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Journey of Hope: Reflections of a Documentary Screenwriter

By Alan Rosenthal

Three book covers by Alan Rosenthal: 'Writing Docudrama: Dramatizing Reality for Film and TV', 'Succeeding as a Documentary Filmmaker: A Guide to the Professional World', and 'Writing Biopics and Docudramas.'

EDITOR'S NOTE: Alan Rosenthal received the 1990 IDA Preservation and Scholarship Award, in recognition of landmark achievements in authoring and editing numerous books on the documentary; his most recent volume is Writing Docudrama (1994). A director/producer/writer of documentaries, based in Israel, his Out of the Ashes (1983) received Peabody and Christopher awards. From his association with Abba Eban on that film, he obtained assignment as writer/director for Israel: A Nation is Born (1989). When I asked Alan if he had some new thoughts about doc­umentary to share with ID readers, he initially suggested that what he had to say was in his books; but within a couple of weeks of my query, he sent me a long article he had written from which the following is an excerpt. Journey of Hope is the working title of the script being prepared. Funding for the project has now been secured, and production began in February 1997, with broadcast tentatively scheduled for Fall.

It began, like Israel: A Nation is Born, with a call from Abba Eban in December 1995. WNET/Channel 13 in New York was interested in a film on the Middle East Peace Process from Eban's point of view. Was I free? Did I want to help? Well, as they say, do Irishmen drink or the English like cricket?

The film came at a good time. Like many of my friends, I was extremely depressed following the assassination of Rabin, and I wondered where the peace process was going. Here, suddenly, was a wonderful opportunity to get into harness again with Eban and to make a significant statement about what was happening between Israel and the Palestinians.

Strangely enough I had written a script for the Israeli foreign office in 1991, two years before the Oslo agreements, which centered on the effects of peace. My idea had been to set the film in the year 2005, and have the participants look back on ten years of peace. It was a nice conceit, but the Foreign Office took fright. They paid for the script, but thought it was too dangerous to produce. Nevertheless, much of the research was to be helpful for the new film. In my follow up calls to Eban, I found that discussions were still at the stage of "maybe" and "if ' and "we would definitely Like to, but...." When I came down to earth from my euphoria, what was clear was that WNET wanted a film, and they wanted Eban to present it. And that was really as far as things had gone. For his part, Eban had presented my name as possible writer-director, but nothing concrete had been agreed.

This was all too vague for me. So in February 1996, I went to New York to see what was happening. Yes: WNET would like a film, but they had no money. And yes, wouldn't it be wonderful if Eban presented the film, but no, they hadn't concluded anything with him. And yes, WNET would like me to write and direct, but for the moment they couldn't pay me anything. At that point, thoroughly deflated, I tried to work out a plan of action with Tamar Robinson, WNET's Vice President in charge of programming. Where did she propose we start? Tammy's view was that we should work in three stages. First, money should be raised so that I could write a proposal and budget. After the proposal was written, it could be used to raise money for the second stage, research and development. When that was completed, there would be a third stage, a fundraising campaign to raise money for the filming, accomplished between Eban and WNET. It didn't require a mathematical genius to see that by the time all this was done, we would probably be in the year 2000, with the peace process long behind us. Yes, Tammy acknowledged, but that was the way WNET and public television worked. In fact, she put things even more bluntly: as far as she was concerned, I couldn't start on the film proper till all the money from research and development to completion had been raised.

This sounded pretty harsh, and evidently times had changed. When I did Out of the Ashes for WNET, one was never sure if there would be finishing money, but we just went on. Had things stopped there, nothing would have gotten off the ground. In any event, the Charles Revson Foundation had come to the rescue. Its president, Eli Evans, had also been largely responsible for making the initial grant to WNET for the development of Civilization and the Jews. Now, after discussions with myself, Bill Baker (head of WNET), and Abba Eban, and being totally behind the project, Eli Evans provided funds for a small grant so that I could go off for two months to write the proposals and budget. We were over the first hurdle.

For a few weeks I buried myself in the Library at Stanford University, where I was a visiting professor, and I set about writing two proposals. The first, short form, was for Abba Eban to present to his friends. The second, more con­sidered and much more detailed (especially as regards budget), was for WNET. This showed them that I knew what I was talking about and really had a grasp on the film.

To my surprise, a considerable amount of money (about two thirds of the budget) was raised in a few months. This was mainly through Abba Eban's efforts, and once more the question was raised, where do we go from here? Again the answer was, "Nowhere, until all the money is raised." And again, the Charles Revson Foundation came to the rescue, providing me with a small grant to continue research and to work on a basic script. The hope behind this act was that when all the money was in hand, we would be able to take off immediately into production.

So, what we are discussing now is a script in progress. What I want to do here is to share my thought processes about an act of creation that is still unfinished and still presents many serious problems. For starters, I sat down and tried to list for myself the key challenges of the film. I wanted to clear my head before attempting any writing. I wanted to see very plainly what were the traps, complexities and dangers of the script. I had to know where I wanted to go, and then maybe I would also see how to get there.

The first thing I had to acknowledge was that the film was not going to be a straight documentary; it had to represent Abba Eban's personal view on the peace process and its evolution. That already meant that the film would ultimately be in favor of the peace process, rather than present a cynical view of its value. The danger would be in glossing over in the script anything that challenged the fundamental premises of the accords.

This point of view had also been built into the proposals. In writing them, I had emphasized that the film was primarily for British and American audiences; it would make them understand how vital the process was to the future of Israel and its neighbors.

The second point I had to bear in mind was that the program had to be balanced. This above everything else was emphasized to me again and again by my Executive Producer from WNET, Fred Noriega. This wariness came, I think, from the fact that Israel's Abba Eban was going to present the program, and WNET wanted to make sure a strong Arab view was heard as well. I totally agreed with that perspective; but I thought the question was more complex than simple Israeli/Arab balance.

What had to be brought out clearly in the program were the varieties of camps and points of view. Thus we would not be talking just about Arab versus Israeli views, but the pro-peace camp versus the anti-peace camp on both sides. We would have to show how Arab fundamentalism and opposition was matched by the intransigence of many Israeli settlers and part of Israel's own fundamentalist religious right wing. I would also have to show that we weren't talking just about the extremists on both sides, but such rational people as Hanan Ashrawi and Edward Said, who were opposed to Oslo. And I would have to show that Benjamin Netanyahu was not opposed to peace; he was deeply worried as to how the Oslo agreements affected Israeli security. All this seemed to me a very necessary and more sophisticated idea of the balance we would need.

I also spent considerable time pondering the question of detail. The Oslo agreements, both one and two, are very complex documents. Oslo one, for example, lists in great detail all the obligations under the interim peace accords, and matters such as boundaries, the refugee situation and Jerusalem that have to be settled in the final accords. Without some knowledge of the agreements, much of the arguments, passion and fury which they engendered would be lost on the viewers. But too much detail would also float right by the audience. The same was true in regard to an understanding of the PLO covenant. Unless the audience could grasp that many sections of this 30-year-old document called for the destruction of Israel, its significance would be lost in the film.

Most of the above problems were minor compared to the one major hurdle of the script. This was that we were doing an ongoing history rather than merely reviewing the past. This was not a film about history recollected in tranquillity (to paraphrase Wordsworth) such as Israel: A Nation Wordsworth, but about an on-going and uncompleted process. The ramifications of this situation for the film were and still are enormous. It means that the script is in a constant state of evolution. Probably, one has to be pre­pared for a total upset in events and major film changes up to the moment of broadcast. Let me elaborate, briefly.

I wrote the two main film proposals in January and early February 1996, and I have been working on a basic draft script intermittently from May until now (September 1996). When I first started writing in January, the peace process seemed well on course. Since then, there have been quite shattering events and changes which have affected the political situation. They include: 1) four horrific suicide bus bombings in Israel; 2) on and off closures for Arab workers coming into Israel, and a deterioration of the economic situation on the West Bank; 3) a mini war in south Lebanon; 4) an upset in the Israeli elections, with Bibi Netanyahu, opposed to many facets of the Oslo accords, becoming Prime Minister; 5) the possibility of a new war with Syria; 6) an explosion of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank in September, involving confrontations between Israelis and armed Palestinian Police, which left over 60 Arabs and 15 Israelis dead.

A number of very clear decisions had to be taken about the shape and feel of the script. Besides wanting it to be satisfying intellectually and historically, I also wanted it to work as a film. I wanted it to move, to have impact, and to be visually exciting. I knew it had to have a sharp hard beginning, good interior rhythms and a compelling and emotional ending. In short, I wanted it to have the feel of a good gripping feature film, rather than the plodding flat style of many history films I'd seen.

Another decision, with massive implications, was where to draw the boundaries of the film. My instinct was to leave aside the past—the years 1948 to 1990—and start almost right off in Oslo, and let the film cover the years 1993 to 1996. One needed some kind of introduction, but I wanted to keep it very brief. First, I planned a short teaser that would set up the film: after the main title, I would indicate and show that the Israeli-Arab conflict was one of the longest and most tragic ongoing struggles of the twentieth century. I then needed to show that the chance for a breakthrough in the Middle East was due to four factors: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the weakness of the PLO, the window of opportunity following the Gulf War, and the election in 1992 of a Labor government intent on peace and ready for compromise.

All this I covered in about three to four pages of script, or about four minutes of film time. This meant deliberately leaving out the Rhodes armistice agreements of 1949, the Geneva peace talks of 1973, and Sadat's visit to Israel in 1977. These were all clear and important incidents on the way to peace, but with only fifty minutes at my disposal, some things had to be lost. In making the omissions, I also assumed that my audience had already seen endless films on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The beginning of the film was fairly easy to script. Planning the ending was much more difficult. How can you wrap up a film whose events are still in process? In fact, there seemed to me a fairly good solution, that could well take care of all but the worst case scenario. You briefly summarize what, as seen at the moment, are the implications of suc­cess in the peace talks, and what are the implications of failure. In this way you cover all your bases. At present the rough ending of my draft script, written to be narrated by Eban, goes as follows, beginning with the negative possibilities:

We are at a turning point. I would like to believe that the Middle East has been irreversibly transformed but it is difficult to predict the future. The Arab Israeli dialogue does not exist in a vacuum. It is sited in an area of fundamentalist passion, where revolution and upheaval is always on the horizon. Against this background we can understand what failure of the peace process might lead to... an inferno of explosive antagonisms and volcanic hatreds. Generations might have to pass before anybody would attempt such a peace process again.

All this I plan to cover visually with photos of Saddam Hussein, Iran's mullahs, fundamentalist marches, and riots and battles in Jerusalem. So much for the failure of the process. On the positive side, and paraphrasing Eban's words, I wrote:

A path has been set in which the opportunities transcend the dangers. For Palestinians, it represents a chance to take possession of their own destiny and go forward to a better life, in peace and hope. For Israel, it rep­ resents a chance to reassert its democratic humanitarian nature, and give a new impulse and direction to the Jewish journey.

All this glides into a final scene where we show an excerpt from the Arafat, Rabin, Clinton breakthrough meeting on the White House lawn in September 1993. We hear brief extracts from their speeches and Rabi n closes his talk (and the film) with an extract from Ecclesiastes:

To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die.... A time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to love and a time to hate. A time of war and a time of peace.

Ladies and gentlemen, the time for peace has come.

The structure of the film, as I've planned it so far, is relatively simple, and divides into six rough sections of different lengths. After the two sections of introduction and Oslo already described, the film deals with the hopes and developments of events subsequent to the breakthrough. This takes us halfway into the film. The fourth section, fairly long, deals with the problems confronting the process, and mainly centers on the events of 1996. The fifth section centers on Jerusalem and the final peace arrangements des­ tined to conclude in 1999. The end of the film we've seen.

Eban, of course, will act as presenter, and hopefully will hold the whole film together. His function, as we've both agreed, is not just to describe events but to analyze them and show their significance and meaning. At present, I've suggested a few reflections and comments to Eban, and places where they might appear, but after reading the script he will probably add many more. We will also work together to see that it really is his voice and opinions that come out. What we've both agreed is to try to provoke viewers into thinking about the process rather than giving them a definitive "Voice of God" view of the facts.

The final challenge in working on the script draft is to provide it with depth and to avoid repetition. What I've tried to ensure is that there is both a logical and emotional progress to the film, and that it doesn't become merely a rehash of the news and a laundry list of items. To do this I've very often resorted to grouping ideas together rather than working chronologically. For example, problems of peace with Syria keep cropping up from 1993 to 1996. In the script we deal with the Syrian situation once, and that's it.

In a similar frame of mind, I've opted to avoid repetition, even if this slightly blurs the history. And this I admit straight out is a filmic decision rather than a scholarly one. A good example here is the whole question of terrorist bombings. ln 1994 and 1995, Israeli was shocked and horrified by suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, Beit Lid, Afula, Jerusalem and elsewhere. One result of these bombings was the growth of opposition to the peace process and the vilifying of Rabin—indirectly, the bombings may have even led to his murder. In February and March 1996, terrible bus bombings in Jerusalem virtually brought the peace process to a standstill, and later became a direct factor in the defeat of Shimon Peres at the elections. Obviously, both sets of bombings enable the use of very strong visual and emotional material in the film. And a discussion of both sets of bombings are vital to understand subsequent events in Israel. Despite all this, I decided in the script merely to refer to the first bombings, and to save a detailed look at the bomb outrages for the 1996 disasters. My thinking here is that showing both bombings would have diminished the filmic effect of the second, which in my opinion has had grave political consequences.

At the moment of writing (September 1996), I've just finished the first draft. It all looks very logical and nicely arranged to me, but I am fully aware of how much work still has to be done. I need to get expert reactions to the draft, and l have to see how I can shorten it, because at present it is about half an hour too long. And I also know there are still a number of really deep prob­ lems with which I have yet come to grips.

At the moment I'm relatively happy with the first draft. I think it covers a complex subject fairly well, and shows me clearly how to proceed. It's a history of certain events as seen by Abba Eban and myself, and certainly not the definitive history of the peace process. However, I am aware of its problems, and I know that as the film proceeds what I've planned on paper may just not work as a film. So: I may fall flat on my face, but this pre-filming exercise is the best I can do.

Copyright ©1997 by Alan Rosenthal