Promised Lands (Zeitgeist/KimStim, NR)

Susan Sontag’s documentary is not a film like any other and almost 30 years later still commands our interest.



There’s nothing in Promised Lands, Susan Sontag’s 1973 documentary shot in Israel around the end of the Yom Kippur War, to suggest that she had any interest in mastering the conventional language of film. Instead, her purpose seems to have been to create a collage that juxtaposed various aspects of the contemporary Israeli situation in a way that she found interesting and meaningful. It’s not a film like any other and almost 30 years later still commands our interest on two fronts: as part of the output of one of the leading public intellectuals of the day, and as a time capsule of a particular place during a pivotal period in its modern history. And perhaps also as a reminder of a time when a noted writer and intellectual was willing to take the risk of working in a medium in which she had no training and minimal experience, long before digital cameras and editing greatly simplified the process of filmmaking.

The visual content of Promised Lands is abstract and Sontag loves to set up visual rhymes and oppositions—for instance showing us in sequence a church steeple, a television antenna, and the minaret of a mosque. Scenes of a tour group visiting a cemetery are followed by the horrifying wreckage of the present war, complete with charred bodies, and the silent desert all around. Although voices are heard from time to time, more often the sounds are more abstract: church bells, the bustle of busy streets, classical music, distantly-heard prayers at the Wailing Wall. The most direct commentary is provided by two opposing Israeli scholars: Yoram Kaniuk, who criticizes the Israeli shift toward an American-style commercial culture and supports Palestinian rights, and Yuval Ne’eman who argues that Arab anti-Semitism makes continuing conflict inevitable. Often they are heard in voiceover while what we see bears no direct relation to their words, one of several techniques Sontag uses to create deliberate discontinuities in this film.

Israeli authorities banned Promised Lands when it was first released on the grounds that it would be "damaging to the country’s morale." Today it’s difficult to see what their objection was unless the state was so sensitive to criticism that anything less than a pure puff piece was unacceptable. The two primary voices heard in the film are both Israelis while the Palestinians are left, as they often are, without representation. Sontag does show the results of war (those charred bodies and abandoned tanks) but to object to such representation seems as foolish as George Bush’s demand that photographs of the caskets of American soldiers not appear on television or in newspapers.

No matter, Promised Lands is available on DVD from Zeitgeist/KimStim so you can watch it and make your own judgments. A six-page booklet includes Sontag’s 1973 Vogue essay about the film and a brief essay by Ed Halter. Unfortunately there are no extras on the disc, and this is one film that could use a little explanation and contextualizing whether in the form of a feature commentary or a documentary about the making of the film itself. | Sarah Boslaugh


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