Bringing up issues of inter-generational trauma, nationalism, and the psychology of empire, Afterward is director Ofra Bloch’s journey toward understanding of herself and others. Anyone who has ever looked at the world (both past and present) and asked why and how people are capable of such acts of horror will be entranced by this psychodynamic documentary. (GPG: 5/5).
Review by Contributing Editor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
The first couple weeks of second grade are a bit of a blur to me at this point. I remember it was the first year I wasn’t in class with my friend Alice, and I kept wanting to sneak off from my classroom to find her during lunch. I remember we had to tell each other what we did over the summer on the first day of school, and even back then small talk like that was boring to me. I also remember that about a week into the year, this one kid Christian started trying to tell us about something he’d heard on the radio that morning; it sounded like something out of a movie, so I was disappointed when the teacher wouldn’t let him continue his story about the planes. I went home that day and saw my mom cry for what I think might have been the first time–I had no idea what a World Trade Center was and my concept of New York was fuzzy at best, but that sight was enough to make me just as scared as any adult on 9/11.
As scenes from Ofra Bloch’s childhood in Israel flickered across the screen at the beginning of Afterward, these memories started coming back to me, until they became like an added narrative thread in this documentary about terrorism committed by both individuals and nations. Accounts from Holocaust survivors, from a Palestinian teen who has watched his friends die in explosions, and from Bloch herself of being taught “to fear both Germans and Palestinians” seemed relevant to the Middle East and to Europe–but also to my own history as an American. Bloch’s description of her upbringing in a hyper-militarized state, being constantly fed narratives of threat while her country consolidated its military power, resonated with me after a childhood where I saw references to Osama bin Laden in my favorite comic strips. A war that cannot be escaped, a war that never ends, a war whose front is ostensibly in one place but also and in the mind of every person in the empire who consents to it. This is modern warfare; this is modern childhood.
“Hurt people hurt people” is a platitude, a new-agey maxim most of us have heard from our therapists at one point or another. Ofra Bloch happens to be a therapist herself, one who specializes in trauma. She has seen the effects of the Holocaust manifest in patients whose parents were survivors. “My patients were suffering from a trauma that happened before they were born,” she explains. The nature of trauma is in repetition, whether this means a repetition of victimhood or a repetition of one’s own victimization on someone else. To trigger someone’s trauma is to recall the event to them strongly enough that they are mentally thrown back into the lived experience of it, as clearly as if it was happening again. Threatening a person with a repetition of their trauma tends to be triggering, and when people are triggered one of their strongest concerns is to keep their trauma from repeating. When Bloch remarks that the Israeli mass media is constantly incensing the public with the possibility of another Holocaust, I think of the repeated inflations of my own country’s defense budget while Republicans spread paranoia with their party’s propaganda wing, Fox News. “It is a very easy fear to stoke,” one of Bloch’s subjects says with a world-weary tone.
One thing that makes Afterward all the more compelling is that it brings up the issue of state terror campaigns without villifying any particular individual. The film identifies the source of the trauma and the governments who make use of it for their own ends without identifying people with systems. As one Palestinian man puts it, Israelis are not his enemy, the military is his enemy, the walls are his enemy, the soldiers who shoot his relatives are his enemy. This allows victims across nationality to join together in witnessing each other’s pain while deconstructing the toxic repercussions of their own. Bloch must face both what her Israeli identity has done to the people who live in fear across the wall from her, as well as the troubling silence around the Holocaust in the households of former SS officers. In this humanizing perspective, the film creates a feeling of hope despite everything. However, it is hope that comes with a condition: to have access to a future without these kinds of violence, people have to be willing to hold their governments accountable for their imperialism; they must stop allowing themselves to be manipulated through their trauma.
In the end, Bloch’s understanding of what it means to be human, to be hurt, and to be healing is changed. I myself, living almost twenty years after 9/11 in the America which is constantly being triggered with its memory, have a new understanding of the imperial position I hold as well. The conversations that will help people to abandon the systems that rely on keeping trauma wounds alive and festering have been begun with Afterward, though they will need to touch many more people before healing can begin on a wider scale. Victimizer and victimized, colonizer and colonized, are positions we have all held at some point, and only when we connect across these divides can we deconstruct the violence that we re-enact every day.
Yes! The filmmaker speaks to many women in the course of her investigations in the film. Since the filmmaker herself is a woman and she speaks to her interview subjects about issues of nationality and ethnicity rather than men, the Bechdel-Wallace test’s requirements are satisfied.
Top Photo: Ofra and her grandfather (re-enacted).
Middle Photo: Ofra interviewing a Palestinian person.
Bottom Photo: Ofra engages with a group of protesting Palestinians.
Photo Credit: Afterward Productions