Costa-Gavras is one of those veteran film directors who came to prominence in the 1960s and whose work does not enjoy the audience it once did. In his case, it might demonstrate how a younger generation of both producers and audiences are squeamish about liberal or left-wing perspectives on political topics in cinema, theatre and TV.
Costa-Gavras’ first big success was Z, a political drama set in his native Greece at the time of its military dictatorship, which won a Best Foreign Film Oscar. A few years later, in 1982, Missing, about an American journalist kidnapped in Chile, won a screenplay Oscar and acting nominations for Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, and was a commercial success. (It was part of a trend for films about Western journalists in combat zones, like The Year of Living Dangerously, Under Fire, The Killing Fields and Salvador).
I knew that Costa-Gavras had made more films in Hollywood and it was coming across one of these on TV recently which brought his name back to mind. Mad City stars Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta and deals with the often questionable priorities of 24 hour TV news. It made me think again particularly of the film which he made directly after Missing.
That film was Hanna K. I saw it in Toronto when I was working there in 1983, but, returning, I never saw it advertised either in a British cinema or on British TV. Later still, when I first became acquainted with film fans’ online bible, Internet Movie Database, the film was not even listed among Costa-Gavras’ works. I almost began to wonder whether I had forgotten the film’s full title, or key parts of its narrative.
These days, happily, Hanna K is listed on imdb.com and until recently it was available to watch on Daily Motion.
Its story centres around Hanna Kaufman, an Israeli lawyer, who defends a Palestinian, Salim Bakri. She is first assigned his case to provide a routine defence against terrorism charges, but, later, she represents him in a more substantial action to reclaim possession of his family home which had been lost either in 1948 or 1967.
We see Kaufman visit Bakri’s home village. Its former Arab name has been changed as it has now become an Israeli settlement, and very few Arabs still live in the neighbourhood.
Her superior at her law firm, a conservative Zionist, states clearly that the state of Israel must be defended against its Arab enemies, even if it means treating others as badly as the Jews were themselves treated in the past. He says, “Do you want us to be a minority in a sea of Arabs, create a new ghetto?…Now we have a country, an identity, we must defend it…if necessary (by refusing the rights of Palestinians)”.
The trial of Bakri gains publicity and leads to Palestinian bombings in protest. The authorities are keen to conclude the trial. They suggest that that Bakri be granted South African citizenship and apply anew for ownership of his property. The trial is settled out of court and Bakri is sentenced to the minimum prison sentence of 8 months.
Kaufman’s perspective of Israeli-Palestine politics is criticised by her District Attourney lover Joshua Herzog as “romantic, abstract, impassioned… idealistic”. When Kaufman learns that Bakri is undergoing a hunger strike in prison, she arranges for his parole and lets him stay in her own house, to the particular disapproval of Herzog. Bakri voluntarily departs at the end.
The film is fatally weakened by the dilution of its political theme with another of female independence, which Hollywood was embracing at that time in such varied films as Julia, The Turning Point, An Unmarried Woman, The Rose and Nine to Five. Jill Clayburgh’s starring role in An Unmarried Woman may have led to her rather unsatisfactory casting here. Kaufman is pregnant at the start of the film but she refuses to marry her lover Herzog, staying friendly with her French husband Victor Bonnet. Later, she is seen embracing Bakri but it is not made clear whether he becomes her lover also. Insisting that she does not want Herzog involved in her new-born child’s upbringing, she comments rather unpleasantly, “Such a fuss over a few drops of sperm”. Finally, she seeks a divorce from her husband as she wants to re-establish her own identity – “because I don’t know who I am anymore”.
The final scene does at least re-assert the political theme. When both Herzog and Bonnet have left her house, sent away by Kaufman, and she is preparing to take a symbolically cleansing bath, there is a ring at the door. A crowd of armed policemen are there – as alerted earlier by Herzog to arrest Bakri.
There is no doubt that Hanna K is a flawed film, full of confusion and compromises. However it is at least a drama where the issue of Palestinian human rights is depicted fairly and where the Israeli position is put under scrutiny. At least some of the filming took place in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. It is most telling that this curio is the best effort on the issue which mainstream US cinema has managed in 30 years.