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    One Shot

    The killer elite

    "One Shot" is a tense, troubling look into the work and the minds of the snipers who carry out assassinations on behalf of the Israeli army.


    Even when they claim to hate their work, the men of "One Shot" LOVE their work, which is killing people. They are snipers in the Israeli army, allowed to speak on film for the first time about what they do. At once heart-pounding and heart-rending, this is likely to be one of the most memorable documentaries of the year.

    Directed by: Nurit Kedar.
    Produced by: Dror Moreh.
    Edited by: Tali Halter-Shenkar.
    In Hebrew with English subtitles.
    Walter Reade Theater Lincoln Center, 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam (212) 875-5600 Fri June 18: 1:30 and 6:30; Sat June 19: 10; Sun June 20: 9:15; Wed June 23: 4

    Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2004
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  • The film offers no opinions but continually invites us to form our own. Sometimes these men describe their profession in surprising ways — the word "peaceful" comes up a number of times because of the long periods of quiet waiting that precede a kill. All of them betray a thrill at the power they hold literally in their fingertips. But more often, what we hear is a kind of clinical detachment from the cold-blooded murder business. "Assassins," not "snipers," was the word that came to mind repeatedly — but one of the film's subjects rejects that label.

    "I don't feel like an assassin. I feel that I've killed. There's a difference," he says. "Like, I suppose that if there were a car accident and somebody died, [the driver] feels like he killed someone. That's how I feel. I don't feel like someone who killed or murdered. There's a difference between killing and murdering, definition-wise. And I don't feel like a murderer. I feel like [pause] ... I don't have any conscience problems."

    It's hard to get comfortable with the idea of hiding in the shadows and shooting unarmed people, as the soldiers' own words demonstrate — but you might be convinced that a greater good is being served.  

    Every one of these men has some way of forestalling those conscience problems. All of them describe the extreme focus they achieve on "technical issues" — setting their scopes exactly right and rigidly controlling their bodies so even their breathing doesn't throw off their aim. They so regularly refer to their target as "the terrorist" that you wonder whether the label isn't just a blanket term they use reflexively to prevent moral complexity from creeping in.

    One sniper remembers a mission that especially upset him. He had just gunned down two people drinking their morning coffee in a courtyard, when another man walked out unexpectedly. Stunned and motionless, the man just stared at the sprawled bodies while the sniper lined him up in his sights and poised his finger on the trigger.

    "I said to myself, 'If this guy goes, he walks away with his life,' " the sniper recounts. "He didn't go. ... I got mad because he didn't go." The sniper takes a long, dismissive drag on his cigarette, not needing to tell what he did next.

    His personal calculus is fascinating. Faced with a decision that could not be more stark and irreversible — whether, having already finished his mission, to kill, or not kill, an unidentified third party — he seems to see himself as an abstraction. He sets up a mental game in which the victim himself determines whether he'll live or die. The man pulling the trigger is an impersonal agent of destiny. The man in the crosshairs doesn't know there's a game and hasn't been told the rules.

    Any country's army has snipers, but since this is an Israeli film about the Israeli army, this isn't any country. How are these knights in body armor different from all other knights?

    The U.S., for example, has SWAT teams for hostage situations and military snipers for war, but nothing like what we see here. Among the most stunning footage in "One Shot" is taken by the soldiers themselves. Roving through the darkness with night-vision goggles, they close in on their urban targets, even breaking into people's apartments to set up shooting positions. Unlike infantrymen, they're not locked in battle with an armed adversary. Unlike an American SWAT team, they're not responding to deadly threats as they develop. They're waiting for unarmed, unexpecting people to expose themselves long enough for one long-distance shot.

      On the other hand, if they are more broadly eliminating political enemies, not to mention innocent bystanders, then it's hard to distinguish this band from, say, Latin American death squads.
    We have the soldiers' word that the people they kill are all terrorists — that these operations are planned assiduously and the victims are monitored carefully for as much as a year before the hit. It's true that Israel is a nation under siege from terrorists, and if all of the snipers' targets are indeed responsible for blowing up civilians on buses and in cafes, then there's an arguable defense for what they do. It still may not pass the feel test — it's hard to get comfortable with the idea of hiding in the shadows and shooting unarmed people, as the soldiers' own words demonstrate — but you might be convinced that a greater good is being served. On the other hand, if they are more broadly eliminating political enemies, not to mention innocent bystanders, then it's hard to distinguish this band from, say, Latin American death squads.

    The most heart-pounding sequences in the film come when the squad is on a different kind of a mission — trying to put down a live street mob. In what has become a familiar sight since the late 1980s, young Palestinians hurl rocks in one direction and Israeli soldiers fire bullets in the other. One soldier describes what they do in detail. Instructed to avoid vital areas, the soldiers fire at the legs whenever they have a clear shot; knowing the rules of this "game," the Palestinians crouch low or keep their legs protected behind a barricade. When a bullet finds its mark, the rock-thrower crumples instantly, we're told. The soldiers use a large-caliber bullet that blasts right through bone, which means that the leg is cut right off.

    One of the older snipers says he's no longer boastful about these shootings. "There was a time when I would have said, 'I am responsible for a lot of legless Palestinians.' Why would I say such a thing today?"

    Why would he ever have said such a thing, now or before? Because it's part of the ugly job he's been doing. Proud of it or not, these men are responsible for a one-sided hailstorm of death and dismemberment. The film is a dark, intense exploration of what that job — with its secret thrill and its psychological weight — demands of the people who carry it out. Different viewers will have different opinions about how justified this clandestine assassination program might be, but the story told in this film is disturbing if not thoroughly outrageous.

    JUNE 11, 2004

    Reader comments on One Shot:

  • Terrorists   from Elan, Jun 21, 2004
  • Re: Terrorists   from Ando, Apr 19, 2005
  • Re: Terrorists   from Miren, Jun 29, 2005
  • Comments on One Shot   from D. S., Jun 21, 2004
  • The movie makes you and snipers think   from Miren, Mar 4, 2005
  • Re: The movie makes you and snipers think   from David, Apr 26, 2005
  • necessity   from bob, Aug 26, 2006

  • Post a comment on "One Shot"