• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Saturday, December 12, 2015

    Dinah and the Shechemites in Film

    Having looked at The Red Tent last month I thought I'd things off with a quick look at how different films portray the incident with Dinah, her brothers and the Shechemites. Given that it's a relatively obscure part of Genesis, it has only been covered a few times on the screen, but there are some significant variations between the four depictions with which I am familiar.

    The Bible: Genesis (1979)
    The first Bible film to cover the story of Dinah was one that pretty much had to. The New Media Bible project was meant to deliver a word for word portrayal of the whole Bible, though in the end only Genesis and Luke were covered and even then I say "pretty much" because certain parts of Genesis (e.g. the Tower of Babel) were omitted.

    At the time this film was made the broadly accepted view of what constituted rape was different than it is today. Most, now, (in the UK at least) would agree that what is sometimes called date rape fully qualifies as rape. 36 years ago when this film there was no such cultural consensus. So it's perhaps not surprising that this film depicts the rape of Dinah as being of the more violent variety. She is grabbed, out of the blue, in the town square and pulled off to a more discrete location. This is the only film that depicts the incident in quite such a black and white manner.

    In a not-dissimilar vein, it's interesting that as Dinah is "rescued" from her brothers from the smouldering ruins of Shechem, she is shoved around by them as if they are angry with her. I think this blaming of the victim seems to be something the film wants us to see and accept as offensive, though whether this is due to what they see as her complicity in her rape, or her acceptance of her subsequent marriage is unclear.

    The strangest thing about this clip is the way in which the men of Shechem are so compliant in accepting their fate. On hearing the news they simply shrug and walk off and the camera neither seems to anticipate a further reaction or find their fate shocking in any way. The scene is only a little longer than 5 minutes.

    The Bible Collection: Joseph (1995)
    The Bible Collection devotes separate films to the stories of Jacob and Joseph and, perhaps surprisingly, this episode is covered within the longer Joseph film rather than the more obvious location within her father's story. In the cultural understanding of the time, daughters were seen as the property of their father's before marriage.

    The story is given quite a more screen time here - around 15 minutes - and is set at a wedding celebration, contrasting the "right" way of doing things, rather than the way Shechem chooses to act. Dinah herself is far younger here: she's very much still a girl rather than a woman. This is a slightly tricky area. Whilst on the one hand marriage did take place at a far younger age (and of course Dinah has not yet been considered ready to be married) the Bible Collection's leading actors are consistently very much of the western contemporary world, ethnically white and of ages to match (e.g. Louise Lombard who was 29 when she played the young virginal Esther in the Bible Collection's 1999 adaptation).

    The situation is further complicated by the seemingly flirty eye contact between the obviously underage child and her rapist-in-waiting. When she is suddenly taken ill and is lead out to a back room her attacker makes his move. Whilst the scene makes it clear there was no consent, not least Dinah's screams, I find the eye contact rather troubling. I'm not convinced the film wants to rule out any blame on Dinah's part.

    When Hamor subsequently approaches Jacob the idea of these Shechemites getting circumcised is very much Jacob's idea and, again, there are more objections from the sons of Israel than from the soon to be scarred men of Shechem. They attack and give a rather clichéd war cry as they 'sneak' up to the "unsuspecting" city, but the depiction of the slaughter is not very graphic and Jacob's rebuke to his sons is no particularly powerful.

    La genèse (1999)
    The longest and most interesting portrayal of these events is from Cheick Oumar Sissoko's La Genèse (1999) which retells the story as an African tribal conflict. Like Joseph it does seem to hold Dinah partially responsible. She is depicted as a precocious flirt who, along with a couple of young boys, pushes Shechem too far.

    But the film's African perspective highlights other concepts that westerners easily overlook. For example the city dwelling Shechemites resent the nomadic Israelites and criticise thm for being rootless and without culture (all the while Dinah is being held in their city). There's also the grim image of a bloodied sheet being displayed for the waiting crowd's approval. They are made complicit in the act which somehow transforms from an ac of sexual frustration to a political act on behalf of Hamor's subjects.

    Perhaps it is a father defending his son, but initially Hamor blames Dinah for what has occurred, but then the film becomes the first to give Dinah a voice. She speaks back and rebukes Hamor and he seems to respond to her chastisement. Throughout the film Dinah is portrayed as a strong woman, unwilling to submit to what the various men and the patriarchal culture expects of her.

    When Hamor seeks out Jacob he does not do it face to face initially as Jacob remains mourning in his tent. It is left to Leah to express the family's anger, even in the face of many gifts from Hamor. The idea to tell Hamor's people to get circumcised arises only once Jacob has held a second discussion with his sons.

    But in marked contrast to 1979 version this film grimly portrays the Shechemites mass circumcising in wince inducing fashion. Firstly there is the queue of men waiting ominously (and unforgettably) for their appointment with the man with a meat cleaver and then there are the post-operation scenes of the various men hobbling around trying to minimise the pain. I highlights the link between the crowd complicity in Dinah's rape and their communal punishment. Meanwhile their womenfolk just stand by and mock them. The Hebrews mock Shechem also. "His crown has fallen and he can't bend to pick it up"

    When the slaughter does come  it is disturbingly thorough. One of the Hebrews gives pause when faced with a baby boy, but a fellow countryman insists in no uncertain terms that all the males should be killed. The only survivor is Hamor - in stark contrast to the text where he also is killed by Simeon and Levi - left to face the cruel implications of his fate: not only has he lost his son and his friends but his tribe will die out with him.

    The Red Tent (2014)
    I've expressed my views on this film already elsewhere but essentially what The Red Tent does is stress how in the cultural of the time the story occurred/was written rape was primarily about the lack of the father's consent rather than the daughter's. This is why, for example, in that rather troubling passage in Deut. 22:23-29 we find s girl potentially being given in marriage to her rapist, or even stoned, but not being punished if the "rape" happens in the country. The passage simply doesn't start from the perspective that consent is the woman's to give. So in this film Dinah is not taken against her will, but her father and brothers are incensed because Jacob has not given his consent.

    The film also has Dinah staying over at Shechem/Shalem's palace the night they have sex which hints at the importance of ancient near east hospitality codes. This further softens up the ground for the brutality of the slaughter scene which follows. It is considerably more violent than any of the previous four.

    I must admit I'm in two minds as to what I think about the way this film portrays the "rape". On the one hand it could be seen as powerfully exposing the sexism of this part of biblical culture where a woman didn't even have a right to control who had sexual access to her own body. But on the other hand it could be criticised for airbrushing or infantilising a potentially horrific event into a teenage girl's romance fantasy. The sheer brutality with which the film shows Dinah's brothers wreaking their revenge suggests the former, but even with that Shalem and Dinah's love affair still feels a bit twee.

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