Friday, May 12, 2006

2006 SF DOCFEST—Diameter Of the Bomb

Steven Silver and Andrew Quigley's Diameter of the Bomb takes its title from a 1972 poem by Yehuda Amichai (translated by Chana Bloch & Stephen Mitchell):

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won't even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making
a circle with no end and no God.

The structure of Amichai's eponymous poem compares a bomb to a stone dropped into a pond, with concentric circles of impact—from the center of the blast to the bomb's furthest point of grief. Amichai's poem asks the reader to think about just how much damage a bomb can do, and how the violence of the act is not just physical, but metaphysical. It considers "the figurative diameter of the bomb and its trajectory of human suffering." But being asked to think about something as horrific as a suicide bombing and its physical and/or metaphysical impact is not quite the same as being asked to witness the forensic evidence of such a tragedy. Eschewing poetry in an effort not to sugarcoats facts, filmmakers Silver and Quigley offer a pill that is almost too bitter to digest.

There have been over 75 Palestinian suicide bombings since the renewed Intifada began in September of 2000. Diameter of the Bomb tells the story of one: the bombing of Bus 32A in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem on June 18, 2002, which killed 20 people (including the bomber) and injured 50 more. This bus traveled near the border of Palestinian and Israeli territory, and its passengers held a diverse mix of political and religious affiliations.

When Paul Goldin and Georgina Townsley of Rainmaker Films began conducting their initial research on the Bus 32A bombing, they soon discovered that the impact of the bomb was life-changing not just for those on the bus, but for scores of people, if not hundreds of people, indirectly connected to it. Providing names for five of the numbered bodies—Michal, Galila, Shani, Aiman, and Mohammed (the bomber)—the filmmakers then structure a collage of impressions from family members, forensic specialists, hospital trauma staff, and almost everyone else you can possibly think of associated in any way with this tragic event. They do this through one-on-one interviews with family members, forensic footage released by the Israeli army, Hamas military training videos, home movies by the bomber, and location filming, with unprecedented access into Israeli prisons, commando units, Palestinian refugee camps and hospital trauma wards.

What searingly comes across in Diameter Of the Bomb is how we all inevitably dalliance with cubic centimeters of chance. Had a husband driven his wife where she needed to go instead of dropping her off at the fated bus stop, had a flatmate encouraged his friend to not be in such a hurry to get to the bus stop and to wait for him until he took a shower, had a bus driver not swapped shifts with another, had a man not been such a gentleman in allowing a young woman to be the last allowed on the bus before him, had a mother said a true good-bye to her daughter instead of just a flippant "see you"—all attest to how ruthlessly fate demands its due.

Comparable to the recent Paradise Now, which was criticized for taking sides in favor of the Palestinians, Diameter of The Bomb skirts such obvious polemics. As Kurt at Twitch opines: "If there is a strength to this film, it is how the film-makers managed to take a subject and region where everything is political and tell the human story without the politics. If you think about it, this is no easy feat. This is one of the very few documentaries which manages to come as close to the ideal of 'unbiased' as I've here seen." As has elsewhere been written, Diameter Of the Bomb "won't be upsetting anyone with its politics, just its depiction of the brutality of the reality of terrorism."

Describing that "depiction of the brutality" in his capsule for the Toronto International Film Festival, Steve Gravestock observes: "Reminiscences and regrets give way in Silver and Quigley's documentary to the discourses of a chilling new science, one peculiar to our age. Forensics experts explain the ways they can identify bombers and victims in the destructive wake they leave behind. Firemen detail the minutiae of how a bomb blast actually kills you." Kobi Levy—the fireman who was one of the first to report to the scene of the Bus 32A bombing, and whose own brother Yoni was killed in a 1999 bus bombing—recounts in grisly, graphic detail what he witnessed, how hair is always the first to burn, even before clothing. But do I really need to know that? Does that make the horror of this event any more palatable or does it simply overburden and fatigue compassion?

How inured can we become to color photos of atrocities? I ask that even as with unerring prurience I find myself anthropologically fascinated with the bearded Zaka volunteers, who bike between the bombsites in order to sponge up with large rolls of paper every last drop of blood from the roadside. Their task is spiritual. Like many cultures of the world—including the Maya of Central America who recognize the chul'el or vital life force inherent in blood—these unpaid caretakers of the dead commit themselves to providing proper burial for this "forensic evidence", insuring that all parts of the body can be buried as one.

This heightened focus on the forensic evidence, however, "unbalances" the film according to Adrian Hennigan of the BBC, who likewise finds such a clinical focus overly "cold" and "difficult to watch." Hennigan concludes: "Laudable but ultimately unsuccessful, Diameter just doesn't aim wide enough."

Gravestock continues: "Emphasizing the effects of war and strife on a neighborhood, on families, on frightened survivors and mourning mothers, the film takes the classic definition of terrorism—spreading fear and suspicion among the civilian populace—and brings it home in the most direct way possible." I couldn't help thinking while watching this documentary what it would be like to hazard San Francisco's MUNI or BART systems cognizant of terrorist threats.

"Instead of hope or resolution," Xan Brooks writes for The Guardian, "Diameter of the Bomb spotlights an endless flow of despair, waste and bewilderment. It suggests that the 2002 ripple is still in motion and that there are plenty of others close behind."

Diameter Of the Bomb is screening this evening, Friday, May 12, at the Roxie Cinema at 9:00 pm; and on Monday, May 15, at the Little Roxie at 9:00 pm, as part of the 5th annual SF DocFest.


Anonymous said...

How can the story be based on an event in 2002? Yehuda Amichai wrote the story, he died in 2000.

Michael Guillen said...

As I specified, the "title" of the film was taken from Amichai's 1972 poem; the film's script was written by the filmmakers based on the 2002 bombing.