Israeli documentary asks tough questions

You hear the word “documentary” and it carries a certain idea — but think of the many colors of the documentary movie and how many different approaches you can take.

Anything is possible, from the Hollywood-style yarn-spinning of “Searching for Sugar Man” (more suspenseful than most fiction films) to the slide show of “An Inconvenient Truth” to the opinionated yammering of a Michael Moore offering.

Results can be surprising. Take “The Law in These Parts,” a documentary from Israel. Although it flashes newsreel footage in the background of some sections, for the most part this movie is a series of people sitting at a table talking about the past.

And you can’t take your eyes off it. Because despite the forthrightness of many interviewees, the subject is delicate and haunting, and clearly doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with some of them.

The people on screen are judges who served in the military legal system that oversaw (and oversees) Israel’s administration of the territories it occupied in the years after the 1967 war.

Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz (who should be commended just for getting a group of very important people to sit down for some uncomfortable questions) is exploring thorny issues that stem from one key point: whether it has been appropriate to carry out military (rather than civil) law in the occupied territories, when such a system has fewer resources for the accused and a greater sense of the importance of order over the importance of human rights.

Some judges, or ex-judges, are entirely unruffled by these ethical issues. Others admit problems but insist this is the right approach for the circumstances.

One fascinating character not only acknowledges serious flaws in the system but forthrightly admits he was aware of violent interrogation techniques being used on prisoners.

Alexandrowicz narrates the film, but does not use his position to harangue us; this is not a movie that’s out to “get” Israel, even if it clearly displays concern about recent history. Instead, the blandly functional approach allows us to experience these judges as though they were on the witness stand, and we were sizing up their testimony.

Simple, but absorbing. And this movie turns out to be not merely an issue film after all, but a human-interest story on a whole bunch of different levels.

“The Law in These Parts” (3 stars)

Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz sits a series of his country’s military judges at a table, and asks them questions about the way military (rather than civil) justice has been administered in the occupied territories for the last 40 years. It’s a disconcerting, and surprisingly absorbing, look at an issue, and also quite a character study. In Hebrew, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing: Northwest Film Forum.

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