(Israel 2019; Dir: Tomer Shushan)

White Eye

To hurt a mockingbird

review by Līga Požarska

White Eye

length: 20

year of production: 2019

country of production: Israel

director: Tomer Shushan

editing: Shira Hochman

sound: Nin Hazan

cast: Daniel Gad, Dawit Tekelaeb, Reut Akkerman

festivals: Vienna Shorts 2020, SXSW 2020, Haifa International Film Festival 2019

© images: White Eye (Tomer Shushan)

We need to talk about equality and treatment of refugees. We need to discuss white privilege and two-faced justice. Vienna Shorts’ recent online edition’s Focus program asks socio-politically relevant questions and Tomer Shushan’s ‘White Eye’ reflects upon them, as an intensely powerful and hard to let go of cinematic experience.

The night has fallen on the city of Tel Aviv, Israel. A young man named Omer finds his stolen bicycle locked on the street. Police aren’t much of a help and suggest him to find the current bike owner first. Let’s imagine Omer’s introspection.

“This is the time when I can rise up against people walking all over me. The thief won’t get away with this!” One can verbalize Omer’s thoughts this way: a man trying to stand up for himself and facing police’s idleness — his look is determinate, his actions proactive.

“He’ll lie,” he might be assuming when he confronts the hypothetical bike stealer. It’s an Eritrean man Yunes working in a nearby meat packing plant. They argue. Yunes defends his innocence and suggests solving this case without the police’s interference. We see a glimpse of attitude change from Omer’s part but it’s too late.

“Shit!” he might be thinking when Omer realizes the unintentional damage he has done. The film reaches its climax when the officer asks for Yunes visa and it has expired. Now we see a young man who has potentially destroyed another one’s life. Omer’s simple need for justice has avalanched to the point where a man faces deportation threats. He also encounters a few possibly illegal workers, hiding from the police in a meat freezer.

Harshly speaking, Omer is like many people from my generation – a privileged hipster. He can buy a bike for 2000 shekels and change mobile phones frequently (“It’s a new phone. I can go home and send [proof] from my computer”). He can easily make the world turn around him. Omer is convinced that regaining his bike is a matter of a principle and a cry for justice.

The confrontation contrasts Omer’s entitlement and stubbornness with Yunes’ weakness and humiliation, the latter instantly triggered by the accusation of stealing. Yunes’ boss Michelle acts as a mediator, prioritizing a more tactful and humanitarian approach: while Omer is focusing on something materialistic, Michelle defends a human being.

That being said, it’s easy to criticize Omer, but in the given situation he couldn’t predict this kind of development. In ‘White Eye’, the system is represented by a prejudiced policeman. It’s not exactly a ‘good cop, bad cop’-dynamic, rather a dominant, prejudiced cop and an insecure follow-up cop tandem. They are quite quick to jump to the conclusion that Yunes is guilty. A thin line divides racial prejudices from police brutality. We see it in today’s United States and all over the world. Additionally, the film touches upon the legal institution’s hypocrisy. Police need a bunch of official papers to get in the depth of a silly bike missing, yet they have no bureaucratic restrain when it comes to instantly putting a man in a car for “checking his papers”.

It is essential to understand Yunes’ perception. News reports talk about thousands of migrants crossing borders or being stuck on unstable boats. ‘White Eye’ gives one of the members of this generalized mass a face and a heart. We get to know a displaced person with a family in Israel and a visa that should be restored any minute now. It’s not hard to guess that Yunes was fleeing from poverty, unemployment and the drought that tore Eritrea, in search of a better life in Israel. Since gaining independence (1993) from Ethiopia, Eritrea is a one-party state led by the authoritarian leader Isaias Afwerki. Freedom of speech and movement is almost inexistent. Military service serves as one of the forms of oppression.

Africans try to enter Israel through Egypt, but The Holy Land has an unfriendly immigration policy: work permits are hard to obtain and immigrants meet an aggressive treatment from Israeli nationalists. Knowing all this makes the realisation of Yunes' possible deportation even more agonizing. His conditions in Israel are bad, but it is much worse back home.

‘White Eye’, based on the director’s own experiences, is shot in one take, making the film powerful both story-wise and visually. Is it happening before our eyes on the street? Witnessing the situation unveiling itself all in one breath creates an uncomfortable feeling of “being there” but not being able to take action.

Single-shot films demand patient and ready-for-everything actors. Shushan has orchestrated each movement with logistical and artistic considerations in mind, leaving a blank space for the actors’ facial expressions and body language. Daniel Gad and Dawit Tekelaeb remarkably portray a pair of painfully realistic and complex heroes — people left with a bleeding wound.

These twenty minutes have irreversibly transformed Omer: his views on justice and hasty reactions have been altered. He uses the disk grinder not for the original purpose of breaking the lock, but for cutting his bike in half. Now it’s tainted and represents a broken life.