In notes Sontag took in 1962, she referred to two modes of “seeing”. One, the “primitive” way, with one’s eyes, and the other a scientific way, which is “artificial, a product of abstraction. We never believe it; i.e., experience it.” The coincidence and irreconcilability of these two systems long held Sontag’s interest, both personally and in her intellectual pursuits, eventually serving as a platform for work like “Against Interpretation.” For the only documentary she filmed, 1974’s Promised Lands, revived for a week at Anthology Film Archives, Sontag describes the dual truths comprising the mental landscape of contemporary Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War by using these two ways of seeing as formal structuring elements, allowing them to overlap, contradict, and occasionally, coincide.
In the opening shots, for example, minarets chime to cuts of turrets and satelite dishes, and fade into the sound of brass goat bells; a long shot of an arid valley where a herdsman tends his slick black flock. But unsatisfied with mere symbolism, Sontag keeps these visual similies rare. In Promised Lands, most shots are self-contained; long enough to give pause, and a discrete proxy for Sontag’s own compassionate scrutiny. Together, the images slip over themselves, and most significantly, they slip up against the word. Against footage of the physical landscape, funeral rites, modern marketplaces, and still-smoking battle sites filled with scorched bodies, we see (and then only hear) the matter-of-fact lecturing of two Israeli intellectuals coming to different truths about the significance of Israel’s recent history in view of Judaism at large. The result is not a contrast, but bafflingly incongruous: Yoram Kaniuk explaining the history of the Israeli political interspersed with the simple household chores of bedouins (like kneading dough in a cracked white ceramic pot); audio of physicist Yuval Ne’eman, who can only see the modern issues as mere continuation of the problem of anti-Semitism inscribed within Mohammed’s teachings, is played over the footage of beautiful young Israeli soldiers disembarking from their recent assignments.
In the film, we hear the most from Kaniuk (whose mannerisms and appearance bear a striking similarity to Slavoj Zizek in Astra Taylor’s documentary Zizek!). His mention of the irony that an enlightened, Westernized, “rationalized” nation built has been built on a “mystical deed” (granted by God to Abraham) parallels Sontag’s interest in two coinciding modes of perception. Unpacking the paradox of Zionist consciousness, he argues that “finality” of actually settling the Promised Land is antithetical to “the eternal search” internalized in the Jewish narrative, but somehow acknowledges that Israel and the embattled state it is in may simply be another chapter in the narrative. The ambient unease that Sontag’s camera captures in the scenes of day-to-day life in Jerusalem supports his suggestion that Israel is a tragedy in the Greek sense of the word; “Here there are two rights—the Palestinians have full right to Israel and the Jews have full right to Israel. It works in theatre but not in life. There is no solution to tragedy, and this is a tragic situation.”
Sontag was fully conscious of the documentary form’s limitations and chose not to call Promised Lands one: “‘Documentary’ suggests that the film is a document… [but] nonfiction films can have a broad choice of nonfiction literary models… Possible literary analogues to the film discourse of Promised Lands, I suppose, are the poem, the essay, and the lamentation,” she wrote at the time, in Vogue. The film allows two modes of understanding; embodied reality and rational analysis, to live alongside one another in an uneasy peace. Her own best critic, she wrote of her film: “Promised Lands hardly tells all the truths there are about the conflicts in the Middle East, about the October War, about the mood of Israel right now, about war and loss and memory and survival. But what the film does tell is true. It was like that. To tell the truth (even some of it) is already a marvelous privilege, responsibility, gift.”