OIFF19 REVIEW: סיבת המוות [Cause of Death] [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 79 minutes
    Release Date: 2018 (Israel)
    Director(s): Ramy A Katz
    Writer(s): Ramy A Katz & Assaf Lapid

I can’t stop thinking about it.

Director Ramy A Katz leaves three text cards at the end of his Cause of Death to share responses to the film that were supplied by the Israeli police department, Ministry of Health, and the medical examiner of Officer Salim Barakat’s body upon his death at the scene of a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv on March 5, 2002. Each statement possesses one commonality that doesn’t make sense when read after watching Salim’s brother Jamal’s unofficial investigation into what happened a decade later. It’s this: the autopsy details clarify cause of death as a stabbing and not a gunshot. These entities are so certain of this fact that they dismiss the film as pure fabrication. According to Jamal and the files he acquires, however, no autopsy was performed.

What then should we take away from their words? Does the talk of an autopsy confirm their cover-up because it catches them in a lie? Or did Jamal merely assume one never took place because he told the unit commander that none was necessary? If that assumption was wrong, however, why didn’t anyone set him straight by providing the document? Without this evidence the case becomes a matter of “he said/he said” allegation that’s easy for some outsiders to wonder about the point since both sides ultimately agree Salim was a hero—regardless of whether a knife or bullet killed him. That’s a luxury Jamal can’t afford, though. As a Druze (a small and eclectic Arab-speaking religious sect), the weapon and who held it means everything.

Katz gives us the party line first. An assailant with an automatic rifle began shooting blindly inside a restaurant near the Maariv Bridge. He eventually drew a knife once his gun jammed, charging to kill more. It’s here when Salim arrived in civilian clothing to shoot the terrorist and subsequently get stabbed in the neck upon checking if he was dead. Jamal and his family were told it was a clear-cut case of heroism with nobody else present possessing a gun to muddy the waters. Every year since has seen Salim’s Tel Aviv unit hold a memorial pilgrimage to the spot to smoke a cigar in his remembrance. The Israeli police force even uses this Druze man’s bravery to show recruits what it means to be an officer.

That means something. An Arab man propped up as the epitome of Israeli courage? It’s an honor that Jamal has been proud of for years. But then something happens. By happenstance he meets someone who knew Salim via the department and the topic of his death arises. The story he tells Jamal, however, is different from the one that’s been held as truth. He says Salim took down the gunman, but was shot by a customer who pulled out his gun instead of being stabbed. The discrepancy speaks to Jamal and a nagging feeling he’s always had about the original story never sounding correct. So he digs for information, searches out first-hand witness accounts, and discovers a potential breakthrough from something he thought was an unrelated event.

Another man, Willy Hazan, was also stabbed around the same time. Jamal remembers his interview, but never put two and two together because he was always told his brother was the only person holding a gun besides the terrorist. So Willy talking about shooting his attacker on television automatically placed him at a different event completely. That’s the process of elimination our minds wield when driven by a single unalienable truth. To believe Salim’s compatriots meant treating their story as sacrosanct. Any potential hole was therefore considered a lie because Jamal couldn’t accept a reality where the men he trusted were the ones actually falsifying the facts. As this crack in their version of what happened inevitably reveals more, it becomes difficult to discount a conspiracy.

It’s here where the divide between Arab and Israeli rears its head because the dichotomy of control in the situation can’t help but come into play. Suddenly there’s a missing x-ray, a white lie of omission, and the plausible idea that an Arab cop outside his uniform while fighting a lighter-skinned opponent might be presumed the “bad guy.” We’re talking an inflammatory can of worms just waiting to burst open. Will it, though? Can it? Jamal is desperate for one thing: truth. He doesn’t want retribution or vengeance. He merely wants to know what happened so his brother’s death (a passage that’s very special to the Druze since they believe in reincarnation) can be put to rest. Slowly those who know come out of the woodwork to help.

Is what they say accurate? That’s up to you. The story Jamal cobbles together personally makes a heck of a lot more sense than the one the Israeli police wrote in 2002, but maybe reality exists somewhere in the middle. Maybe the person some believe killed Salim doesn’t even realize it because of the emotions of the moment or the decade-long adoption of a lie that eventually cemented itself as truth. We may never know for sure either, but that uncertainty is inconsequential as long as Jamal finds the closure he seeks. Katz isn’t filming a cold case gone hot, but a man’s quest for answers beyond his brother’s heroism being used as a shield his champions can hide behind. Without prejudice, this hero might still be alive.

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