Sunday, November 04, 2007

Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains; O Jerusalem


Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains (2007, Sony Pictures Classics / Participant, dir. Jonathan Demme, 126 min, PG) and O Jerusalem (2006, Samuel Goldwyn, dir. Elie Chouraqui, 100 min, France/UK).

I backtrack to May, 1976 while Gerald Ford was still president and Jimmy Carter was about to be nominated (he would be put over the top at the convention by Ohio). My studio apartment in Greenwich village, renovated out of a warehouse with nooks and crannies, was crowded with about thirty strangers, and Dr. and Mrs. Florence Fry, whom I put up at the George Washington Hotel, spoke. I was in charge of the NYC unit of Understanding, a New Age group from Tonapah, Arizona, that I had already visited a couple times. The largest unit was actually in Buffalo. The underlying concept was a grassroots political process to be called The Area of Mutual Agreement, which was supposed to solve political and international issues. It was supposed to run around the world in viral fashion in those pre-Internet days.

I did not work out that well, although I visited Understanding several more times and made some good friends. There were some personal vicissitudes that would themselves make a movie in those pre-AIDS days. But in September, 1978, I did have a meeting of a reorganized unit in my apartment, and recorded it on cassette. We spent most of the evening talking about the meeting at Camp David between Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin.

At the time, the meeting was still deadlocked. A few days later, it suddenly broke, and there was an accord. The two adversaries were shown hugging. There is video of this in Demme’s film, and Carter appealed to Begin’s own sense of concern for his own family, at the last minute. That memory is shown in the film.

Most of the movie shows Carter going around the country defending his book “Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid,” with the metaphor offensive to many. Carter constantly emphasizes the way rights were taken away from individual Palestinian people on the West Bank. Alan Dershowitz sees it as political: the Palestinians elected Hamas, he says, and there are consequences for electing a government that says it wants to destroy Israel.

Demme's film does show the red clay countryside around Carter's Plains, GA home, and shows in talking in church at home ("You don't have to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. I do.") I met President Carter in 1977 when the taught Sunday School in the balcony of the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC, near the White House (the present building opened in 1955); the lesson was on the Divorce Chapter. I heard him speak about Habitat for Humanity in the Washington Cathedral in 1996. The film shows him working in New Orleans after Katrina.

It's interesting to remember the domestic politics of the time, given that now we tend to remember his international peace efforts and the Carter Center (often shown in the film), which I paid a quick visit to in 1994 in Atlanta. (Remember his failure to rescue the Iran hostages in April 1980.) In 1976 there was a PAC called "Gays for Carter" and it was somewhat naive. But, according to Randy Shilts (in "Conduct Unbecoming"), Carter's people had suggested doing something about security clearances for gay people if he got a second term (that didn't get much better until about 1990 with the Persian Gulf War) and could not consider doing anything about the military gay ban, which actually was hardened in 1981 as Reagan took office.

The Demme film shows a lot of on location shots around Washington and Arlington: the Memorial Bridge, the new Air Force memorial.

The Choraqui film came out in theaters just a little before, and it is a somewhat stagey drama of two friends, a Palestinian Arab Said Chahine (Said Taghmoui) and Jew Bobby Goldman (JJ Feild) while the state of Israel is being created in 1948, and then while Palestinian reprisals are fended off, resulting in a truce. The film shows lots of black and white historical footage of Jerusalem and of the Holocaust, and in some scenes black and white transformed into a sepia movie set.

The film documents the historical case for the Jewish state well enough (it makes a lot of the United Nations vote and the departure of the British from Jerusalem) but says little about the displacement of individual Palestinians, and tends to make the opposition appear religious in nature. Perhaps it was. But today we know that the psychological motive under the suicide bomber threat has a lot to do with the shame of being less than second class citizens personally. And Israel, as the Carter film depicts, insists that all of this is necessary simply for security.

Most of history, as we study it, is about the subjugation of one group of people of another. The same thing happened to native Americans in our country. When teaching social studies to kids, we usually don’t emphasize the loss of individual rights as part of group subjugation (we do show that this happened to the Jews in Germany under Hitler, but we don’t follow up well with how this happens to individual Palestinians). We think it is somehow justifiable, and we expect families in a subjected people to adjust with “family values.”

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