Saturday, May 20, 2017

In Our Hands: The Battle for Jerusalem

An army sweeps through the Old City of Jerusalem. Thousands of residents were displaced even though their ancestors had lived in the Quarter for generations. Places of worship were destroyed and graves were desecrated. The year is 1948. The Army is the Jordanian Arab Legion and the neighborhood is the Old Jewish Quarter. Perhaps you were expecting different players? Regardless, the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem certainly provides helpful context for understanding the early history of the State of Israel. Fittingly, that is where Erin Zimmerman starts her deeply insightful hybrid documentary, before chronicling the David-and-Goliath-like Six-Day War in In Our Hands: The Battle for Jerusalem (trailer here), which screens nationwide this Tuesday, via Fathom Events.

The Six-Day War was orchestrated by Nasser to literally wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. The tiny democracy was vastly outnumbered. Not only had the Egyptian demagogue convinced a willing Iraq and a reluctant Jordan to combine forces, just before the launch of hostilities, Israel would be abandoned by its greatest ally at the time: France. Yet, the resulting war did not go exactly as planned.

Zimmerman tells the story through the oral histories of the surviving veterans of the 55th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade, while also using actors to dramatize the historic events they participated in. The focal point of the film is Major Arik Achmon, who served as the intelligence officer under the brigade’s legendary commander, Mordechai “Motta” Gur. Achmon painstakingly planned a desperately dangerous mission in the Sinai, but when the war dramatically turned in Israel’s favor, he had to change gears at a moment’s notice and devise a strategy for taking the Old City.

You might think you were sufficiently familiar with the battles of the Six-Day War, but Zimmerman and her interview subjects provide fascinating details and absolutely riveting personal accounts. As Achmon and his comrades fully explain the conditions and circumstances they were dealing with, the magnitude of their victory seems genuinely miraculous.

Context is indeed the key to In Our Hands. Zimmerman and company really give viewers a full historical, social, and psychological perspective on the War and the events leading up to and following after it. Tiresome partisans will want to dismiss the film outright, because it was produced by CBN films, but it is a really fine work of historical documentary filmmaking. There is no religious proselytizing whatsoever. In fact, the film takes pains to point out a great many secular Israeli soldiers died alongside their religious Jewish counterparts, sacrificing their lives for the dream of a free and secure democratic State of Israel.

Given the nature of the re-enactment sequences, it is hard for the various cast-members to stand out for their work playing historical figures. Still, it must be readily admitted Sharon Friedman and Rami Baruch swagger quite effectively as Gur and legendary Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Historian and former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael B. Oren also lends the film a real voice of authority as one of the leading talking head experts.

Whether you are a faithful supporter of Israel, or a kneejerk critic, there is much to learn from In Our Hands. It also does justice to the human interest of one of the greatest underdog triumphs in military history. Very highly recommended, In Our Hands screens this coming Tuesday (5/23) at participating theaters throughout the country, including the AMC Empire and the Regal Union Square in New York.