Director: Idan Haguel (Israel). Year of Release: 2022
South Tel Aviv, one of those neighbourhoods which is on the verge of being gentrified and will make a fortune for real estate investors in 5 years’ time. Ben and Raz have just moved in because they can’t afford to buy a flat in the centre of town (we’ll leave aside for one moment that most of us can’t afford to buy a flat anywhere). Their house is full of houseplants and yuppie furniture and they start each day with a drink from the juicer. They live, in short, a horribly sterile life.
Ben and Raz tell their equally well-heeled friends that they actually quite like living in a multicultural district, where at least one flat in their housing complex is inhabited by a group of Eritreans. They don’t even complain when someone finds the password to their gated community and comes and has a shit in the hallway at the bottom of the flats. There is no evidence, of course, that the offender was a migrant, but the assumption is just left hanging there.
Ben is a good liberal. He and Raz go to the (almost exclusively white) Pride demo and let themselves be photographed holding a banner which says “Equality”. When someone at his gym repeatedly address the Black cleaner using the N-word, Ben takes offence, tells him to stop, and calls him a sonofabitch. That is, until the racist asks Ben to take it outside, at which point Ben apologises profusely, saying he didn’t know what came over him.
Ben’s epiphany though comes with the sapling which he has planted in the road outside his house. When he sees 2 young African men leaning on it, he goes out and demands that they stop. They say, fine, but once he’s gone back inside, they continue to hold on to it. Ben rings the police who turn up, handcuff the 2 lads and ruthlessly beat the shit out of them. When one of them looks up from his position spreadeagled on the ground, a cop kicks him and renders him unconscious.
Ben feels overwhelming guilt, but what exactly is he feeling guilty for? It is not for his contribution to the problem, which he refuses to address. In the story that he recounts to his psychiatrist, the police come across the kids in the street and start beating them for no reason. In Ben’s story, he tries to intervene, before being beaten back by the powerful cops.
Ben’s guilt comes more from a fear that he may himself be racist. At one point, he accuses African migrants as being sexist, saying that they come from a patriarchal society. Similarly, he hates gentrification, but when a neighbour sells his flat for a tidy profit, dollar signs light up in front of his eyes. Like a good liberal, Ben doesn’t want there to be inequality in the world, but if there is, he doesn’t want to be on the losing side.
It is worth saying that Concerned Citizen is a sort of satire, and is fully aware of the flaws in its hero’s character. And yet it is a very unambitious sort of satire that only really considers the point of view of the beneficiaries of the racism and gentrification that it is satirising. So, we watch protracted scenes of a self-absorbed Ben staring into the middle-distance, failing to communicate with Raz, but are afforded no similar insight into the thoughts or feelings of the Black characters.
These are just the sins of commission. I have read a few reviews of the film, and none of them seems to even notice the one thing which is missing from the film. As said, it is set in Tel Aviv, which is indeed a very white city, notwithstanding the African migrants who have arrived in recent years. These migrants occasionally appear in the film, usually as victims of a great racial injustice, whether from the film’s Bad characters, or from Ben’s worst version of himself.
But Tel Aviv is just down the road from Yafa, still home to the Palestinian community which has lived there for about 4,000 years. But there is no speaking part for a Palestinian in the film, and if any appears in the background I must have been blinking at the time. There is one single mention of Palestinians, by a racist woman who wants to move to Israel from a multicultural France, but doesn’t want to mix with a list of ethnicities, of whom Palestinian Arabs are just one.
And this is why Concerned Citizen doesn’t really work as a satire. It claims to be boldly confronting the racism at the heart of liberal Israelis, but it only confronts the “acceptable” form of racism. It is ok for liberals like Ben to worry about whether their thoughts about African migrants are sometimes bad, because at least they accept the fact that Africans are there. To worry about anti-Palestinian racism would be to accept the existence of Palestinians, and that is just too much,
Enough of the political invective, does Concerned Citizen work as a film? Well, not for me, not really. As Ben, Shlomi Bertonov is a perfectly decent actor, although the character he is playing is so self-absorbed that we don’t easily empathise. That’s fine, I’m all for unsympathetic characters. And at least Ben is a halfway rounded character. Most of the others are just there to act as a background for Ben’s anxieties and have few real thoughts or feelings of their own.
There is a subplot of Ben and Raz trying to find a surrogate mother, which has a prominent position at the start of the film, but ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere. Maybe it’s there to make an important point about power relations. Maybe it was more prominent in an earlier draft. But, like a number of aspects of the film, it’s there for a while, before unaccountably fizzling out. Credit to the film for being less than 90 minutes long, but it didn’t have enough substance to fill even this.