1.Disturbing the Peace: sharp and hopeful study of Israel-Palestine conflict
This carefully measured documentary splices together archive material, dramatic recreations and extensive talking-head interviews to unravel the stories of Palestinians and Israelis, speaking in English, Arabic and Hebrew, who ended up becoming combatants against one another in a conflict that has been playing out for generations. As you would expect, it’s a steady procession of stories about anger provoked by atrocities on both sides, battles fought, won and lost and growing despair over whether there will ever be away out of the cycle of violence.
Only around the halfway mark is it revealed that all the interviewees are part of a nonviolent organisation called Combatants for Peace. The group seeks to unite fighters from both sides to mount protests and express their joint commitment to a two-state solution. Inspired in part by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the sharing of these personal narratives aims to create deeper understanding and empathy. Inspiring, hopeful stuff to be sure, told in the Errol Morris style, with its bricolage of images and voices, although there is still a palpable sense of just how big a challenge remains.
2.Lost in Lebanon: the Syrian war seen through fresh eyes
The Syrian civil war is always there in the news to varying degrees, depending where you look. And yet, tragically, due partly to Islamophobia and compassion fatigue, the real people behind the statistics about refugees remain too often nameless and undifferentiated. This deftly assembled, empathic but measured documentary by co-directing sisters Sophia and Georgia Scott forms a corrective as it profiles four Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Community leader Sheikh Abdo lives in a refugee camp by the border and pours his energy into running a school for the displaced kids, although his good work is hampered by being constantly arrested by the Lebanese authorities.
One of his volunteer teachers is Nemr, barely out of his teens himself, a bright young man who understands the risk that the next generation will just become mindless soldiers for Isis if they’re not educated. Up the road in Beirut, hirsute artist Mwafak ekes out a living with no legitimate papers and weighs his extremely limited options. Meanwhile, dynamic Reem, a trained architect, does what she can to organise civic self-help programmes in Shatila, once the site of a massacre (depicted in docu-cartoon Waltz With Bashir) and now a hellish, fast-developing ghetto for a new generation of refugees.
The film might have been improved by slightly less mawkish music and not resorting to literal-minded shots of pigeons taking flight while a voiceover discusses those who flee, but otherwise this is a moving, galvanising work that tackles this horrific humanitarian crisis with a fresh eye and ear.
3.Letters from Baghdad: Tilda Swinton reads from the letters of the colorful and charismatic explorer, diplomat and archeologist, Gertrude Bell, who, along with TE Lawrence, shaped modern Iraq.
It is one of the injustices of the universe that the fame of TE Lawrence, AKA Lawrence of Arabia, lives on (probably mostly thanks to David Lean and Peter O’Toole), while far fewer people are familiar with the biography of his contemporary and comrade-in-diplomacy, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), a character no less colorful, charismatic and compelling than Lawrence. Getting a niche art house release, this finely wrought documentary won’t rectify that imbalance in their respective reputations. But it does serve as a handy summary for those who want a cinematic introduction to Bell’s sprawling, singular story, and don’t want to start with Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog’s dramatised flop that starred Nicole Kidman as Bell.
Here, an unseen Tilda Swinton reads extracts from the many elegantly written letters Bell sent while she was finding her feet in the Middle East, learning Farsi and Arabic, and then later exploring the desert, where she developed a particular bond with its people. Eventually, along with Lawrence, she would help to shape the modern states we have today – especially Iraq – before moving into the field of archaeology.
Various actors are seen reciting recollections of friendships and encounters with her, as she cut a stylish swathe across the region, always dressed immaculately. Directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl have opted to make the film a touch more uncommercial by filming even this original footage in smudgy black and white that matches the wealth of archive footage used to illustrate the story.
Sure, it is a little like how you imagine it would be if Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour made films instead of audio-only features, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.