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Arts & Culture Director Stone Casts into Waters of the Israeli-palestinian Conflict

May 27, 2003
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In the violent month of March 2002, when an unprecedented wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks culminated in the Passover massacre at a Netanya hotel and the siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, filmmaker Oliver Stone traveled to Israel and the West Bank to shoot a documentary on the escalating conflict.

The result is “Persona Non Grata,” airing on HBO on June 5, which is neither as pro-Palestinian as Stone’s critics had feared nor as balanced as his admirers might have wished.

On the positive side, the director of “JFK,” “Nixon” and “Wall Street” is careful to give equal time to both sides. He also features some of Arafat’s more blood-curdling speeches to his Arab followers, which are rarely reported in the general media.

The imbalance is in the kind of footage and spokesmen selected to represent the opposite sides: There are extensive scenes of killed and wounded Palestinians, houses demolished, hassles at roadblocks and the constant rumbling of Israeli tanks.

Granted, there also are bloody scenes in the aftermath of the Passover massacre, in which a terrorist killed 29 Israelis celebrating a seder. But the burden of the Israeli case is carried by a series of earnest but undramatic talking heads — mainly former Prime Ministers Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, and historian Meir Pail, who is highly critical of Israeli policy.

They are all quite eloquent — especially Peres and Netanyahu — but since each has his own take on the present and future situation, they tend to cancel each other out and are likely to confuse casual viewers.

A somewhat comical refrain is Stone’s increasingly futile and frustrating attempts to finalize an appointment with Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president.

The most effective Palestinian spokesman turns out to be Abu Kassir, a pseudonym for the masked leader of the Al- Aksa Brigade terrorist group, who says he’s just fighting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and simply wants a return to the boundaries before the 1967 Six-Day War.

There is a short interview with a spokesman for the political wing of Hamas, who maintains that he knows nothing about his organization’s terrorist operations. Otherwise, however, the crucial fundamentalist Muslim viewpoint, which calls for the destruction of Israel, is omitted.

Working with French and Spanish producers, Stone makes it harder to follow the already complex thread of the story by constantly intercutting among different scenes and spokesmen.

The 75-minute “Persona Non Grata” premieres on HBO on June 5 at 7 p.m. and will be shown again June 8 at 11:15 a.m., June 13 at 6:30 a.m. and June 17 at 2 p.m.

Playdates for HBO2 are June 10 at 10:15 p.m., June 21 at 8:15 a.m. and June 30 at 5 p.m.

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