SELWYN HARRIS explains how Iranian filmmaker Golriz Kolahi’s new bio-pic Gilad and All That Jazz reveals the humour, passion and politics of Gilad Atmon, a musician and writer on a mission to tell it like it is, whatever the cost
There is a good deal of live music footage throughout revealing the different sides to Atzmon’s music: appearing with the Blockhead Ian Dury on Jools Holland’s Later, with Robbie Williams at a later tribute to Dury right through to his own projects: The Orient House Ensemble with Nigel Kennedy at Chelsea’s 606 club, and on a concert stage with his fairly recent Parker and
Larger than life characters are the lifeblood of the jazz documentary. One such release that was featured here just recently Sounds and Silence sheds some light on the intensely private, arcane world of the German ECM label head Manfred Eicher. Mystery though isn’t a word you’d associate with Gilad Atzmon, the subject of a new documentary by the Iranian filmmaker Golriz Kolahi. The expat London-based Israeli reedsman is a working jazz musician with a story to tell. Selected for screening at this year’s London International Documentary Festival, Gilad and All That Jazz emerged from an idea Kolahi had for a series of documentaries about artists who use their art as a political platform. Atzmon is one of a kind. In jazz terms, his allegiances spread across the mainstream of bop, R&B and Coltrane spiritualism. But they are often given a subversive, sometimes humorous cabaret-ish twist when infused primarily with the roots music of the Middle East, but also north Africa, eastern Europe and the Jewish diaspora. In his own words he “likes to take Jewish music and Palestinian-ise it.” Atzmon’s political activity isn’t just connected to his music making. He’s also proved an increasingly outspoken and controversial essayist, blogger and author, but humour is never far away.
Strings-inspired In Loving Memory of America band. An admirer and collaborator, the iconoclastic singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt recounts Atzmon’s reply to someone telling him not to mix politics and music was “In that case to hell with the music.” Politics is to die for; music to live for. For another expat-Israeli drummer Asaf Sirkis, who’s also interviewed, it’s a very different story. He recalls how Atzmon kindly left him out of the politics so he could just think about the music and his drumming. Throughout the film we also hear selected tracks from Atzmon’s albums as ‘non-diegetic’ (not coming from a source within the film) backdrop. For example when he sets off for London, flickering images symbolising the capital city are underscored by music from his strings project, a sequence a little reminiscent of film composer Bernard Hermann’s sax music title theme applied to Taxi Driver.
Especially for those who have followed Atzmon’s musical career path, this formal yet well-made hourlong film gives us a lot of interesting background. Growing up in Israel, “a happy Zionist kid,” Atzmon recalls hearing Charlie Parker for the first time as a teenager playing ‘Laura’ from Bird with Strings on the radio late at night. A revelatory moment. “We were told everything great was Jewish so I initially thought it was a black Jew or something,” he says. Socialist writer and jazz critic Chris Searle picks up the thread about Charlie Parker with zest although he makes a rather tenuous connection to Bird’s background and Atzmon’s own personal conflict. The dreamlike childhood was to come to a dramatic end. Another revelatory moment occurred when he witnessed some of the horrors against humanity committed by his own people as a paramedic in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) during the first Lebanon war in 1982. His decision to leave Israel for good and actively champion the Palestinian cause was compounded by his visits to PLO prisoner concentration camps when playing concerts in a military band.
“It was from this moment that he decided to leave Israel for good and be a musician”, says his wife Tali Atzmon who, along with his parents, is interviewed. If anyone knows him perhaps better than he knows himself it is Mrs Atzmon, to whom he has been married for nearly 30 years and with whom he has two children. She sees the fight for Palestine as Gilad’s way to “take himself through a process of self-correction.” Atzmon says that as an Israeli he is responsible for the Palestinians’ plight. “I’m complicit in every crime. I take responsibility.” Cut to an Israel TV show, in which we see Atzmon rapping in Hebrew in his first ‘serious’ band named Spiel Acid Jazz.
In spite of the provocative subject matter, Gilad and All That Jazz isn’t what you would call reportage filmmaking. The director Kolahi plays an anonymous though not altogether ‘neutral’ role in the documentary. With a fine arts and video background, her collaboration with Atzmon’s views can be easily read in the juxtaposition and editing of images through the film. She has an eye for a good photograph, and the collage of standard music documentary material of anything from newsreel footage through to live performance excerpts are eloquently bound together.
The second half of the film rests on the publication of Atzmon’s radical book The Wandering Who? Atzmon, who says it took 12 years to write, describes the book as a crude attack on Jewish identity politics. It has received praise but the documentary concentrates on the extreme international controversy caused by his perceived ‘anti-semitism’. Book launches and heated seminars replace the jazz performances. Things turn nasty. There’s a lot of name-calling. The Times journalist David Aaronovitch makes a character assassination attempt on Atzmon, “an absolutely grade-A narcissist. A phallic Imperialist.” More abuse. The Jewish Chronicle, journalist Oliver Kamm and most surprisingly, from leading members of the proPalestinian movement: “I have read enough of his stuff to make me want to puke.” Atzmon’s publisher is not convinced any of them have even read the book. Private film footage shows anti-racist students picketing an event at the University of Exeter and being cross examined by Atzmon. These young knee jerk liberal protesters clearly hadn’t read it. Has Atzmon crossed the line from anti-zionism to anti-semitism? Gilad and All That Jazz is a handsomelyfilmed, informative bio doc but you won’t find the answers to that question here. Though it should inspire you to go and find out for yourself.
The Wandering Who? A Study Of Jewish Identity Politics