Knowledge is the Beginning; The Ramallah Concert

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim; Dir. Paul Smaczny (Warner DVD 2564 69480-6)

28 September 2008 3.5 stars

Knowledge is the BeginningThere's a powerful publicity machine behind Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Their two appearances at this year's Proms, as part of an extensive tour, were preceded by extensive coverage in the press. Yet between all the sound bites and carefully presented back-story it's difficult to get a clear view of exactly the motivation that lay behind the decision by Barenboim the late Edward Said to set up the project.

This film by Paul Smaczny, now released in a revised and updated version, charts the orchestra's history from the first workshops in Weimar in 1999 to the famous Ramallah Concert of August 2005, the complete film of which is included on a second DVD. Smaczny does without a narrator and adopts an objective style which uses words from Barenboim, Said and members of the orchestra (identified simply by their first name and country of origin) to tell the story. There's also extensive footage from rehearsals and concerts and film of Barenboim and Said chatting among themselves. In addition, we get to accompany Barenboim on his trips Ramallah and Israel.

From the start it's clear that, inevitably, there's a fair amount of lively debate that goes on between the musicians themselves and although Barenboim and Said present a more united front, it's Said's concerns as a Palestinian that seem to be best represented. The professed aim of the orchestra, as the title of the actual film suggests, is simply promoting knowledge between these young musicians of the Middle East. And there's plenty of footage of the musicians enjoying themselves, playing basketball together, or messing about in a swimming pool. Contrasted with this is the suspicion that they're attending the lectures and talks given mainly by Said with a certain sense of duty. One can feel a sense of relief all round when a discussion by Said with Barenboim and Yo-Yo Ma is broken up with the words, 'shall we play?', as Ma and Barenboim start a Brahms sonata, with Said page-turning.

The first version of the film was produced when Said was still alive, but we now follow the progress of the orchestra after his death of Lukaemia in 2003. And it makes for compelling, yet extremely thought-provoking, viewing. Barenboim laments the fact that without his Palestinian co-founder, the balance of political views that informed the whole enterprise has been undermined. However, Barenboim's own stance comes across, if anything, as even more pro-Palestinian as he continues the work in his friend's memory. It's impossible not either to admire or simply be in awe of Barenboim's self-belief but it becomes increasingly clear that the objectivity that Smaczny's direction initially projects is misleading. This is particularly the case when Barenboim uses an awards ceremony in Israel, the presentation of the Wolf Prize in the Knesset by the Israeli government, to quote from the Israeli declaration of Independence, pointing to the differences between its peaceful aims and the present foreign policy. Over the top of this acceptance speech Smaczny fades in a performance of the 'Moonlight' Sonata from the previous evening, interspersing footage of Barenboim at the piano. It's a skilful piece of film-making but strongly manipulative; the riposte of the Israeli Culture Minister, Limor Livnat, needless to say, is given no such musical accompaniment.

However, there is no denying the excitement that accompanies the parts of the film that chart the mission to play the Ramallah Concert. And it is a mission: the film shows quite how much behind-the-scenes diplomacy and organisation was required and it's difficult not to get caught up with the emotion of the players and marvel at the sheer determination that made such an event possible. It's fanciful, as Barenboim himself emphasises throughout the film, to think that such a gesture can bring peace, but there are moving scenes of the concert itself and – to the strains of 'Nimrod' from the Enigma Variations – the players' obvious elation and sadness at parting afterwards. If nothing else, the understanding and friendship between them is genuine and important.

In some ways, the second DVD of the actual concert is impossible to assess objectively. It is preceded by footage of the Ramallah streets, and we are rarely allowed to forget where we are. The performances of Beethoven's Fifth, the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante K.297b, and of the 'Nimrod' encore show what a good orchestra Barenboim has assembled – and it's only improved in quality as this year's Proms appearance showed – but the extensive speeches mean that the concert is not there to be enjoyed without its political dimension.

So it's impossible to watch any of this double DVD set without having to think about the complicated politics that lie behind it. That is, without doubt, a good thing. However, although this is a piece of film-making that captures the conviction of both Barenboim and Said, and some of the complicated views that are necessarily thrown up by young players from across the Middle East, it cannot reasonably claim to be objective.

What is clear, though, is the single-minded passion that Barenboim, particularly, devotes to the cause. Anyone who watches this film will have to make up their own minds as to what they see as the political and personal forces that motivate this passion.

By Hugo Shirley