Rock the Casbah

Casbah1Director Yariv Horovitz’s film ROCK THE CASBAH takes us through a number of tropes familiar to the modern war drama, but does so with a decent amount of skill and a welcome measure of empathy.

Set during the first Palestinian Intifada of 1989, the film follows Tomer (Yon Tumarkin), one of a contingent of Israeli soldiers posted to the Gaza Strip. Similar to Matthew Modine’s Private joker in Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, he’s less a protagonist than a blank slate, a study in how innocence becomes unmoored in exposure to a war zone.

The soldiers’ first mission is shot with a kinetic sense of tension and movement, with the hand-held digital cameras roving after characters as they race through the narrow backstreets. A routine patrol turns into a clash with stone-throwing protesters, then a foot chase, and finally an ambush resulting in the death of gung-ho soldier Ilya (Henry David).

From there, the film is moored to a central location: the roof from which the ambush took place. Posted there on the orders of their hard-nosed commanding officer, Tomer and three other soldiers settle into a routine of boredom and frustration, ekeing out petty struggles with the local Palestinian population, most prominently the family whose home they occupy.

There’s a problem here: the Palestinian civilians are not allowed inner lives in the way that the Israeli soldiers are. While the film doesn’t pull its punches in showing the constant minor humiliations of life under occupation, and there are some short sketches of the family trying to go about their daily routine as the soldiers tramp in and out, the Palestinian characters are mostly there for the soldiers to react to. This doesn’t damn the film entirely, but it should at least be taken in mind.

… the film takes a mostly apolitical “war-is-hell” attitude to the conflict …

Much like David Simon and Ed Burns’ HBO miniseries GENERATION KILL, the film takes a mostly apolitical “war-is-hell” attitude to the conflict. Ilya’s father, as he is shown the scene of his son’s death, breaks down and asks the senior officer what his son died for. Tomer, for his part, becomes more disturbed by the bigotry and brutality shown by his comrades-in-arms. One particularly disturbing sequence has him escorting a prisoner into the bowels of a military detention centre for interrogation. The static ceiling-level camera positions and horror-movie industrial soundtrack fix it as a nightmarish place.

The film conjures some striking images from the chaos of everyday life in Gaza, from the recurring appearance of a donkey painted with the Israeli flag, to the soldiers playing air guitar with their rifles as the camera swoops around like a music video. The soldiers act like overgrown schoolboys, and play with young children aiming gun-fingers at them, in between firing rubber bullets at scarcely older youths. It’s this focus on innocence lost that gives the film a retrospective air of tragedy; that over two decades on from the period depicted here, the occupation, bombings and killings continue.

In the final scene, as Tomer and fellow soldiers are being driven back home from their deployment, their transport passes a column of new troops going the opposite way. Parroting the rules of engagement as Tomer’s squad did when they arrived, the replacements move on. The  encounter emphasises the futile cyclical nature of the conflict, and closes out a solid, well-made film.

ROCK THE CASBAH screens at Cambridge Film Festival at 10.45pm on Tuesday 24 September. Click here to buy tickets.

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