Photo by Guy Davidi

Innocence Review: Tackling an Israeli Death Sentence

Hot Docs 2023

4 mins read

(Denmark/Israel/Finland/Iceland, 100 min.)
Dir. Guy Davidi
Programme: Special Presentations


In the past few years, the leading cause of death among Israeli Defense has not been military conflict, but suicide. That grim phenomenon looms over this poetic, polemical film by Israeli director, Guy Davidi, in an examination of his 75-year-old nation, which was founded on the principle that all men and women, except for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs, are obliged to do military service.

Davidi is best known for his 2011 Oscar-nominated film, 5 Broken Cameras, co-directed with Palestinian Emad Burmat, which explores a Palestinian family’s experience in the struggle to resist the seizure of their West Bank land. His latest film, focuses on conflicts that are primarily psychological, as he  weaves together the contradictory public and private narratives of people in contemporary Israel.

The public narrative is gleaned from military training and class-room footage, demonstrating the process of propaganda and nation-building, which is still shocking: a blind teen is in tears when she’s pushed to shoot on a high-school field trip. The private stories are from the intimate letters and journal entries read in voice-over by actors, along with childhood home videos of young men and women who died in service, some who took their own lives.

Though Innocence offers no sociological data (are Israeli soldiers objectively more alienated than other comparable groups?), Davidi makes the case that there’s a tragic distortion in Israeli society with a culture that, in aiming to celebrate strength and preparedness, nurtures fear, aggression and suffocating conformity. The foundational idea of a citizen-army shapes the education system, as students from a young age are taught about the horrors of the Holocaust, taught to sing patriotic songs and participate in art classes, drawing soldiers in army green. Field trips are to military bases and involve climbing over tanks and touching M-16s. 16-year-olds have their first recruitment tests, and tearful parents say goodbye to their 18-year-olds, who head off to military bases.

As Davidi has acknowledged in interviews, he sought out examples of young soldiers who died after facing a crisis directly relating to the military. Through their writings and videos, we meet them before they reached they lost their innocence: Doron, a feisty adolescent girl, made a written list of all the things she wanted to accomplish before enlisting (smoke weed, grow dreadlocks, meet David Bowie). After experiencing military life, she bluntly wrote, “I’d rather commit suicide than feel like I belong.”

The longest section is devoted to Halil, who, as a leader at 16, in 2011, forged a youth movement pressuring the government to free imprisoned a kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Halil enlisted with a hope of “changing the system from within” but instead fell into despair. His mother tells the director, “He couldn’t be in a place where he created evil in the world and he couldn’t see another way where he could have a clear conscience.”

As an impassioned, partisan film, Innocence will likely do little to alter entrenched views about Israel, but it serves as a yet another reminder that, at this point its history, the country faces greater threats from within than from outside its borders.

Innocence screens at Hot Docs 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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