Docaviv 2013: The Lab

The Lab

Angelina Jolie is a rather unexpected poster-girl (yes, I pick my words carefully) for the Israeli arms industry. I mean, she could be, given that men selling guns like to jazz up their sales pitches with a bit of incongruous glamour. But you know what I mean. Still, when she whips out the intriguingly named Cornershot - as the name suggests, it allows the user to dispatch baddies around blind corners, thanks to a swivelling mechanism - in her 2008 film Wanted, she gives invaluable publicity to the ingenuity of the Israeli arms industry.

Mind you, the preferred phrase - as Yotam Feldman discovers in his engaging but rather depressing documentary, The Lab, isn't anything quite as vulgar as arms dealing. The Global Defence Export Industry rolls off the tongue a bit more smoothly. Not that purchasers seem inclined to quibble too much about the euphemisms employed. The industry (feel free to call it what you wish: personally, I prefer the Killing Business) brought $7bn of business to Israel last year. The competence of the Israeli Arms industry seems to be reassurance enough for international customers...

Feldman's thesis is a simple one. 40 years of conflict against enemies, seen and unseen have turned Israel into a military testing ground. The calculus of war-mongering, ultimately, comes down to the most efficient means inflicting damage whilst limiting one's own losses. Israel has lots of practice in this respect; there is no shortage of men in uniform to expand upon this point, sometimes in the crudest manner possible. But then, it seems, the Israeli Defence Force also has philosophers and academics at its disposal to ponder these very questions. It isn't just having technology and manpower that matters: it's how you use it that counts, and most seem to agree that Israel uses them very well indeed.

Who benefits from this investment in the philosophy and practice of war? The steady flow from uniform to entrepreneurship is a given nexus of the military-industrial complex everywhere. But what may surprise more is the extent to which the private sector and the state are conjoined. When Ehud Barak, a former Chief of Army Staff and (having swapped uniform for suit) the immediate past Minister of Defence, eulogises the role of his ministry in supporting the arms...um, Global Defence Export industry, one appreciates that they are really two sides of the same coin.

Feldman is very much of the participative school of film-making, but for all this is not particularly given to polemic or provocation. He does get chucked out of an arms fair in France, admittedly, but through no fault of his own. Likewise, when his interviewees hang themselves with crass commentary about their work, they do so with the rope that they plait for themselves. It isn't terribly hard to feel distaste for the arms industry, admittedly; Feldman's film confirms everything we wanted to know but were afraid to ask.

Well, almost everything. The Lab falls short in the most important component of the equation. Like drugs, arms need buyers and sellers both. I'd argue that moral approbation belongs on both sides of the equation, but Feldman largely dishes it out on one side, the Israeli. Given the uniform - and not unjustified - criticism of Israel's continued presence in the territories, one wonders at the cognitive dissonance that informs arms transactions between Israel and the wider world. Still, all will not lost. If the Western world ever determine to find their own labs for the effective prosecution of war, the global defence export industry will still have Hollywood. I'm sure Ms Jolie will always find the Cornershot useful.