Television review

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Unholy Land isn't exactly a dispassionate title for a series marking the fiftieth anniversary of the state of Israel. True, Holy Land - which is what you first see in Channel Four's generic title sequence for the series, might have looked too much like an endorsement all on its own. But the "Un" which then appears and attaches itself to the front of the epithet isn't merely a blunting precaution, added like a cork to the tip of a dagger. It actually relocates the cutting edge and hones it further, with its suggestion that there is something durably profane or accursed about this particular area of the globe. But perhaps this is over-anxious of me - perhaps the producers were only thinking of the word's milder associations, of phrases such as "unholy mess" or "unholy racket", in which the word has an air of almost affectionate exasperation. On the evidence of last night's programmes, Israel would answer to both descriptions - a land of untidy borders and clamorous arguments.

The series - part of Channel Four's larger Israel 50 season - comes from the independent producers Colin Luke and Adam Alexander, who have pioneered a technique in which the gathering of raw material is separated from its refinement in an editing studio (a method previously employed for the BBC in the Russian Wonderland series and United Kingdom. The result is films which often have the rough intimacy of video diaries, but in which those holding the camera have a limited say about the final composition of the film - because someone else directs the edit. On the face of it this would seem like a perfect recipe for double vision (or a homogenising dullness), but in practice it can deliver an unusual thing - a kind of collaborative candour. It doesn't invariably work but sometimes an outsider is able to seize on something that an insider might have passed over as too commonplace to mention.

The best case in point last night was a short film about three women living in an ultra-orthodox community; this is a camera-shy society, so virtually any sequence would have been intriguing, but whoever had assembled the material had made sure that a tremor of female dissatisfaction was preserved in the final cut. On this account (broadly uncomplaining, it should be said) many of the men appear to live lives of high-minded infancy; they don't take jobs, because that would interrupt their religious studies, so mundane matters like paying bills and putting food on the table are left to their wives. The most telling sequence was a brief visit to an Israeli shopping mall, where one woman owned up to an inappropriate yen for fried chicken and then plugged the confessional crack by denying that her dietary restrictions were any kind of problem for her. "Do you feel restricted because you can't jump over here?" she asked, pointing to the railing round a three-storey atrium. "It's the secular people who visit the shopping mall," she concluded, performing a little pantomime of nausea at the conspicuous consumption around her. Perhaps I was imagining things but she still looked a little peckish to me.

The other two films were more conventional in their contents. The first followed the attempts of a Palestinian woman to extricate her husband from detention in an Israeli jail. She wasn't permitted to visit him ("They say I'm a danger to state security") and had no fixed date for his release - which meant that she lived a life of hopes raised and regularly dashed. The film concluded with a rallying cry - the released man insisting that "detention cannot make me change my political convictions" - but it was circumspect about exactly what those convictions were - as if knowledge of them might corrode our sympathies. Meira, the subject of the second film, could afford to be more open about her beliefs, partly because her desire for peace was broadly inoffensive, but mostly because she was a professional Jewish woman, and thus unlikely to be detained without trial for shouting indignant slogans outside the Prime Minister's office.

This didn't mean that her convictions were entirely without consequences - both her mother and her son disapproved of her beliefs - creating a generational sandwich in which rueful compromise was pressed between two thick slabs of intransigence.

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