Venice 2022 review: Innocence (Guy Davidi)

“Given access to the personal diaries of a number of soldiers who committed suicide during service, Davidi paints a damning picture of a military and a country that grinds its young people into the dust.”

When you grow up in a nationalist and militarised country, where from a young age you are indoctrinated with unwavering love for the military, what do you do when you get conscripted and it turns out to be nothing like the propaganda that you’ve been fed all those years, and you simply don’t want to be there? Going by the accounts at the heart of Guy Davidi’s latest documentary Innocence, nothing good. Given access to the personal diaries of a number of soldiers who committed suicide during service, Davidi paints a damning picture of a military and a country that grinds its young people into the dust. Davidi’s documentaries have always been critical of Israel and its policies, but this is the first one where the issue affects Israelis, and given his personal attachment to the subject matter, Innocence is perhaps his most critical work yet.

Innocence cleverly shows how Israel lures its children into believing a narrative, only to perpetuate and legitimize the use of military force. Mixing footage shot by Davidi with home videos from the deceased soldiers and voice-over narration of their diaries, the film builds an image that tells how children in Israel, from kindergarten until the moment they are enlisted, are constantly brainwashed and militaristic thinking is normalized. Davidi does this by going through different stages of childhood, starting with the youngest. Kids finger painting with green paint, “the colour of the military,” as their teacher says, are taught that soldiers are heroes. They are introduced to weaponry. The grave of a fallen soldier is visited, another chance to wax poetic about the army. Davidi in stages moves to older ages, when children learn to shoot even if they clearly don’t want to, to the point of bursting into tears. The home video footage shows that the indoctrination during the younger years has worked though, as almost all children are eager to join the army.

But listening to the excerpts from their diaries when they finally got to put on the uniform, the military wasn’t what it’s cracked up to be. They are thrown into dangerous situations without backing, the atmosphere is tense, and they feel nobody cares about them, especially not their superiors or the government. Disillusionment and despair shine through in their musings. Their stories are connected by aerial shots of soldiers, alone or in small groups in a barren wasteland, a symbolic and oddly poetic representation of mental state. Progressing through the home videos, a clear mood shift is visible once the subjects have enlisted. It is a depressing thought that these young people were all driven to suicide by a system that forces immense mental stress upon them in the name of an ideological narrative.

Late in the film the focus is on Halil, a conscientious objector who stages a large protest with some of his peers. A dangerous undertaking, because refusing to join the army means prison. Interspersed throughout the film are home videos from another kid who creates the kind of short, silly films a kid with their first camera would. These are the personal connections of the film to Davidi, who himself refused military service after being in the army for a few months. Maybe this is why Innocence feels particularly biting in comparison to Davidi’s previous films, very effective at showing how Israel pushes a story onto its citizens from an early age in order to justify its violence, and how the country drives those who will not comply to the brink. Innocence is as incisive as it will probably be divisive, and Davidi remains one of the biggest thorns in Israel’s side. Voices like his are necessary, so may he be stuck there a long time.