Film Review: The Ruins of Lifta

Provocative, if a tad disingenuous, documentary about Lifta, a Palestinian village that was abandoned 68 years ago in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and now lies in ruins.
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Documentary maker Menachem Daum (Hiding and Seeking, A World Apart), who appears in his new film and comes across as a puzzled innocent, explores the past, present and future of Lifta, the only Palestinian village abandoned during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that has not been destroyed and repopulated by Jews. At the western entrance to Jerusalem, Lifta is in fact a striking ruin, buildings gutted and disintegrating. Israeli real estate developers now want to rebuild it as some kind of upscale Jewish community or resort and are battling a Palestinian and Jewish “Coalition to Save Lifta.” Because of its history and architecture—what remains of it—the village is a candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage site, a proposal that will probably not receive the Israeli government’s stamp of approval.

In an effort to present the village in its complex historical context—and as a microcosm of the Mideast crisis today—the Brooklyn-born and bred Daum interviews aging Holocaust survivors and early Israeli settlers (interspersed with evocative archival footage); various scholars; Arab and Jewish witnesses on both sides of the story; the land developers, and, most pivotal, Palestinian Yacoub Odeh,who says he and his family were expelled from Lifta in 1948 and is now leading the charge against the developers.

Currently living in East Arab Jerusalem, Odeh tours the ruins, pointing out landmarks, including his former home that is now a shell of a building vividly captured by photographer Oren Rudavsky, who also serves as The Ruins of Lifta’s director and co-producer.

Precisely what the Coalition wants to do with the site is not resolved and is complicated. If it’s turned into a museum, as some are hoping, what will it be a testimonial to? Will it present an even-handed account or simply become a platform to make Jews look bad, as government officials assert?

Odeh is not interested in a museum. Instead, he wants Palestinians to take over the village, rebuild and repopulate it, though what that would mean politically or culturally or its impact on Israel’s security is never made entirely clear. At no point does Daum ask Odeh if he accepts Israel’s right to exist at all.

Daum says his quest was to get to know a Palestinian personally who would ideally become his friend. Towards the end of the film, he asks Odeh if in the future they could get together to discuss football and theatre. It’s an uncomfortable-making moment and, worse, disingenuous, which is an underlying problem throughout the film.

Early on, Daum recounts how distrustful his Holocaust surviving family was of Gentiles in general and Poles in particular. Their views were closely examined in his film Hiding and Seeking and undoubtedly informed Daum’s sensibility. Still, when he visits Poland and describes (in Lifta) how startled he was to find that there were good and decent Poles too, it strains credulity. He says he had no idea such fine Poles existed. He then wondered if there were good and decent Arabs, contrary to the thoughts of his small-minded, bigoted family, and sets out to find them.

Daum’s journey of discovery feels set up as he learns that prior to 1948—translation: prior to the existence of Israel—Lifta was a happy-go-lucky community of Jews, Arabs and Christians living in peace and harmony. Even if it’s a wholly accurate depiction (and that seems unlikely), his “Gee whiz, who knew?” wonderment is grating. Along the way he also uncovers the “truth” about his tough uncle, a heroic family figure who was part of a pre-1948 Jewish militia that was (depending on the viewpoint) a group of freedom fighters or terrorists or both. Still, Daum allows the ambiguity to surface through interviews that reflect a range of heartfelt experiences and interpretations.

No one can dispute that there was suffering on all sides. One scholar in the film spells it out, saying the UN’s recommendation that the former British mandate of Palestine be divided into two regions (one of which would become Israel) was made because no one wanted the Jews, with even less thought given to the Arabs.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is relentless and at a hopeless impasse, a reality that is brought home in a moving scene between aging Holocaust survivor Dasha Rittenberg and Odeh as they tour the ruins together. Daum hoped their meeting would be a move towards reconciliation. It soon becomes clear that will never happen, at least not between these two.

Rittenberg can barely look at Odeh and he refuses to believe that the Jews in post-Holocaust Europe had no other place to go, and if in fact the Jews were living in exile, how was their exile any worse than that of the Palestinians at the hands of the Jews? Rittenberg doesn’t see any parity at all—if nothing else, Palestinians are flanked on all sides by fellow Arabs who could have absorbed the Palestinians in 68 years—nor does she buy into the notion that the Palestinians were hapless victims.

Nonetheless, when Rittenberg becomes overheated and exhausted, she sandwiches herself between Odeh and Daum, clutching their arms on either side, allowing them to support her as they silently move around the rubble. It’s visually stunning and packs an emotional wallop.

Click here for cast and crew information.