Monday, March 16, 2009

[3rd Singapore Indie Doc Fest] Closing Film - The Alpha Diaries

2.5 (and now 2) years of active service during the prime of our lives, and 13 (now 10) cycles of reservist duty thereafter. Ask any male in Singapore about their national obligation and you're gonna get a myriad of colourful views, some of which of course are unprintable here. But as we're conditioned, National Service is a rite of passage, and frankly it's where great bonds are forged, where you live with, play with and work your butts off as a unit fulfilling some mission objectives.

It's an open secret that the pioneer batches of conscripts were trained by the Israeli army, and similar to our IPPT which is dumbed down from the US Marines standard, so too is the duration of service as compared to the IDF, where at aged 18 they become soldiers for 3 years, before serving 20 years of reservist where they're called back for 30 days each time. That's double of what we're obligated to serve, barring those holding officer ranks and appointments. I guess the environment they operate in is vastly different from Singapore's, where here a two week high key stint sees us fighting "ghosts", while there it is as great a reality check can be, with real danger potentially lurking at every corner.

As with any conscript army, they face the same issues that we do, especially when we get notification of our call up, and literally bitch about it, until we report back, see our buddies, reminisce the good old days, and work together to perform whatever's necessary in order to go back to our loved ones, and on with our lives. And having a group of men banded together spells nothing but comedy when we let loose in base camps, and I can attest to some of the shenanigans shown in this documentary, could rival those that happen in our camps too. There will always be that misgivings about living life in olive green where we turn into beasts, and those who are featured in this film, do not mince their words in sharing their frustrations about the system as well.

Yaniv Berman's documentary was filmed in the last 5 years of his reservist, between the years of 2002 and 2006, and offers an unflinching look at their operations from the ground level, through the eyes of the riflemen in his Alpha company. While we do not get the details of operations, since after all every military operation is secret, I thought that such a film could not have existed in the first place, and I was wrong. It's hard to imagine that permission would even be granted for an independent filmmaker to try and attempt to document something like this here in Singapore, which would probably offer a whole lot of honest insights into the psyche of the troops who are disrupting their lives to serve.

But what I found more powerful in this film, is not the parallels that we can identify with. Rather it's the nature of the troops' mission and operations each time they hit the road, that surprisingly was allowed to be featured in this documentary. Besides the usual sentry or guarding duties, they perform raids in the occupied territories, where the soldiers go from house to house in the dead of the night, barging into apartments in skeletal battle order and conducting searches for, I presume, contraband and those deemed wanted. Pointing their guns at faces, men get separated from the women and children and interrogated, the entire house turned upside down in order to conduct a thorough search and so on. One could only imagine the intense humiliation a family has to go through, probably repeatedly by different companies, and if there's any violation of basic rights, this is it.

It's no wonder that the Palestinans vent their frustration where they can, some express it through the throwing of rocks at the Israeli convoy's APC, to the laughter of the soldiers knowing that they are untouchable from within. It's almost like a cowboy town where the rule of law becomes the rule of those who have weapons. It's a little unsettling to witness locked doors being hacked at (really heavy metal doors actually) and if unsuccessful with the sledge hammer, some explosives are the order of the day. Even the soldiers themselves, in an interview, admit to the unpleasantness and wouldn't want to be at the other end of this, and like true soldiers, they follow orders, not questioning them, whether morally they know it is not right. You can feel that there's nothing personal, but they're carrying out their day to day orders in counting down to the day where they will be obligation-free, and the intense joy that comes with that day, whether it be celebrating because they are free from the shackles of being called back, or free from executing humiliating orders, or both.

I guess that's what life in olive green fatigues could degenerate into. We may lose our humanity once we don the colours and behave badly. Complain as we may, we understand the need of a defence force though not all may agree with it, preferring a professional outfit to a conscript model. There will always be that inconvenience to balance, but after this, I do prefer to fight phantoms than to be under unknown enemy fire, or tasked to carry out duties that will put your morality under heavy questioning, conscience being masked by leaving your brains with your civvies.

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