“Show the rapes!”
To hear any sound at all piercing the still of the darkened theater moments after a Nov. 8 Los Angeles invite-only screening of “Bearing Witness to the Oct. 7th Massacre” — a compilation of raw footage from the Hamas attacks — was jarring enough. But that exhortation was especially startling coming from someone in a crowd otherwise stunned into a state of solemn silence.
And the disgruntled critic wasn’t done speaking his mind.
“Show the beheadings of babies!” the gentleman exclaimed as he made his way out of his seat toward the heavily guarded exit. “Shut up — go outside!” someone yelled back.
Given how graphic the imagery was in “Bearing,” the last thing anyone in an overwhelmingly Jewish crowd of entertainment-industry Angelenos had expected to hear was a complaint that what they just watched wasn’t violent enough.
I was certainly taken aback by his chutzpah. Who conducts themselves like that at a screening like this? And at the Museum of Tolerance of all places?
But as I watched him leave, I thought about how “Bearing” is bound to stir feelings in many unexpected ways.
Take me, for instance. I felt compelled to come to the museum despite seeing a video online of an audience exiting a Nov. 1 “Bearing Witness” screening at Israel’s Knesset looking visibly distressed. Why was I giving into this masochistic impulse to watch this homicidal Hamas highlight reel?
It was no different that night in Los Angeles. Many in the crowd sniffled into tissues throughout the movie, occasionally gasping during tough scenes and even openly sobbing.
But as I sat there at the end of the screening, I had a very different response.
I did not get emotional. Strangely, “Bearing” did not seem all that unbearable to me.
Now before you rush to judgment, understand that the lack of feeling I’m describing is not because I’m a robot by nature or don’t care about my fellow Jews. What I’m saying is I arrived at and left the screening with the same elevated mix of sadness and fury over the attack in Israel that I’ve had since Oct. 7.
For a while now, I’ve been too dumbfounded to admit why a video that seemed to emotionally wreck anyone who laid eyes on it would just leave me numb. So I gave it a week, hoping I would have a delayed reaction of some kind, maybe manifesting in my subconscious in the form of a nightmare.
It never did. Maybe it would take a lifetime of psychotherapy to explain why.
But the more I reflected on what I saw onscreen and heard from the speakers before the screening, the more I’ve come to realize I have concerns about the strategic purpose of “Bearing” and what the IDF might do with this footage in the future.
There are 138 corpses exhibited over the course of “Bearing Witness,” fewer than 10% of the 1,200 the IDF has identified as murdered by Hamas as of the last official count on Nov. 11. Shocking as that total is, it pales in comparison to the diverse array of savage tactics on display. “Bearing” painstakingly documents each mutilated, charred and bullet-riddled body with an unflinching eye.
The IDF has Hamas itself to thank in large part for leaving behind such a vast tranche of video and audio evidence from body cams, GoPros, cellphones and dashboard cams. Together with footage found in similar devices from Israeli victims and first responders as well as security cameras culled from the 30 towns that were invaded, viewers don’t just witness the carnage left behind — we see the terrorists in action, positively giddy with sadistic fervor.
“Bearing” was first exhibited on Oct. 23 to a clutch of reporters and then members of the Knesset. In the ensuing weeks, more private groups have been convened for screenings in cities from Philadelphia to London, usually by Jewish organizations, for mostly journalists and politicians.
When one of the event organizers sent me an invitation about a week prior to the Los Angeles screening, I not only RSVP’d about a millisecond after it hit my inbox, I fired off a separate thank-you email so fast I felt embarrassed minutes later.
Did I come off ghoulish looking so eager to attend this, I wondered? And yet even after watching that Knesset video, I wasn’t discouraged.
Looking back on it, the best way I can explain my rationale for attending the screening is to relay this personal anecdote:
I happened to be living in Manhattan when 9/11 occurred, albeit on the Upper West Side, about 100 city blocks removed from the tragedy. As I spent the day watching the coverage on television, I was so disturbed by the sense of dislocation I felt from the destruction, the sharp contrast between the unspeakable horror playing out onscreen and the unruffled calm in my neighborhood on the same New York soil, I did something so stupid that I hesitate to disclose it publicly: I strapped on my Rollerblades and skated downtown to see for myself the collapsed World Trade Center.
Never mind that the world would learn in the ensuing days that breathing the air anywhere near Ground Zero was dangerous. Common sense was not enough to keep me from rolling down the West Side to make real what seemed too surreal to take in through a TV. I skated block after block until about 14th Street, where the sunny blue sky abruptly ended and a gray-black mass of ash and smoke took over in a way that let me know to turn back immediately.
I couldn’t process the enormity of 9/11 without taking it in firsthand. And it was that same emotional logic that brought me to the Museum of Tolerance.
I was fascinated by the polarization in some of the reactions I drew from those I told about the screening. To a few, there was something saintly about my attendance, as if, to borrow from the title, “bearing witness” was second only to being part of the war effort itself. But when I described the footage to others, they regarded it as a snuff film and the exercise of watching it pure masochism akin to participating in a “Jackass” stunt.
If any Hollywood movie came to mind as I sat through “Bearing,” I hate to admit it but, as I observed the terrorists infiltrating an unsuspecting Israeli populace, it was “Red Dawn.” The 1984 shlock action flick blew my then pre-adolescent mind with a depiction of an invasion of the U.S. in which Russian paratroopers dropped from the sky and immediately started gunning down every American civilian they saw.
Absurd as that association might be, I make it deliberately for a reason.
As I think through the reasons I found myself unexpectedly stoic in response to the footage, it occurred to me the average consumer’s brain is so clogged with decades of imagery from R-rated movies, TV shows and video games of action, horror and science fiction, disturbing visuals are not necessarily all that disturbing.
Of course, “Bearing” is real life, not make-believe, but that doesn’t mean fictive imagery doesn’t have a desensitizing effect.
Also keep in mind that someone like myself, who has been immersed in Holocaust education since elementary school, has seen so many photos and videos of the most horrifying deprivations of my ancestors that, while startling to me years ago, aren’t as jolting as they once were.
The potential of overexposure to horrific images real or fake prompts an alarming possibility: If “Bearing” contained visuals even more extreme — perhaps of what the unsolicited critic at the L.A. screening was calling for from his seat — would that have shaken me out of my stoicism? Might the IDF even consider the possibility of such a version?
After the screening, I sought out the IDF representative in attendance, Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler. He explained that “Bearing” adhered to certain content guidelines that weeded out scenarios deemed too graphic for inclusion in its final edit, including rape or sexual assault, babies or children being harmed, torture of any kind and people being burned alive.
But I also learned from Shefler that this is not a finished product, either. With still hundreds of hours of footage to review from retrieved devices, additional longer cuts of the film will be made. Not only could those content guidelines be revisited, he said, but many possibilities remain open with regard to the future shape and form of “Bearing.”
The only hard and fast rule, Shefler suggested, was that decisions regarding the footage would be dictated by respecting the wishes of the families of the victims.
And this is where the numerous stated rationales supporting “Bearing” start to break down for me. As Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center put it in his comments prior to the screening, “We owe it to the … victims and their families to watch what was done to them.”
Issue No. 1 is that voyeuristic presumption — maybe the victims don’t actually want their final awful seconds on Earth broadcast to anyone no matter how much of a teachable moment it is. In addition to that complication, how do you square Hier’s sentiment with what Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and U.N., said later in his own remarks regarding Hamas?
“Why did they film themselves?” he asked. “In order to terrorize Israelis. To convince them they’ll never be safe in Israel.”
But if Erdan is correct, aren’t we essentially playing into Hamas’ hands by continuing to broadcast this footage, allowing the terror to echo for eternity? Seems worth pausing to consider the ramifications.
No Mental Health Without Democracy has certainly thought through the consequences. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Nov. 7 floated the notion of publicly broadcasting “Bearing,” this organization, representing a broad range of Israeli therapists, issued a statement strongly urging him to reconsider the idea or risk retraumatizing the country.
The IDF is also citing the film as a defense against the creeping onslaught of “massacre denial” beginning to inevitably rear its ugly head on social media. Yet the sad realization is that in our post-truth society, even the most convincing proof you provide will be rejected no matter what.
And what’s worse, in an age when artificial intelligence-fueled technologies can easily conjure up any kind of deepfake, the footage salvaged in “Bearing” comes with an automatic asterisk. Indeed, the magic of AI is already being harnessed to concoct all sorts of visual nonsense out of Gaza.
My hope is that in its current form, “Bearing” is just in a beta phase and the decision makers represent an unofficial test market of sorts. Perhaps the film will eventually take on other forms, one being a more fully fleshed-out documentary with more than just violent clips, that people will pay to see in theaters and streaming services or sliced and diced into free, shortform consumption on YouTube and TikTok.
What will be equally key is the timing of its release. Think of the war in Ukraine, which after dominating the headlines in its early going, has struggled to retain the world’s attention when the country needs it more than ever nearly two years into the conflict. Israel is undoubtedly headed into a protracted standoff of its own. As overheated as things may seem now, public interest will fade. But done right, a production like “Bearing” could be just the shot in the arm to reinvigorate flagging sympathies down the line.
Of course, “Bearing” is not a commercial enterprise. It’s going to be seen as propaganda aimed at justifying Israel’s polarizing military incursion in Gaza, a counterstrike against the pro-Palestinian movement gaining momentum around the world. But like Israel’s war itself, handled incorrectly, “Bearing” could be misinterpreted or, worse, have an unintended impact even if the IDF has the best of intentions.
There will be those who read this and find my criticism of the IDF strategy disrespectful. Or they might be disgusted by my reaction to the butchery on display in “Bearing.”
I will say there was one scene I can’t get out of my head that involves a pair of pre-adolescent brothers. The terrorist who has just killed their father by tossing a grenade into the bomb shelter of their home has hustled them into their kitchen. He roots around their refrigerator looking for something to drink with the nonchalance of a thirsty babysitter. As one brother contends with the fact that the grenade blast has left him seeing out of only one eye, the other wails, “Why am I alive?”
I will never forget that scene not because it’s gory or violent. It is unlike anything else in “Bearing” because it’s simply emotionally devastating.
Maybe with a little more pathos and context to balance out all the carnage, “Bearing” would be more unbearable to me, too.