In Hannah Moscovitch’s This is War, four Canadian soldiers recount and relive the events that led up to a horrific mass killing. This is a story of Canada’s participation in the Afghan war, and the soldiers, whose places of origin range from Hamilton to Red Deer, seem properly and believably Canadian. But This Is War, as one might judge from its title, is also about war. At Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company in January 2014, the staging – a patch of desert, endless shades of olive and tan, the infinite horizon – reinforced the parable-like quality of the writing.
Moscovitch is an immensely talented, still-young playwright. What makes her especially exciting is her always eccentric and brave point of view. This is War is a pretty ambitious title for a 30-something – I was not looking forward to another war-is-hell story, but Moscovitch delivers far more. This has to be the most anti-romantic view of war ever. Our Canadians are not heroes, nor are they evil. They’re just banal. In the midst of constant dreariness, recurring horror and occasional atrocity, their concerns are youthfully mundane.
The play takes the form of a series of interviews and scenes with the soldiers. We don’t see the interviewers or hear their questions, only the soldiers’ responses, spoken directly to the audience, recounting the events leading up to a joint operation with, and an atrocity committed by, the Afghan army. When asked about the night before the “joint op,” the soldiers evade or won’t answer. Instead, we see what happened: a card game, a sexual encounter, a love triangle, egos bruised. But it’s all immaturity and naiveté and self-indulgence:
Jonny: You like the sarge?
Tanya: I did a tour with him. He’s like family. Like an older brother. Actually, he’s kind of like my dad.
Tanya: Yeah, my dad can talk you into things like lending him your boyfriend’s car that you happen to have the keys to, so he can go crash it into a parked car in Mississauga.
Jonny: Car was totalled?
Tanya: That boyfriend was so good about it, too. Didn’t freak out. Just said, “Shit happens.”
Jonny: Nice guy?
Tanya: Nice guy.
Jonny: I’m that guy. Nice guy.
Jonny: There was this girl in high school – her name was Sarah Jean Greene. I did stuff like that for her, like when her cat ran away, I put up posters for it.1
It’s all high school. And why shouldn’t it be? They’re kids.
Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated Omar is said to be the first entirely Palestinian-funded feature film. We follow three young Palestinian men, engaged in violent acts of resistance, and a young woman, loved by two of the men and sister to the third. The three men kill an Israeli soldier and Omar is captured. Following torture, he agrees to collaborate with the Israelis, but instead plays a game of double agent, distrusted by both sides, in pursuit of the woman he loves.
There are two parallel stories here: the mystery-romance and the political thriller. At the first level, it has a Shakespearean feel to it, like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet: lies and confusion leading inexorably to tragedy.
The three young men are dedicated to resisting the occupation. The film assumes such resistance is legitimate and gives us several instances of gratuitous Israeli brutality. The young men appear to be mildly admired by their friends and families, and everyone helps out as they try to escape Israeli soldiers (in rather fantastic chase scenes). But for a film so focused on politics, it leaves a lot out. There is no mention of the Palestinian Authority and no mention of alternatives to violent resistance: no demonstrations or legal challenges (as in Bil’in2), no boycotts.
I’m a bit tired of and mystified by the relentless focus on terrorism or violence in films by or about Palestinians. Take, for example, Abu-Assad’s earlier film Paradise Now, or Inch’Allah and, more recently, The Attack. They ask: What can lead someone to become a suicide bomber and kill children? But Omar is different.
Omar is not about suicide bombers; none of the characters wants or expects to die, and their targets are soldiers of the occupation, not civilians. The men are not religious fanatics. They seem quite normal, neither particularly admirable nor reprehensible. They don’t talk about goals and strategies, or leaders and parties. Resistance, in one form or another, seems simply to be part of Palestinian life in the territories, always in the air, and violent resistance is simply most obvious, nearest at hand. Violent resistance is, in a way, entry-level politics.
But violent resistance, as shown in Omar, is absolutely pointless. Acts of violence by Palestinians lead to greater acts of violence by Israel and never come close to threatening Israel’s dominance. Among the Palestinians, acts of violence lead to division, distrust, retribution and death. Such acts of violence are, in Omar’s world, perfectly understandable, but perfectly useless too – and, to him and his friends, painfully, tragically destructive.
A big problem in this Palestinian mode of resistance, as in Canada’s invasion of Afghanistan, is the nature of its agents. They’re kids, and whatever they think they’re doing, armed resistance or war, their minds are otherwise engaged: in trying to get laid or in the search for love and marriage.
They’re just kids, playing in minefields.
1 Hannah Moscovitch, This is War (Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2013), pp. 57–58 (lightly edited).
2 A legal challenge before Israeli courts and weekly demonstrations that went on for years forced relocation of the wall than separated the small West Bank town from its farmland. The Bil’in story is told in the documentary film Five Broken Cameras.
Arthur Milner’s most recent play, Facts, opened in Ottawa, toured Israel and Palestine in Arabic, ran for a month in London, U.K., and just opened in Istanbul in Turkish. He is Inroads’ culture columnist.