Promised Lands

Time Out New York Project: Issue #749, February 4–February 10, 2010


Dir. Susan Sontag. 1974. N/R. 87mins. In Hebrew, French and English. Documentary.

Strong and pointed as Susan Sontag’s intellect could be, she was sometimes undone by the trendiness of her topics. Case in point: Promised Lands, her unfocused documentary portrait of Israel during and immediately after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Sontag and a skeleton crew photograph this war-torn nation with a fashionable inquisitiveness — as if it’s the mod place for the intelligentsia to bear witness to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.

Interview-wise, there’s some one-on-one bloviating with a writer (Yoram Kaniuk) and a physicist (Yuval Ne’eman), but the film largely lumbers between locales — the Wailing Wall; a barren desert littered with war dead — in a vain search for cohesion and profundity. Sontag occasionally trips into brilliance: A midfilm montage of exhibits in a government-sanctioned wax museum (featuring everything from the Eichmann trial to Golda Meir’s powwow with JFK) is a lacerating critique of official histories. And there’s a sickening sequence in a psychiatric ward where doctors re-create battlefield conditions for a shell-shocked soldier, with the intent of healing him.

Yet these are isolated moments of insight amid drudgery. Sontag’s true talent was for the printed word; behind the camera, her limitations come more harshly to light. Upon Promised Land’s release, she recounted her experiences in Vogue — an all-too-appropriate forum since her film is mostly chic posturing.—Keith Uhlich