Innocence: a furious documentary suffused with grief

Guy Davidi’s harrowing examination of the loneliness that ensues after the death of a child is also an excoriation of the power structures that condemn so many young Israelis to death.

6 September 2022

By Rafa Sales Ross

Innocence (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival

Having evaded conscription by the Israeli army as a young man, documentary filmmaker Guy Davidi came to view cinema as an opportune tool to denounce the political structures in whose shadow he was raised; his films often explore the concept of resistance. His second feature, the Oscar-nominated 5 Broken Cameras (2011), followed the members of one Palestinian family and their quest for a future free of routine violence. Innocence, Davidi’s latest, opts for a wider canvas, investigating the notion of resistance through a larger collective: the young people of Israel.

Over a blend of grainy camcorder footage and wide shots of the vast Negev desert, passages from children’s handwritten letters are solemnly read aloud by invisible narrators. The stories they tell, of conscription and resistance, are interwoven with recurring motifs: the screeching sound of sirens, school lessons turned recruitment drives, the greens and blacks of camouflage covering bodies and gear alike. The innocence of the title is lost not only by Israeli children, who find themselves irreversibly co-opted into the matters of adults at a tragically young age, but by their parents, who inch ever closer to the fateful day when their sons and daughters are packed off to fulfil the mandatory civic duty of enlisting in the Israeli army at the age of eighteen.

It took Davidi ten years to bring Innocence to the screen – a decade spent not only conducting the laborious research necessary for such a sensitive undertaking but establishing trust with the families of the children onscreen. These kids, frozen in time through home-video archives, grow up in front of the viewer, ignorant of the violent death that will claim them all. In telling their stories, Davidi eschews the saccharine without resorting to out-and-out cynicism, walking a line between unguarded generosity towards his subjects and fervent disgust at the social and political apparatuses that have condemned countless young people to an untimely end. There is no attempt to lay out exposition of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, either; Innocence explores the frameworks of the structural through the individual instead.

There is no single word in the English language that describes the unimaginable pain of losing a child; there is, however, one in Hebrew. Sh’khol (שכול) stands for the bereavement of losing a loved one too soon, and is often used in reference to parents whose children are killed in war or terror-related events. It’s a concept that frames Davidi’s harrowing examination of the loneliness that ensues after the death of a child; his film has the soulfulness of an elegy and the anger of a manifesto.