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Documenting “The Disappeared”

INTERVIEW! Gilad Baram and Adam Kaplan probe the mysteries of a never-seen film, produced and promptly censored by the Israeli army, in their new experimental documentary. It previews in Berlin on June 5.

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Gilad Baram and Adam Kaplan. Photo by Omri Livne

Gilad Baram and Adam Kaplan probe the mysteries of a never-seen film, produced and promptly censored by the Israeli army, in their new experimental documentary.

First unveiled at this year’s Berlinale, The Disappeared tells the stranger-than-fiction story of a lavish feature film (also called The Disappeared) produced by the Israeli army at the turn of the millennium to tackle the taboo subject of rising soldier suicides. Intended for a wide domestic theatrical release, the film was conceived (somewhat questionably) as a crowd-pleasing romantic action epic, and its production costs were enormous by military standards. But at some point during the editing process, it was abruptly shelved, and has never since seen the light of day.

Directors Gilad Baram and Adam Kaplan, Israeli born and bred, but now based in Berlin, take a boldly experimental approach to exploring this intriguing tale – their film is a soundscape stitched together from the recollections of people involved in the original production, accompanied (for the most part) by a blank black screen.

In its exploration of the uneasy relationship between Israeli artists and authorities, The Disappeared feels extremely timely. Last year, Israel’s divisive Culture Minister Miri Regev condemned Samuel Maoz’s Venice Silver Lion winner Foxtrot (without having seen it) for being critical of the IDF, and has since threatened to overhaul the criteria for state film funding.

I caught up with Baram and Kaplan at the recent Docaviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv, where The Disappeared’s Israeli premiere provoked a strong audience reaction – though more on account of its unconventional form than its political undertones. Now the pair is bringing the film back to Berlin, with a free special preview at Spike Berlin on June 5, to be followed by further screenings at Neukölln’s Il Kino in the coming months.

How did you uncover this story in the first place?

Gilad Baram: When I began my mandatory military service in 1999, I was placed in the Spokesperson’s Film Unit, which produces PR material for the army. They were starting work on the original Disappeared at that time, so I basically served as a production assistant. The whole experience lingered with me as this bizarre, unresolved episode. About six years ago I was studying with Adam at the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem, and we went to see a film about the military which brought back a lot of memories. I told Adam the story, and he couldn’t believe what I was saying.

Adam Kaplan: Particularly the fact that it was actually called The Disappeared, it seemed too neat to be real!

GB: So we started rolling it between us, and formulating ideas for a project of some kind. We began trying to find people involved in the production, and it snowballed from there.

At what point did you decide to make a film without imagery?

AK: As we were doing the first round of interviews, we realised that the original film was essentially unreachable, and we weren’t interested in making a conventional documentary with talking heads and reenactments. The faces of the people speaking are far less interesting than the story itself.

GB: We wrestled with the question of how to represent something that can’t be seen. We got our hands on some artifacts – some parts of the script, photos people had taken on set – and we were very tempted to use them. I made a documentary before this, and my background is in photography, so my inclination is very much towards the visual. I was initially rather terrified by the approach we decided on.

Were the accounts of your contributors coherent and consistent?

GB: Each story was coherent in and of itself, but everyone remembered it differently. So we had to glue it together in a way that made sense to us. We were never seeking the definitive truth, we were more interested in the idea that the film only exists in the collective memory of this group of people.

AK: From my point of view, after speaking to about 12 people in Israel, I still had no idea what the film was about! There were so many narrative threads, so many weird elements to the story, it didn’t make any sense to me. It felt like everyone was in on this elaborate joke. But we persevered and interviewed actors, soldiers, military film professionals, crew members. We compiled around 37 hours of material, so I’d say we became the number one experts on The Disappeared.

G: Which is not something to be proud of!

Is soldier suicide less of a taboo subject in Israel today?

AK: It is being discussed more openly, but it’s a slow process. The suicide rates are certainly lower than they were in 2000. There was an anonymous Israeli blogger who released extensive research in 2012, which proved that the government had been manipulating or hiding figures. That had a big impact on the conversation.

GB: But it’s worth stressing that, while we of course had to face this issue as part of the project, it wasn’t our primary interest. Our focus was this fascinating collision between art and the military, two things that are fundamentally incompatible.

And these events of two decades ago still seem extremely relevant, in light of Miri Regev’s attempts to smear Foxtrot last year.

GB: There’s a couple of funny connections. Regev began her political career in the army, she was the Spokesperson at one point, and before that the army censor. So she must have been directly involved in the continued censoring of the film. And on top of that, Lior Ashkenazi, the star of Foxtrot, was also the main actor in The Disappeared!

AK: As we’re on the experimental side of things and we don’t live in Israel, we haven’t experienced any problems with censorship. But the army was very uncooperative. We wrote to them asking about access to material and we got a very laconic response, saying “this film has been censored”, about 90 minutes after we sent our request. So that was the end of that!

The Disappeared, Jun 5, 21:00, free | Spike Berlin, Mitte