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Can Bernard-Henri Levy’s fast-tracked documentary stave off ennui about Ukraine?

In Tel Aviv this week, the French intellectual says Putin’s greatest ally is global fatigue, as he urges vigilance against Russia despite ongoing war’s fall from daily headlines

Bernard-Henri Levy at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on July 7, 2022. (Yuri Skvirski, i24NEWS)
Bernard-Henri Levy at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on July 7, 2022. (Yuri Skvirski, i24NEWS)

French philosopher and academic Bernard-Henri Lévy has made a career out of traveling to war zones to shed light on conflicts he is worried that most of the world has forgotten. “BHL,” as he has been crowned by the media, has stridden across battlefields in Somalia, Sudan, Angola, and Kurdistan, and was a high-profile advocate for Western intervention into the Libyan civil war in 2011.

But the past few months Lévy has spent in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion were completely different from any other conflict, he said on Wednesday. Lévy, 73, was speaking at a screening of his new documentary about the conflict, “Why Ukraine,” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art organized by i24News.

“This war has a peculiarity from the other ones that I covered, because with those I knew the outcome would not change a lot to the fate and the state of the world,” he said. With other conflicts, Lévy said, he got involved “to bring focus on them because of human rights and human suffering.”

“But here, it is the opposite. I had a feeling, since the very first days, that the order of the world is at stake here, that the outcome of this war will change our destinies in Europe, in America, in the West in general, including here,” said Lévy.

“Of course, this is not a World War, but it is a war which has an effect all over the world. It is a ‘globalized war,’ which has a butterfly effect in every part of the planet. In Africa, there is now a crisis of wheat and hunger which is created by Russia,” he said.

Lévy has made six documentaries and written more than 40 books in his half-century as one of France’s leading intellectuals. But this effort was different. “This is the one which I directed with the sharpest sense of emergency,” he said. Filming wrapped up on June 10 and the team, led by co-director Marc Roussel, feverishly edited the footage over the past few weeks to release the documentary as soon as possible, rather than wait for the summer film festivals.

“As Alexis de Tocqueville said, one of the weaknesses and sins and faults of democracies is the versatility… they cannot pay attention for very long to a crisis and to a tragedy,” he said. “As we were rushing to finish this film, we did feel that there is a fatigue. There is a growing indifference.”

Bernard-Henri Levy in conversation with i24 news anchor Natasha Kirtchuk at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on July 7, 2022. (Yuri Skvirski, i24NEWS)

“The biggest ally of Putin is not Xi Jingping [of China], who at the end of the day is unable to provide him the pieces he needs for his tanks, or Iran. The biggest ally of Putin is the fatigue of Europe, the fatigue of America,” Lévy said.

The documentary has been released on TV stations in France and Germany, but the event in Tel Aviv was the first screening of the documentary for a live audience. Lévy said he chose to come to Israel with the film because he feels both a deep connection with Israel as a proud Jew, and also because he wants to urge the Israeli government to take a stronger stance condemning Putin.

“I’m fully aware that the situation of Israel is complicated, I know the stakes, I know as much as anyone here how Israel also has an existential threat at its borders and there is a very difficult game that needs to be played with Hezbollah, Iran, with Bashar al-Assad [of Syria], and with Russia,” said Lévy. “It is more difficult for Israel than for France to have a clear position.”

Lévy met with President Isaac Herzog with the same message on Wednesday morning.

“Nevertheless,” he said, “not enough is done. There is a sisterhood between Israel and Ukraine which is not enough taken into account here. There is ‘solidarity among the shaken.’”

“There is a feeling among Ukrainians today that has been widely shared among generations of young Israelis” who are swept up into conflicts they did not choose, Lévy said.

He called on Israel’s leaders to “be faithful to the Jewish values and Jewish destiny” and to be more forthcoming with condemnations or sanctions against Russia.

“When all this finished, and it might finish by the defeat of Putin, I would hate to see Israel on the bad side or not clearly on the good side,” he said.

Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, Dr. Yevgen Korniychuk, who also attended the screening, had similar sentiments.

“We believe that, while Israel doesn’t owe us anything, but from a moral center, you are a democracy, you are a part of the Western world,” he said, prior to the screening. “So as well as the other democracies, you definitely have an obligation to do whatever you can to stop the war.”

Korniychuk said he was especially disheartened that many Israeli politicians have stopped short of calling it a war and referred to it as a “local conflict” between the Russian and Ukrainian governments. “We’re not in conflict with anyone, we’re a peaceful nation,” he said.

Korniychuk said the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel plans to work hard during the coming election season to ensure that politicians do not forget the war in Ukraine while campaigning on local issues.

“We’ve been doing our own polls and we have found that most Israelis, including the non-Russian Hebrew speakers, support Ukraine in this period,” Korniychuk said. “So we do believe that that notion has some power to be transformed to the politicians and the decisions they will ultimately make.”

Bernard-Henri Lèvy speaks with Ukrainian ambassador to Israel Dr. Yevgen Korniychuk ahead of the screening of his documentary ‘Why Ukraine’ at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman)

The documentary “Why Ukraine” centers the story firmly on Lévy himself and his activism, rather than on the Ukrainians. It is a tightly edited montage that features Lévy in almost every frame, striding confidently alongside Ukrainian fighters through bombed-out streets while dressed in an impeccable suit. The film weaves in generous amounts of historical footage of Lévy in other conflict zones as well as a visit to Ukraine in 2014 when he lent support to the Maidan Protests, a grassroots movement to move Ukraine towards Europe and away from Russia that led to violent protests in Maidan Square in Kyiv.

There is also plenty of footage of meetings between Lévy and Ukrainian politicians, including a boisterous lunch with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2020, with Lévy positioning himself as the bridge to getting meetings with Western politicians.

Speaking after the screening in Tel Aviv, Lévy referred to himself as a pacifist, but a large portion of the documentary footage is Lévy visiting bunkers on the front lines and handling large weapons with an approving gaze. There is scant attention paid to Ukrainians fulfilling other duties, including organizing local initiatives for food and logistical support during the four months of war.

Lévy said in a post-screening interview with The Times of Israel that the documentary featured a lot of footage of himself because he felt that was the most accurate portrayal of the situation.

“I think this is the best way to be honest, not to pretend,” said Lévy. “I don’t pretend to be an objective or exhaustive person. I just say what I saw, what I think, and what I conclude. For me, subjectivity is a precondition of fairness and honesty.”

Lévy also praised Israel’s “noble welcome” of refugees, despite Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s hard cap on just 5,000 non-Jewish refugees and footage of Ukrainians languishing for days at Ben Gurion airport.

Lévy is well aware that his highly polished brand of international activism has the ability to keep the politicians and the public interested in the issue for longer than if he did nothing. He’s keeping mum on summer plans to travel with “Why Ukraine” on the festival circuit, or which politicians he hopes to sit down with, as he attempts to keep the spotlight on Ukraine and chase away the shadows of ennui.

“We thought, maybe not in Israel, but in Europe, we thought we had entered into an eternal Sunday, that history was over, that mass crimes belonged to the past, that liberalism and democracy will prevail all over the world that all the nations will become wise,” said Lévy. “And we were wrong. Wisdom is not the rule. Savagery is boiling under the veneer of civilization, and we have to be aware of this.”

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