Review by Charles Hartney
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Kino Video DVD
Amos Gitai’s Kedma opens on the delicate skin of a woman’s back as she peels down the straps of her shirt, leaving her back and chest naked. She has been stripped down to her basest elements and is left standing exposed to the world, her nakedness a reminder of her humanity. The woman and her unfettered bareness come to allegorize the Jewish people in Gitai’s undeniably authentic deconstruction of his nation’s history.
The movie tells the story of a group of Jewish refugees who leave Europe and arrive in Palestine in 1948, during the establishment of the Israeli state. For Jews escaping the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust just years before, the new Israeli state was supposed to be a place of freedom and opportunity. Instead the refugees are thrust into a war torn land, and are expected to take arms and fight for a nation they have never known.
On board the Kedma, the ship that carries the refugees to their homeland, Gitai’s meandering lens captures with documentary authenticity the longing and alienation of the European Jews. Separated by nationality and language, everyone aboard the ship has only one thing in common, a desire for change. In a particularly memorable shot, Gitai’s camera lingers on the ripples and waves in the sea; clearly the tides of change are upon the passengers of the Kedma.
Once in Palestine, the refugees encounter British troops firing upon them as well as Arabs who resent the Jews for the loss of their homeland. When three refugees encounter a caravan of Arabs on a dirt road, Gitai allows his audience a glimpse at this age-old conflict. Two of the Jews want to flee, but after talking to the Arabs, they find the Arabs are fleeing from the other Jews. This tale of mutual fear delicately underscores the nature of this seemingly unending ethnic conflict.
But rather than focus on the Jewish/Arab conflict, Gitai instead focuses on the internal conflict of the Jewish people. In the film’s first two acts, most of the stories recounted by the refugees recollect the Holocaust and the inhumane treatment they received while imprisoned. Jews of this day were characterized and identified by their suffering, an identity Gitai emphasizes and then denounces at the film’s close.
Like the woman in the film’s opening sequence, the European Jews had been stripped of everything: their homes, their possessions, their lives, and, most importantly, their humanity. Only the homeland was gained. And it was the homeland for which they decided to fight.
In the film’s final scene, Janusz, a ghetto escapee, contemptuously describes the history of the Jews. “No glory, no action, no heroes, no conquerors. Just poor wretches pursued, moaning, crying, always begging for their lives.” For Janusz, the Jewish people could no longer suffer silently, awaiting the Messiah and their salvation. They had to save themselves.
Kedma is a story of alienation, of determination, of heritage. But most of all, it is a story about evolution and about resurrection. The European Jews, who had for so long been oppressed and persecuted, had to accept the death that was the Holocaust and start a new life, a life lived fighting for something, for themselves. The war for their homeland is all that can free them from their tragic memories in Europe. By fighting for their state, the refugees transform themselves from Jews to Israelites, from victims to combatants.