“PROMISED LANDS”–Susan Sontag’s Controversial film

“Promised Lands”

Susan Sontag’s Controversial Film

Amos Lassen


Susan Sontag is an American icon even after her death. She was important to the worlds of literature, politics and the women’s movement and she was a critic of the world. During her life she made four films and the fact that they were not hailed is a pity and I can only hope that now we can give her the attention she deserved as a filmmaker. Surely her most controversial film is “Promised Lands”, a documentary filmed immediately after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 in Israel. The film was immediately banned by the Israeli government yet today it seems quite mild.

There is very little dialogue in the film and it is what we see is that which sticks with us. The film begins with a scene that is not easily pushed aside. We are at the Jerusalem War Cemetery for the British that died in World War I and right away we feel the horrors of war. We then see rusting trucks and tanks in the Sinai Desert and again we see what war can do and, in fact, does. It is quite easy to see hat Sontag concentrates on the brutality of war and this is the focus of the film.

The Hebrew translation and commentary are by noted Israeli author (and a person I know somewhat), Yoram Kaniuk who claims that it is materialism ala America that caused Israel not to be ready for the ’73 war. He gives us a bleak look at Israel as a country that is always in conflict. There is also evidence of Arab anti-Semitism throughout the film and when the lone Israeli soldier makes the point that the reason Israel fights is because Israel cannot lose, a nerve is touched in the viewer and we realize just how important the land of Israel is to those who have suffered from hatred, Hitler and society.

I have read complaints that Sontag did not do adequate editing but I must disagree. I lived in Israel during the ’73 war and I know how Israelis felt and it is important that the world see that. Israel is a country in constant conflict whether with the Arabs or within the country and it is very important not to forget that many of the builders of the country were Holocaust survivors who had already seen war and who know what it can do.

Sontag was fascinated by young Israelis praying at the Western Wall and then bounces that against war in the desert and we see corpses lying in the sand. We see that Israelis are driven by what they think of American style violence and we see Arabs who refuse to yield an inch. We see both Israeli and Arab bemoaning the state of idealism being destroyed by war and not the cost of human life. It is very important to remember that almost every family in Israel lost someone during the war.

Another interesting fact is that this is the only film about the war that was made outside of the Middle East. However, be warned–this is not a smooth running documentary and I suspect that Ms. Sontag was in a place where she did not feel comfortable. She was filming before guns were taken away and the war was just beginning to come to an end. Yet Sontag remains quite divorced from the film and she does not let her own feelings or her Jewishness enter the work from an ethnic point of view. Intellectually she is at the center of the film. This is, in a sense, an extremely personal view of Israel devoid of Sontag’s own personal views. We see Israel as a nation torn apart by war and a critical look at history as we know it.

Sontag herself regarded the film as an “oblique yet it shows us how she felt about what was happening. She said “ (“Promised Lands”) hardly tells all the truths there are about the conflicts in the Middle East since the October War, about the mood of Israel right now (immediately after the war), about war and loss and memory and survival. But what the film does tell is true. It was like that. To tell the truth (even some of it) is already a marvelous privilege, responsibility, gift”.

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