger generations. At one point Dan and Lea’s search for Lea’s mothers grave. Dan eventually finds her resting place in Vienna, Austria, but it’s worn and covered over completely with vines. Dan, as well as the audience, are forced to sit in the discomfort that so many survivors lie forgotten in graves thousands of miles away from their closest family members. Guy Shahar also shares a moment of pain with his grandfather Uri when he takes his grandfather to Austria. Sitting on a tram, Uri shares a memory of being searched by a Nazi officer many years ago almost being captured. The thought brings the man to tears while his grandson stares out the window and holds his grandfather’s hand.
The most disappointing aspect of the film is Levanon and Roher’s descision to shy away from taking any sort of hard lined political stance. Certainly when exploring such difficult and expansive topics as they are, there are going to be disagreements and questions, but the two documentarians seem content with platforming iffy politics for the sake of opening up a discussion. This is present most often in the use of interviews with Guy Shahar and his girlfriend, an Austrian woman named Katharina Maschek, from Salzburg. Shahar continually expressed xenophobic and islamaphobic sentiments, claiming that the influx of Muslim refugees into Europe will lead to a rise in anti-Semitism, therefore making Austria unsafe for him.
Of course the fear of increased anti-Semitism is understandable, but to attribute Europe’s recent rise of anti-Semitism to the immigration of refugees and not to a rise in white-supremactist and alt-right ideology is upsetting. The filmmakers owe it to one of the most vulnerable populations within modern day Europe to stand firmly against these claims. Instead, no interviews exist to counter Shahar’s ideology, as Levanon and Roher never interview Palestinians or other Middle Eastern refugees. Outside of a handful of b-roll shots of Muslim families walking around the street there seems to be little more than a nod to the other populations within Israel.
Back to the Fatherland’s attempt to tackle such a heavy topic as the generational divide between young and old Israelis is a noble pursuit, but unfortunately their work gets bogged down by a lack of plot and lack of message.
© Anika Guttormson (6/28/18) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: IMDB
Q: Does Back to the Fatherland pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
There are discussions between women concerning the fate of the country of Israel.
Commentary by Review Coach Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
The most striking moment for me in Back to the Fatherland was when Guy and Katharina are talking about the recent conflict in Israel; Katharina refers to it as a war and Guy interrupts her to say it was a military operation, not a war. She explains why she is calling it a war, and he repeats the words “military operation” over and over. I and several other FF2 writers had the strong urge to tell her to break up with him–if not because of his own politics, because of the way he engaged with hers. Guy’s perspective is telling of the general attitude toward Palestinians in Israel and Arab-world refugees in Germany that most of the characters in this film show. While many of the people interviewed in this film show more compassion, such as Katharina, none of them are willing to actually stand up to people like Guy or their grandparents on political issues.
If people aren’t willing or able to hold governments of all countries accountable for how they treat the vulnerable–be they refugees, marginalized communities, or any other group–then the result will be the repetition through history of the atrocities from Auschwitz, from Rwanda, from Sudan, from Armenia, from every inch of North American soil stolen from Native Americans, and from the camps on our Southern border right now. A film dealing with the Holocaust specifically and genocide in particular owed it to its viewers to take a stance on an issue that no one can afford to be neutral on right now–because as the film itself says, this history is far from gone. It is with us in every moment of the present day, which means that it must either be reckoned with or repeated.