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TV UK, 22 May

The Killing Zone: emoting over the Middle East.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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The Killing Zone (Channel 4, last Sunday) was a harrowing and sometimes surreal report from Gaza.

Pictures of children who have been maimed by the Israeli Defence Forces are certainly affecting; pity soon turns to anger. But the same ‘argument’ could be made the other way by showing pictures of Israeli children blown up by Palestinian suicide bombers.

If the suffering of one child is much like that of any other, though, the political and military circumstances are anything but equal. It’s a David and Goliath struggle, only David is in a tank and has the backing of the ‘international community’ and Goliath is a 16-year-old girl with a home-made bomb strapped to herself.

More than that, there is an ongoing history of oppression and political conflict, and the current situation is complicated by international interference. But the reporter Sandra Jordan did not go into all that, preferring instead simply to document the horrors of life in a ‘killing zone’. It was the lack of analysis that meant the spectacle of Israeli bulldozers destroying homes seemed surreal rather than outrageous.

Jordan complained that it is only when Westerners are killed that the world takes notice, but she was herself guilty of hooking the programme on the two Western protestors and the British journalist who have been killed recently.

To be fair, this is a Westernised conflict. When soldiers with Brooklyn accents confront protestors from Philadelphia, it seems that the Holy Land has been transformed into a theme park for morally excited Americans. Of course there are real people involved too, but it’s hard to squeeze their story in amid the journalistic angst.

I suggested last week that there is a great film or play in the story of last year’s Moscow theatre siege. A similar event, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, inspired John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer. A new TV adaptation by Penny Woolcock is on Channel 4 on Sunday at 6.55pm.

The opera, in the style of Bach’s passions, is enjoyable enough, and it is good to see TV exploited properly, with the singers recorded live in a variety of locations, and good use of captions and archive footage. Since the story is told in flashbacks and with a chorus often in the role of a documentary narrative, the opera lends itself to this kind of treatment. But the politics are inescapable.

Towards the end of the opera, the action flashes forward to 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks. Obviously this does not happen in the original opera, but it’s fair enough to pick up such an obvious thread. That sort of thing has to be done intelligently, though, and what happens next is absurd. A caption announces that the struggle goes on, but also that women must now wear the hijab, and all of a sudden we see a bare-headed woman being stoned in an Arab street.

This is obscene, not because there is anything wrong with exposing such backwardness, but because it is so utterly irrelevant to the story. It looks like a crass attempt to pre-empt accusations of bias in favour of the Palestinians. Since its first production in 1991, Klinghoffer has been plagued by controversy because of its failure to ‘condemn’ the terrorists. ‘We are not criminals or vandals, but men of ideals’, they sing, and for some audiences, this is too much to swallow.

But if The Death of Klinghoffer had made the terrorists cartoon-like operatic villains, it would have been far more offensive to everyone. The strength of the opera is the way it gives voice (literally) to the protagonists, and includes historical context in the chorus parts. Woolcock’s reconstruction of the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, and even her use of holocaust footage, complement the music and the meaning behind it, but the stoning stands out as a crude political intervention.

Opera isn’t supposed to be balanced – it is even allowed to be emotionally manipulative, as long as it does it well. Documentary doesn’t have to be balanced either, but if it eschews argument in favour of emotional manipulation, then we have a problem.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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