White Eye [subtitled]

White Eye is a 21-minute Israeli film that was part of this year’s package of Academy Award-nominated live action short films.

A young Israeli man named Omer in Tel Aviv stumbles upon a bike he is convinced is the one that was recently stolen from him. It is locked so he cannot simply take it back. He seeks help from the police but there’s little they can do unless he can prove it’s his bike.

An Eritrean man named Yunes comes for the bike and Omer confronts him, demanding he return his bike. Yunes pleads innocence, insisting he bought the bike. (No doubt they’re both right in a sense; he bought a stolen bike.)

Neither wants to give in. For Omer, it’s a matter of principle. The bike belongs to him, period, not to someone who stole it or obtained it from someone who stole it. You can’t just let yourself be wronged, let your property be taken from you, without standing up for yourself and asserting your rights. The bike isn’t something hugely expensive or important, but it’s his, he’s entitled to it, and he’ll do what he needs to do to get it back, whether that’s complaining to Yunes’s employer, summoning the cops back, or what.

For Yunes, it’s partly a matter of right and wrong like that—he paid money for this bike and if it’s now taken from him with no compensation that’s unfair to him—but there are more pragmatic considerations on his side. He is clearly much the poorer of the two, and having the bike makes a significant difference in his life. Omer clearly has the wherewithal to simply go out tomorrow and buy another bike to replace this one; Yunes does not.

Surely in addition to both principle and practicality there’s ego involved on both sides as well. Neither wants to “lose” this conflict.

Yunes manifests at least some willingness to talk about it, to compromise, to work something out, especially if it can be done without involving the police. Omer just wants his bike back.

What Omer doesn’t realize until it’s too late is that the stakes are higher for Yunes, that he stands to lose a lot more than a bike. When the police demand to see Yunes’s papers, Omer understands that his insistence that his rights be honored and enforced may well have just ruined this man’s life.

For while having some shit job in a foreign country where you live in constant fear and where you make so little money that the only transportation you can afford is a mediocre used bicycle discounted in price because it’s stolen is far from an enviable life, it’s a damn sight better than being incarcerated or being ejected back to the country that was so bad you fled from it in the first place.

Omer, who has been the epitome of self-righteousness all along, is left confused, with pangs of conscience. It seemed like such a simple matter of standing up for what’s right, and then it turned out there were other moral factors and subtleties at play. But like I say, it’s too late.

Clearly the lesson is that you need to try to be sensitive to such nuances from the beginning, to understand that one ought to be selective in deciding when and when not to insist on all that one in some sense has a right to, especially when dealing with someone significantly lower in power and privilege.

Not to the extreme of treating the less privileged party as always, automatically, entitled to prevail in any conflict—which is what often seems to be the guiding principle of the politically correct crowd but is at least as simplistic, dumb, and unjust as the single-minded assertion of one’s rights in all circumstances—but sometimes you need to step back, try to more fully understand a situation and all its implications for the parties involved, and be willing to let it go or compromise.

Not that I feel all that condemnatory toward Omer. I think the “It’s my bike and I’m entitled to not have my property stolen from me” is a damn strong position, and I’d be inclined to stand up for myself in similar circumstances to at least 80% the degree to which Omer does here.

I mean, yeah, insofar as it’s just his machismo talking, his desire to dominate any conflict that he has an opportunity to win, then I don’t endorse that. Or if he were motivated in part by a racist attitude, like if seeing that Yunes is a foreigner, and worse yet Black, angered Omer and made him all the more inclined to push his claim, then I would count that against him. But on the basic issue of whether he’s entitled to get his bike back from someone who stole it from him, or from someone who bought it hot, I’m far more in agreement than disagreement with him.

And even insofar as we wish Omer had in time said, “Screw it, keep the bike. The bike’s not more important to me than how I’d feel knowing I was the cause of another human being suffering the way you’ll have to suffer if you get kicked out of the country,” Yunes has to take some responsibility, too.

Not just about buying a stolen bike. I mean, I can understand being in desperate enough straits that you cut some ethical corners if it’s the only way to keep your job, provide for your loved ones, etc. But he knew what the stakes were for him even if Omer didn’t, and there was nothing stopping him from saying, “You’re right, it’s your bike. Take it. I don’t want to fight about it; I don’t want cops involved.”

I know due to his situation he needs the bike more than Omer does. But while having to do without the bike would be a significant loss for him, risking getting apprehended by law enforcement for illegal immigration is a much bigger cost. It would be prudent for him to back down in that situation, to cut his losses and not let the conflict escalate.

I think both parties have reason to regret how they handled this matter, not just the “privileged” person.

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