Morally Repugnant Story-telling
‘The Honourable Woman’, BBC 2/Sundance
Where to start with a critique of this series? With the finale still to come, it’s safe to say The Honourable Woman is a dishonourable endeavour with delusions of grandeur. Writers of fiction often assert an infinite horizon within which they can write about anything under the sun, liberating the imagination, say, to adopt the voice of a character of a different gender, ethnicity or species. Nothing is out of bounds. But without any historical contextualisation or factual accuracy, the results can be of variable authenticity and levels of offensiveness. Ricky Gervais, for instance, has plumbed the depths with his ghastly depictions of disabled people. Larger productions have included ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Exodus,’ both examples of blockbuster propaganda efforts to make heroic narratives out of colonial settlement and dispossession.
The concept of ‘the Israel-Palestine conflict,’ so-called by the BBC – in reality a brutal military occupation – is adopted by writer-producer Hugo Blick, conforming to the corporation’s obsessive falsehood of ‘two sides,’ both behaving badly. Lack of authenticity is just one of its failings.
Blick gave an interview to Rebecca Nicolson in the Guardian (Saturday, 16th August, 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/aug/15/the-honourable-woman-hugo-blick-spy-thriller-middle-east-maggie-gyllenhaal) in which she praises a narrative constructed ‘under the opaque moral uncertainty of no side behaving well.’ An Israeli entrepreneur philanthropist ‘attempts to build reconciliation between Israel and Palestine,’ writes Nicolson, without considering that reconciliation usually takes place after an occupation or apartheid regime has ended. ‘The first episode aired at almost the same time as the resurgence of violence in Jerusalem…it could not be more timely.’ Violence in Jerusalem is always present as it is an occupied/annexed city whose Palestinain occupants undergo continual ethnic cleansing, house demolition, arrests, etc, but I wonder whether she is referring to the latest attack on Gaza? What would be timely – indeed, what the times cry out for – is truth telling, in both drama and reportage. The risible notion of balance, a smokescreen for privileging the Zionist narrative, has been taken to extremes in the BBC’s coverage. Thousands of films, books and TV series have been produced about the Nazis and nobody talks about ‘balancing’ the Nazi point of view with that of their victims.
In this series, the ongoing occupation and massacres are not depicted. The shallowness, inauthenticity and grandiose claims of Blick’s drama is blown to bits by the latest round of invasion, bombing and destruction perpetrated by the Israelis and watched in horror by millions on their TV screens.
The Guardian interview includes a disingenuous disclaimer: the writer-director pinpoints two morally repugnant tropes, readily admitting that his narrative relies on them. One is the notion that women who have been raped are gagging to repeat the experience and, to that end, become danger junkies. The second is that the oppression of the Palestinian people is an irrelevance and must be invisibilised.
Blick’s self-serving distancing of himself from the herd of other ‘glib’ writers is as dishonourable as the project itself, given that the series is entirely dependent on occupation and rape. ‘Within dramas, within the context of a thriller, rape is used as a story-telling device so glibly. We make it the middle of the story’. Blick explains the second rape: ‘It’s important that the character was trying to orbit the problem by returning to it, or returning to the danger of it, and going across that line.’
The founding of the State of Israel, the dispossession of the Palestinians, the endless occupation, siege, land theft and killings, cry out for authenticity in the telling, fiction or not. Peter Kosminsky’s four-parter, The Promise, turned down by the BBC and eventually made for Channel 4, was exemplary. Imagine making a TV series about South Africa through the lens of white racists without reference to apartheid? As Blick’s Israeli heroine sweeps through a checkpoint in a convoy of limos, we glimpse, just for a second, Palestinians queueing up to go through the turnstiles, but unless the viewer is familiar with the scenario, that moment could easily be lost. The strand of plot involving the contracts for laying cables for a mobile phone network (again positing a false equivalence) in the West Bank dramatises the possibility of the Israelis and Americans listening in. In reality, the even more sinister use of the airwaves under Israeli control enables them to carry out targeted assassinations guided by victims’ phones. Absurdly, the Palestinian envoy in London – whose real-life counterpart is never invited to appear on the BBC, while Israeli spokespeople flood the news – is depicted as having a plush office and instant access to top level British intelligence agents, just as the Israelis do. The Israeli characters are rounded, cultured and complex, the Palestinian characters, thuggish and duplicitous.
Blick is concerned that ‘viewers might think’ that he is ‘capitalising on the conflict.’ Of a visit to Hebron he opines, the violence and conflict ‘is like a volcano that goes down and comes back up,’ and ‘it’s a complication that never goes away,’ evincing no awareness of the way in which military occupation deliberately creates eruptions of violence. He congratulates himself for what he describes as ‘a dexterity to the story-telling.’ It’s a dexterity that requires frequent pointers such as ‘three years later’ and after a few more unconnected scenes ‘eight years earlier’ and so on. No wonder Maggie Gyllenhaal was ‘alarmed by the whole idea’ and, according to Nicolson, ‘had to be pushed’ into accepting the role. What were those other fine actors thinking of? Lindsay Duncan has few lines and spends her screen time staring distractedly into the middle distance. Stephen Frea adopts his usual lugubrious, hangdog expression to no particular avail. Janet McTeer plays Frea’s ball-breaking spy-mistress and Eve Best, so great as Dr O’Hara in Nurse Jackie, should get back to All Saints as fast as her legs can carry her.