Rarely has a television program been as bitterly savaged before it aired. Yet rarely has there been a program with a topic as volatile as this one.
The rage directed at Jo Franklin-Trout and her heavily tilted, but still-valuable and intensely powerful documentary about the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip has almost obscured the program itself.
That should end tonight when, at last, after delays and months of fiery controversy, "Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians" is presented to the nation. It arrives on PBS as the hot-potato centerpiece of a 2 1/2-hour spread (at 9 p.m. on Channels 28, 15 and 24) titled "Intifada: The Palestinians and Israel."
Framing the Palestinian-favoring "Days of Rage" are separately produced taped pieces tilted toward Israel, the last of which is followed by a useful 40-minute panel discussion examining Franklin-Trout's program and the issues it raises--and doesn't raise. Costing almost as much as the 90-minute "Days of Rage," these appendages appear to have been added as a sort of spin control, at least in partial response to enormous advance criticism of the program from mostly Jewish groups.
That criticism has swelled into a crusade to discredit both Franklin-Trout and her program, at times approaching an ugly smear campaign. The lobbyists have ranged from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (calling the program "factual manipulations") to the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, which phoned at least one TV critic with an offer to send him material critical of "Days of Rage."
Yet "Days of Rage" is important and--despite what its harshest critics say--very much deserves this TV stage.
It offers faces you seldom see in closeup, and sounds you seldom hear. A Palestinian girl: "I am 7 years old. My father was killed in front of my house during the month of Ramadan."
It offers fresh voices, mostly from Palestinians usually omitted from the slender sound bites of American TV.
"Days of Rage" is never more shocking than when chronicling the wretched squalor and hopelessness in camps inhabited by many Palestinians in the occupied territories. Or more indicting than when touring the rubble of a Palestinian villager's house that was demolished as part of Israel's controversial policy of collective punishment. Or more appalling than when showing the terrible back wounds of a young boy said to have been beaten by Israeli soldiers. Or more moving than when a schoolgirl says what she hopes to gain from the \o7 intifada\f7 , the Arabic word for uprising: "an identity." Or more fascinating than when letting Palestinians explain their strategies for the \o7 intifada.\f7
Her purpose, Franklin-Trout states tonight, is to show "who they (the young Palestinians) are, what they are, what they want and how they intend to get it, and what end for the crisis now seems possible." Bravo to that.
But not to all of "Days of Rage," which, unfortunately, is not only a trial of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, but also one in which, almost always, only the prosecution's case is presented.
Documentaries with strong points of view only strengthen a society that purports to cherish freedom of expression. Moreover, some of the charges here are echoed by some human rights groups. Michael H. Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, says in "Days of Rage":
"From a human rights point of view, there are some particularly disturbing problems (in) the use of live ammunition (and) the ongoing practice of beatings (by Israeli troops), which seem excessive in some situations."
Yet the charges are so strong that granting Israelis the opportunity to respond, at least generically, should have been a given, a sliver of fairness that "Days of Rage" could have accommodated without softening its case.
To a large extent, "Days of Rage" is a succession of horror stories from Palestinians accusing Israelis of heinous acts in trying to put down the \o7 intifada. \f7 Typical: "They burst into our house, the occupation army. They beat my father, my mother, my sisters."
Franklin-Trout, who is also the reporter and narrator for her program, is an excellent documentary storyteller. What "Days of Rage" lacks most, however, is context.
--When Israel gained statehood, the Arabs "were enraged" and "war broke out," says Franklin-Trout, making "war" sound as blameless as a case of measles.
--Also omitted in Franklin-Trout's shorthand history is any mention of Palestinians also being victimized by Jordan and Syria.
--A Palestinian relief worker finds Israelis "obsessed by security," as if there is no history of Arab terrorism directed against Jews. And on this program, moreover, there isn't.
--We hear about the Palestinian Liberation Organization's "alleged dark and bloody history," the "alleged" being a softening word excluded from charges against Israelis.