short takes


PBS's tailored documentary
October 18, 2007

It’s fitting that Six Days in June—the documentary film reexamining the 1967 war that was a crucible for today’s Arab-Israeli conflict—should receive clashing reviews from its critics. Some raved about the film’s narrative tension and rhetorical balance; others berated it for what they saw as historical revisionism.

These reviews are based, for the most part, on Six Days’s director’s cut, released to mark the war’s fortieth anniversary this June. Most Americans, however, saw a different Six Days—a version co-produced by PBS affiliate WGBH and aired as a television documentary on PBS stations. The American edition is so distinct from the original that Ilan Ziv, Six Days’s director, tried to remove his name from its credits before the film’s U.S. release.

The original film is “an attempt, in a journalistically responsible way, to explore the stereotypes of the war and give them more nuance,” Ziv says. But in the PBS version, he says, the “revisionist aspect has been eliminated.”

In general, the American edition is more sympathetic to Israel than the other versions of the film. (There are five versions in all: four “international versions”—co-produced by French, Canadian, and Israeli companies, and distributed in those countries and elsewhere—and the U.S. version, co-produced by WGBH and distributed in the U.S. and parts of Canada.) The American version frames Israel as the war’s underdog, a scrappy David reluctantly defending itself against pan-Arabism’s hulking Goliath. The international editions, meanwhile, generally paint a more critical picture of Israel’s role in the war, depicting the nascent country’s attacks on Egypt and Jordan as strategic attempts to win political validation through an exposition of military might.

The American Six Days emphasizes the threat that a Soviet Union-backed Syria posed to Israel; the international versions play down that detail. The international versions’ hard-number reference to the estimated 100,000 Palestinians displaced during the conflict is gone in the U.S. release. So are some individual narratives of loss—the international versions, for example, include scenes of Palestinian refugee Abdel Latif Sayid, at the site of his former home, recalling his family’s displacement. The American edition omits that footage.

The versions “are different, and they ought to be different,” says Zvi Dor-Ner, the film’s PBS/WGBH executive producer. “You have to take into account your audience,” he says. “You have to tell the story in a way that will be interesting and relevant to them.”

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Dor-Ner took issue with Ziv’s nuanced approach to the war’s watershed moments. “When we do a program for the general public, it’s not the time for an academic debate,” Dor-Ner says. “Maybe there’d be room for more experimentation, for a revisionist version, if PBS did three or four programs about the Six Days’ War. We did only one, so it needed to be good, solid history.”

Yet “good, solid history” has never been a cut-and-dried affair, especially when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Making documentary film is an exercise in inclusion and omission,” says Ina Fichman, Six Days’s Canada-based producer. And when multiple versions of the same film are made and distributed, she says, “there are some philosophical issues that need to be dealt with.”

Reversioning, as it’s called, is a fairly common practice; films distributed in multiple countries are routinely edited for length and language and other logistical elements. Reversioning that affects a film’s content and tone, though less common, also takes place. In 1999, for example, PBS and the BBC aired two different editions of The Fifty Years War, a documentary account of the Arab-Israel conflict. Though both were widely acclaimed, each also met criticism—the BBC version for being pro-Palestine, the PBS for being pro-Israel.

Audiences, however, are generally unaware that they’re watching tailor-made takes on history. Indeed, “the main thing here, aside from the journalistic issues involved, is that no one really knows about the different versions of the film,” says Michael Getler, PBS’s ombudsman, of Six Days. If Americans are getting a customized version of history, we deserve, at the very least, to know that. And if PBS’s generally exceptional journalism has begun venturing into exceptionalism, we deserve to know that as well.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.