West of the Jordan River/Amos Gitai

Amos Gitai continues his nuanced exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by traveling to the occupied territories, where he interviews Palestinian families, Jewish settlers, politicians, and members of Israeli human-rights organizations. His goal is to show that the conflict is complex, rather than monolithic; that both sides are responsible for creating the conflict as well as resolving the peace; and that sitting by while Israel destroys itself is tantamount to silently watching neighbors beat each other to death. Availability: Opens New York City, January 27, Quad Cinema. A Kino Lorber release. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: A woman from the Meretz Party mentioned that politicians are obliterating the word occupation from public discourse in Israel. Do you think the politicians are successful in their campaign? And if they are, what does that mean for Israel?

AG: Unfortunately, I think Netanyahu is very successful. If he continues, he will destroy the fabric of the society.

DT: The same thing is happening here in America with climate change—the Trump administration is wiping mention of it off government websites, publications, etc. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between the US and Israel right now.

AG: Of course these two regimes are best friends, based on security and ignorance. I would say that Netanyahu is a bit more crafted and sophisticated than the guy you have, but the situation with Israel is much more fragile. It’s a small country in a hostile environment, so if it continues on the road Netanyahu is proposing by applying manipulation and force, it may overplay itself. I’m more concerned about what will happen to Israel than the US.

The government in Israel has been pretty consistent in attacking the arts and culture and education and judicial system. They’ve been more successful than Trump, if you want to go on with the comparison, because now you cannot teach a text of Mahmoud Darwish in schools anymore; the minister of education forbids anyone to teach Darwish. You are not obliged to like Darwish, but you have to know what Palestinians think. The minister of culture wants to close the only Arab theater in Haifa, my hometown. The minister of justice wants to change the parameters of the judicial system. At the moment Arabic and Hebrew have equal status. They want to make Arabic inferior to Hebrew, and I think that will have a major negative impact on Israeli society: an increase of religious orthodoxy.

 

DT: West of the Jordan River is subtitled Field Diary Revisited, referring to your previous film Field Diary, but for me this film felt very different from Field Diary and House. Do you agree? If so, what is the difference on the ground between then and now, and what is the difference in you?

AG: I think that when I did House and Field Diary, the degree to which Israelis were conscious that there was a Palestinian problem—or vice versa—was very low. Each side hoped that if they turned their head, the other one would disappear. I think that now both are aware the other will not disappear. They may be happy or unhappy about it, but that’s the case, so I think that’s a big difference, which may be considered to be positive. The negative aspect of it is that the capacity to act politically has diminished radically, especially after the killing of Rabin. At the moment we’re talking, you can’t see a political breakthrough in sight in this situation. These are the two main changes.

DT: And what about in you?

AG: I think I have a similar point of view to what I used to have. In a way I’m surprised when I watch the earlier films that when I see myself, with less white hair but speaking about the project I wanted to do some twenty-four, twenty-five years ago, it’s not very far from what I decided to do right now, which is to juxtapose little vignettes or episodes from the ground with interviews with political figures. I proposed it twenty-five years ago, and I think it’s up to date.

I think I feel the same. Also, in comparison, I consider that documentary is a bit like digging in an archaeological site. You have to be delicate. If you use bulldozers, you will destroy the site, so you have to go carefully.

 

DT: For this film you interviewed a number of human rights groups, which each had different ways of solving the problem. The one I found most interesting were the Palestinian women taking video cameras into the streets. Can you talk about them, and then your own feelings about the effectiveness of each of the groups.

AG: This film is not just a piece by a filmmaker. It’s a civil act, like what we’ve been talking about. I think that these human rights organizations—Btselem, which is the one you’re referring to, or Breaking the Silence, or the rabbis who help the Bedouins build a school, or the Israeli and Palestinian women who have lost children—they are very important to looking for a way out of this conflict. It’s the first time that Btselem allowed somebody to film the briefing of young Palestinian women on how to use video cameras. They trusted us, and we went to see them in the center of Palestinian Hebron. What I found very important, and that’s why I think these groups are really important to support, is that it also changes the status of women inside Palestinian society. It means that the women are not designated in an autocratic society just to produce children and make food for their husbands but they have an active role with the camera. So the inner dynamic of Palestinian society is changing, thanks to this group.

At the beginning, the women told me that their immediate family—sons, husbands, brothers—were very hostile to the fact that they would work with an Israeli NGO. Now that the men see what the women are doing, they support them. Some of these women told me that they come from families of 17,000 people. So it’s big, it’s a tribe. For me, every act that enhances the idea that the situation is complex is peaceful. Every step that tries to oversimplify it into a binary proposition is for war. Now these women understand that Israel is not a monolithic society; that you have some nasty guys with machine guns but you also have guys who want to help you document abuses of human rights, so they have a more complex and complete vision. I think that’s very important, because all these groups will help us build the next step beyond this very dark moment right now, the next step meaning some recognition, some searching for another modus vivendi. This is very important long-term activity.

 

DT: You made the argument to a group of Palestinians that there are two kinds of people in the Middle East: people who want peace and people who don’t want peace. The people who want peace include both Palestinians and Israelis, and the people who don’t want peace also include Palestinians and Israelis. Do you think that your message got across?

AG: I don’t know. I put this question to the family of a boy who was killed recently in Hebron. I also told them something that they weren’t completely happy to hear—that in my judgment, when Rabin gave back the Palestinian cities to the Palestinians and told the army to withdraw, it was the worst campaign of suicide attacks by Palestinian ultranationalists and fundamentalists inside the civil centers of Israel. This in turn helped destabilize the Rabin government, so in this way, the coalition of people who don’t want peace was active. The Palestinian ultranationalists and the Israeli extreme right both contributed to the killing of Rabin, which was finally done by an Israeli Jew.

 

DT: I want to go to the environmental movement for a minute. Leaders of the movement today say that it failed because it was looking to politicians for a top-down solution rather than building grassroots resistance from the ground up. I was wondering if the same might be said for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

AG: Yesterday I came to one of the screenings with Todd Gitlin, a friend of mine. He was one of the heads of SDS, the anti–Vietnam War movement with Tom Hayden.  Todd’s a professor of sociology, and he wrote a very interesting book at the time of the antiwar movement, called The Whole World Is Watching. It showed that by concentrating on iconic leaders, the media broke the movement. I think this is the nature of the beast today; the media needs to pick up some characters, and so the grassroots organization is weakened.

DT: But that also applies politically: when you look for political solutions from the top, whether it’s in America or Israel, you’re almost defeating the purpose, especially when you have an administration like Netanyahu or Trump.

AG: Yes.

 

DT: The settler who wants to leave in peace with the Palestinians…how unusual is she?

AG: She is a minority, but there are some. We’re trying to organize a petition to defend the Bedouin school that you saw in the film, which some settlers want destroyed. Surprisingly, last week, a small group of settlers signed our petition to defend the school.

That’s why I’m a collector of contradictions. I think you now have to solicit everybody who will try to create another reality. That’s why, parenthetically, I don’t like the films of Michael Moore. They’re too manipulative and binary. I don’t want to be force-fed, so when I watch one of his movies, I even start to doubt ideas that normally I support, just because of the cinematic procedure. I like to see contradictions. When I interviewed Netanyahu’s vice minister, I let her make her argument, I respected the fact that she gave me an interview, and anyway I trusted the fact that she would kill herself with her own argument, so why should I be violent?

 

DT: I read a number of reviews of this film, and I’m getting the feeling that Americans don’t necessarily understand it. Are you getting the same impression?

AG: We’ll see how many people go to the Quad to see it.

DT: Does it matter if Americans understand it?

AG: Yes. I think it’s important for Americans to understand it, because I would like them—Americans, as well as the Jewish community in America—to also be active in defending these human rights organizations. Not just watching movies but being implicated. It’s like domestic violence. When your neighbors are beating each other to death, you have to take a position. If people love Israel—and I’m not objecting to their doing so—they have to help Israel save it from itself.

 

DT: There are times when people have to agree to disagree in order to reach a solution. Do you think that’s possible in this context?

AG: It’s a very polarized situation, and I think that this Israeli government is doing a lot of harm to the most fragile sectors of Israeli society with its racist discourse. I think basically they can destroy Israeli society itself, and obviously the Palestinians as well, with that kind of arrogance of power, which is enhanced by this American administration that is basically signing off on everything the Israelis want.

I think they should be careful.  Israel is a fragile country of immigrants, and the tactics of inciting one group against another just to be reelected is not promising in terms of keeping this project going. The minister of culture cannot say that the asylum seekers from Africa are a cancer in the body of the society. If somebody would say that about Jews, there would be havoc. So especially coming with the Jewish experience in the recent century, you have some ethical obligations. That’s why I think it’s very important to engage with supporting Btselem and Breaking the Silence—all these organizations that are really doing important groundwork to create understanding. The fact that they are so attacked by this government, who wants to cut their funding or forbid them from doing any activity: I think it’s suicidal.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

AG: I would like to add another movie if people will let me. Even if they don’t.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Wrestling Jerusalem/Aaron Davidman (writer/actor)

Wrestling Jerusalem is an anomaly on many levels. It’s a film made from a play. It’s a one-man show that incorporates seventeen different characters. The seventeen characters represent disparate, often colliding, views of Israel and Palestine: Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian, American, male, female. It’s a piece that accepts fragmentation and disunity even as it coheres into a single powerful idea. In fact, actor/writer Aaron Davidman infuses his remarkable solo performance with so much intelligence and skill that Wrestling Jerusalem is for everyone. •Availability: The film; September 12-18 New York City, Symphony Space. The play; Philadelphia Theatre Company, Oct. 18-Nov. 5. Click here for the website. Click here for the Facebook page. Thanks to Diane Blackman, BR Public Relations, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: You portray seventeen characters in the film. One of them is a 25-year-old American Jew who is so overwhelmed on his first visit to Israel that he kisses the tarmac when he steps off the plane. Is that character you?

AD: The Aaron character is based of course on me and my experiences there. The narrative he  tells in the film could be called a memoir, I suppose, about the first time I came to Israel and fell in love with it. I had an awakening of Jewish identity, which was seminal for me as a person, as an artist, as an American Jew.  For anyone who’s been to Israel, there’s that first time you go. Maybe for some people it’s the only time they go, but it’s quite memorable.

DT: How does that experience influence your personal perspective on the material you’re presenting?

AD: It’s why I made the film. The whole film is my response, because that’s what it takes to try to articulate all the layers of complexity that I feel and the different dimensions that I hold and the different layers of understanding that I have about what Israel is, who I am in relationship to it, and our culture. It’s the whole thing.

 

DT: Who did you make the film for, and is it reaching your intended audience?

AD: I wrote the play initially to try to push the conversation in the American Jewish community. We made the film to reach the widest audience possible nationally and internationally. Dylan Kussman, who directed the film and whose idea it was to turn the play into a film, felt the play was powerful and important and wanted as many people in the world to see it as they could. Between my initial impulse of who would hear this material and the actual release of the film, all kinds of people have seen it. We’ve reached our target audience, that target has grown, and there are concentric circles of communities around the piece that have embraced it or been moved by it or have experienced it.

DT: Who beyond the Jewish American audience?

AD: Other faith-based communities—Christian and Muslim. Communities that identify more in terms of politics or activism. There’s a student cohort, there are interfaith cohorts. We just screened the film for the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee in New York City.

And I’ve been working with Google, who saw the play a while ago and are using the film, followed by a Q&A with me, for executive trainings on complexity; they gather Google executives from all over the world, twenty or thirty of them at a time, and do a three-day training about leadership as it relates to complexity, complexity as it relates to leadership. Then they screen the film, which they see as an embodiment of multiple perspectives in a way that really helps model what they’re trying to teach and coach these executives towards in terms of their leadership.

I also presented the play at a conference for the integral theory community, and they really tapped into the piece. Both this and Google are interesting to me because they’re latching onto the more universal themes of the piece that have to do with multiple perspectives and complexity and the interconnectedness of all these different threads. I’m no integral theory expert, so it would be hard for me to explain it in a sentence, but what I have found really interesting is that I set out to write a piece that would go deep into the Israel-Palestine story, and what’s emerged is a piece that through its specifics has really reached a universal message that people are embracing and are interested in. That’s taught me a lot, because I didn’t set out to do that.

 

DT: Can you talk about the research you did before writing the play. Whom did you talk to? Where did you go? Did you speak with anyone whose perspectives were  so anathema to you that you simply couldn’t include them?

AD: The piece is really one journey that condenses my ten years of traveling to Israel and Palestine and meeting different people and interviewing different people. There’s a lot of writerly license in the journey, of course. The characters in the film are based on people that I met, or they’re composites of people I met. A few are invented based on people I met or knew or read about. I met a range of different people, but I never met any self-described “terrorists.” I never met violent extremists who were trying to convince me that killing everybody would be a really good idea. I never had any of those conversations.

DT: On either side?

AD: That’s right. The truth is that people have asked me, Where are these voices? The answer is that I specifically didn’t  put them in because they would have dominated the piece. If I had eighteen characters and one of them was a terrorist and I humanized the terrorist, all we would be talking about would be the terrorist—we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. Militants get so much play in the airwaves already that I don’t need to feed that line anymore.

My whole goal is to try to get the conversation back to the majority, not the minority, the majority of human beings who grapple and wrestle and who are interested in each other’s dignity, to a certain extent. That’s what I was more interested in. Did I meet people who really pushed my buttons, who really challenged me? Yeah, and I put it in this film, in the argument that I get in with a character I call Daniel, who’s an American medical student who’s an apologist for Hamas. That’s where the Aaron characters draws his line. He gets tripped up and is not a supercompassionate listening person anymore. He gets his buttons pushed, which I think is very human. It was important to put that in the piece.

 

DT: What was the most emotionally difficult segment for you?

AD: Imagine the show. It’s ninety minutes of me on stage. What’s the most emotionally challenging? It’s emotionally challenging just to stay on the horse. To keep the focus and stay on it and be alive and present in every moment. Ideologically, my job as an actor is to be honest and in each of those characters for each of those moments, so if I’m doing my job right, I’m not judging them. One character is not more something than the other. I’m just present in them, and I’ve got to make them truthful and honest and believe them myself. What I was surprised to find was less about what was emotionally challenging for me than how I could see parts of myself in these characters in ways that I never really would have wanted to admit. That I could go there. I think that really says something about who we are as human beings and what our capacities are when we’re under threat or when we’re in extreme situations. That is fascinating and very humbling, and pushes me further to not judge others. In my better moments.

 

DT: Do you think that your identity as an American Jew gave you the freedom to make this film that an Israeli or a Palestinian wouldn’t have had?

AD: Great question. Of course it’s really hard to know, but I will say that being an outsider does give me some layer of objectivity that an Israeli or a Palestinian just wouldn’t have. It also gives me less in-depth knowledge. I’m more naive, for sure. But maybe that naivete and that distance have allowed me to see the forest for the trees, whereas it’s possible that some Israeli and Palestinians just can’t because they’re in it. I’m not sure that “freedom” would be the word I would use, but I feel like I’ve had a level of objectivity that’s possibly more than a counterpart there might have, though it’s hard to generalize.

 

DT: Much of the material surrounding the film talks about “understanding the other.” Given the current political climate both here in the US and in Israel, do you think that understanding the other is a sufficient tool for social change?

AD: I’m not sure about sufficient, but I would say that it’s essential. It’s sufficient, but that’s not the end. It’s a part of the process. The “other” has now shown up as all kinds of different things. Understanding the neo-Nazi perspective is a different kind of conversation from understanding a disenfranchised or politically oppressed body of people under occupation, for example. There’s dimensionality and layers now to what we mean by the “other,” and there’s an important and interesting conversation about what that means. In this day and age, people say, “If I could just understand the neo-Nazis, then maybe we would have peace.”  Well, no. Of course not. When people are filled with hate and vitriol, there are other tactics that need to be employed. But would it hurt to try to really understand where they’re coming from? No.

I heard a really interesting radio interview with an African-American man.  He’s begun a whole process to convert KKK members to get them to leave the KKK. He goes to neo-Nazi KKK rallies, and they say, “What are you doing here?” He says, “I really understand. I know where you’re coming from, and here’s where it is.” He’s done his research, he knows what their deal is, and they’re completely taken aback. He says, “So they respect me. They don’t like me—I’m black, they don’t really want me—but they respect me and so they have to deal with me.” He’s going right into the lion’s den and encountering these guys and he’s turned people by engaging with them and letting them see his humanity and then challenging them intellectually on what their bullshit is all about. I don’t know much about this guy, but I heard one interview and it blew my mind.

I think that’s a little bit about the question you’re speaking to. There is this question of to what degree are we willing to try to know the other. Knowing the other doesn’t necessarily mean “wherever they’re coming from is all good.” No. Of course not. We’ve got to push back where it’s warranted and actually invest in really knowing where they’re coming from. Just being filled with contempt and thinking they’re a one-dimensional figure that’s easy to write off doesn’t get us anywhere.

DT: You’ve been asked many times how the play has changed you, but my question is somewhat different. After performing the play so many times and leading so many Q&As, how have your goals for the film changed?

AD: There are goals that are more tactical and real-world, like distribution and things like that, which bear weight on more conceptual goals or goals of intention. We intended to make a movie that would really stir this conversation and get into all kinds of different communities. The fact is that we made a movie that’s a solo performance with one person that’s obviously not a commercial movie. Nobody’s going to make money on this movie, so distribution is a grassroots project.

While we wanted to show the film far and wide all over the world, the pragmatic reality is that it takes a lot of effort and fund-raising and organizing and lobbying to get people to understand what we’re doing and what we’ve actually got. Once people have seen the movie in person in a room on a big screen with a group of people, they’re in, and they’re absorbing the material. If they haven’t seen it yet, I’m not famous, they don’t know me. It’s sort of a head scratcher for them. Why would we show a movie with one guy? What is this thing? From a distributional point of view, the gap between the person who’s seen it and had this amazing experience—or so they tell us—and the person who hasn’t had contact with it yet but who might screen it in their community is wider than we want it to be. And so it’s just a slow process of getting more people to see the movie and bring it into their communities. It’s a real grassroots project, where people who’ve seen it spread the word about it. And it’s growing. We just have to be patient.

Our website is full of press and anecdotes and things and ways to get in touch with us. When people think of film distribution, they think of big movie theaters. We’re screening at some theaters, but we’re also trying to do community screenings: people can arrange for screenings in their communities or on their campuses. Those are picking up steam, and it’s very meaningful.

DT: So people can contact you through the website?

AD: Yes.

DT: How is international distribution?

AD: We have a deal with a Swiss distributor. We’re having the film translated into French, German, and Italian…there will be subtitles of course…and also having it translated into Hebrew and Arabic. We’ll see if we can get some screenings in the Middle East. We’re looking at a screening in Paris sometime in the winter. So step by step. It’s a process.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Colliding Dreams/Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky

Needless to say, Zionism means something different to everyone. It’s seen as salvation or disaster; never-ending or moribund; just or perverse. It stars in Jewish narratives, Palestinian narratives, right- and left-wing narratives, secular and religious narratives. It is thousands of years old and infinitely contemporary. In their quest for a more nuanced understanding of Zionism, directors Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky examine the history of the Zionist movement in relation to its present-day reality in the Middle East from the perspective of those who know it best: Israeli and Palestinian men and women who live in Israel and the West Bank. Combining interviews with contemporary academics, politicians, and regular folks on the street with archival footage in Europe and Palestine, Dorman and Rudavsky present a complex picture of the Zionist project from its beginnings through today. Click here for the trailer. Availability: Opens March 4, New York City and California, with national rollout to follow. Click here for local theater listings.  Thanks to Sasha Berman, Shotwell Media, for her help.

 

DT:  Theodor Herzl, one of the fathers of modern political Zionism, is best known for saying, “If you will it, it is no legend.” Yet you open the film with a different Herzl quote: “All the deeds of men are dreams at first and become dreams in the end.” Does this signal your feelings about the Zionist project?

JD:  We have been supporters of Israel and Jewish nationalism from the very beginning of our lives, and we continue to believe in the importance and legitimacy of Zionism.  We’re also well aware of the dilemma the state of Israel faces now. We both feel that if the right decisions are not made, its existence is in jeopardy.  Anyone would be foolish to doubt that now more than ever there’s a fragility to the Jewish state that doesn’t come just from the threat of terrorism, as great as that may be. One of the questions hanging over the entire film, and now over the entire project of Zionism, is the question of the fate of the Jewish state and the fate of the Zionist enterprise.

OR:  I think Herzl’s quote is speaking in larger historical terms; it’s a statement about the endeavors and dreams of mankind, like the famous poem “Ozymandias.” Just to differ with Joe, I don’t think the existence of the state is in jeopardy.  I think the state of Israel will survive.  The question is, what kind of state?  Is it going to be a democratic state?  Or a Jewish state?  Is it going to manage to be both? Or neither? That’s what’s in question right now.

JD:  The large question in our mind is two-state vs. one-state solution, and I think a one-state solution is not a solution that furthers the idea of a Jewish state in the end.

 

DT:  The film presents many competing views of Zionism, but two in particular caught my eye. Hillel Halkin believes that Zionism aimed to end the gulf between Jews and other people, while Orly Noy compares Zionism to a person escaping a burning building by falling on someone else’s head. You have one view in which Zionism normalizes relations between Jews and other groups, and the other in which Zionism essentially destroys normal relations.

JD:  A lot of people feel there’s an inherent tragedy in the Zionist project in the sense that in order to make a Jewish state, the consequences were felt by the Palestinians, and I think Orly’s acknowledging that. What we would say is that Zionism doesn’t have to mean the extinction of Palestinian existence. That’s an important message of the film and one of the things Palestinians have realized over the course of time. But Zionism is an overdetermined project, so I think those two quotes reflect that overdetermination.

OR: Falling on someone’s head, while painful, doesn’t necessarily kill him, and it also doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to live together. I don’t think we thought of those statements as contradictory.

 

DT:  In the film, a young man from Tel Aviv states that the process of Zionism should have ended once its goal—creating a place where Jews can live securely as a people—was achieved. On the other hand, a Jewish settler in the West Bank believes that Zionism did not come to an end when we established the state; for him, Zionism is a movement. Are these two competing views of Zionism: something that has a natural end vs. something that will never end?

JD:  What you’re pointing to is a fundamental tension right now between the settler movement and those who believe in a two-state solution. This was at the heart of the settler movement and the fight over it. We feel that the Zionist project has spiritual, emotional, and cultural elements, and that never ends. It’s part of a journey of the Jewish people.

OR: It also has social elements in terms of improving the condition of people in that state.

JD:  At the same time, what’s absolutely at odds here is the settlers’ notion of a permanent revolution—the notion that a revolution continues ad infinitum and if the revolution stops moving forward, the state dies. We don’t believe that. We fall into the two-state camp, which says that there are certain boundaries of the state that are important but that the Zionist project of giving the Jewish people self-sovereignty and autonomy ends once you have a viable state for the Jews. That is very much at odds with the notion that the Zionist project demands that the Jews take the whole land, the ancient biblical land. The fact that those two projects are very much at odds is why the future of the Jewish state, the future of Israel, is in question right now.

 

DT:  In the film, Moshe Halbertal says, “Zionism is almost a Promethean revolt against Jewish destiny and history.” Hillel Halkin says that Zionism is a rebellion against Jewish history in the name of Jewish history.  Can you address those remarks?

JD:  For the most part, the early Zionists were modernizers.  They were an outgrowth of the Jewish enlightenment, and they were a rebellion against a religiously dominated culture. In order to create Zionism, they reached back beyond two thousand years of diaspora history to a biblical nationalistic prehistory. So it’s a rebellion against those two thousand years of the diaspora, but it’s a rebellion in the name of Jewish values that existed prior to the diaspora as well as being  part of the diaspora. I mean, you can take the Jew out of the diaspora, but you can’t completely take the diaspora out of the Jew, even if they happen to be living in the land of Israel.

OR:  Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun talks about diaspora rabbis creating a spaceship: the religious attempt was to keep Jews within a bubble for two thousand years. The Temple was destroyed, so they re-created a tradition that could exist outside of that, which is Talmudic law. The Zionists who rejected that were looking for a purer, simpler connection to a land and to a place and to a heroic tradition that dissolved the fear that diaspora Jews have. That’s the Promothean revolt, and that’s what they’re both talking about.

 

DT:  Saman Khoury [General Director of the Palestinian Peace and Democracy Forum] was talking about a bitter debate within the PLO about what it meant to tell a Jew, “Go home.” Khoury’s view was that when a Palestinian tells a Jew to go home, he’s not telling him to go back to Poland. He’s telling him to get out of East Jerusalem.

OR: This is an amazing refutation of there not being a partner for peace. When the Palestinians and the PLO and the Arab League and Jordan and Egypt, who have a peace treaty with Israel, all accepted the notion of an Israel behind the Green Line, that was a revolutionary moment. Now, unfortunately, there’s perhaps a larger growing Palestinian movement epitomized by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that still doesn’t believe in the state.

JD:  In the film we show the trajectory of a growing mutual recognition that led to the Oslo Accords. That’s the hopeful trajectory, and there’s been a movement away from that since then. All the polls show that the majority of Israeli Jews continue to believe in a two-state solution whether or not they trust the peace process. It’s unclear to me how much the Palestinians believe in the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism. While that may be true on both sides, certainly on the Palestinian side there still remains a belief in some cases that Judaism is a religion and not a nationality.

The question of trust and what recognition means is still an open one. I fervently believe peace is necessary. I believe a two-state solution is possible. I believe that both sides can live up to a two-state solution, but I think there are realities on both sides that are very complex. I don’t think we are starry-eyed in any way about the complexity of the situation and how much more work needs to be done in order to create two states.

OR: I think it would be wonderful if Palestinians accepted the idea of Jewish nationalism, and I think it would be wonderful if the Chinese accepted the idea of American democracy, but the Chinese no more need to accept American democracy than Palestinians need to accept the idea of Jewish nationalism for there to be a peace treaty.  I don’t think you need to accept everything about a state in order to make peace with that state.

 

DT: Before the establishment of the state of Israel, Jewish immigrants would buy land from Arab landholders. As a result, Arab sharecroppers who had lived and worked on the land for many, many years were dispossessed. This privation led to a number of reprisals against the Jews. Diaspora Jews viewed these attacks as European-style anti-Semitism, plain and simple.  Were those attacks different from anti-Semitism, and if so, how?

JD:  Anita Shapira has written a wonderful book about this called Land and Power. Part of the problem with the Jewish-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the same problem a lot of international conflicts have: what people are conflicted about is not always a factual reality. It can be an imaginary situation. In this case, that was true on both sides.

After being victims of anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, the Jews arrived in Palestine, where there were attacks on them that were national in character. Palestinians were being dispossessed, so they were not necessarily attacking Jews based on the fact that they were Jews; they were attacking Jews based on the fact that they felt their national existence was being threatened. It was hard in many cases for Jews to see that. They saw the attacks as purely an attack on their Jewishness. At the same time, from a Palestinian point of view, rather than seeing the Jews as a people desperate for a home in order to protect themselves, they saw them mistakenly as a kind of imperial wedge. So what made the conflict and continues to make the conflict so intractable today is that you have this overlay on the part of both peoples where they project onto each other their own worst fantasies and fears. That prevents them from seeing the very specific factual basis of the conflict between them.

OR: It’s also important to point out that while the Jews who first came were buying land from Arabs, they were also employing Arabs to work on that land. When Jews came later, at the turn of the century, they came up with the concept of a kibbutz, where they were going to do all the labor and therefore didn’t need Arab labor anymore. A further complicating factor is the fact that clearly you’re dealing with two different religions. Events happening in Jerusalem, which were disputes over prayer space, were being riled up by Palestinian religious leaders to create tension between various Palestinian groups. So there are multiple levels going on: land dispossession was only one of the factors. We’re talking about 1929, 1936, a time when the world economy was collapsing and poverty was a huge issue around the world.

 

DT: I don’t mean to keep coming back to Saman Khoury, but he had a brilliant phrase: He said that when Palestinians started calling themselves Palestinians again after ’67, they were in a state of “euphoric dilemma.”

JD: One of the fascinating things about this whole history is that it’s much more complex than just a simple fight between Jews and Arabs. The Palestinians feel that they have been victims not only of Israelis but of other Arab states as well. This is a very complex, variegated picture in terms of nationalism and identity in the Middle East, and that comment by Saman Khoury only shows how complex it is. Even though ’67 represented another terrible defeat for the Palestinians, it allowed them to become Palestinians again within Israel, which they were not able to do in Jordan. The conflict is much more complex than simply Jew vs. Arab. The Middle East is a very old region of the world with a lot of byways and a lot of crevices in terms of the nature of the politics and identity. Saman’s line is a great example of just how ironic situations can get in that part of the world.

 

DT:  According to one of the people you interviewed in the film, Yitzhak Rabin believed a two-state solution was inherent to Zionism rather than a concession to Arabs.  Do you think that attitude is possible today?

OR: If we didn’t believe it was, then I would question the future of a Jewish state. Suspicion is much more at the basis of what’s going on in terms of prolonging the conflict. On the whole, I think that a large number of Israelis believe that the two peoples need two states. When we were interviewing Hanan Ashrawi [Palestinian legislator and activist who has served on the Palestinian Legislative Council and was the first woman elected to the Palestinian National Council], we talked about the post-Zionist notion that there should be a single binational state, neither Jewish nor Arab but both.

JD:  What times showed was that it was impossible for the two peoples to live together because of conflicts. I wholeheartedly agree with something Hanan Ashrawi said, which was that even if in the future there were to be a single state, at this point in time there needs to be two states. I’m a believer in two states. I want a Jewish state. The idea that somehow a single state will end the conflict is a utopian idea; in fact, a single state would probably be disastrous, considering the ethnic conflict among Sunnis and Shia alone within Islam. The notion that somehow Jews and Palestinians could live together in a peaceful state at this point in time is just not realistic, so I think that the two-state solution is demanded for both peoples. Ashrawi believes the Palestinians need a separate state as a means of asserting their own self-identity and sovereignty first—that is primary—and I think that’s absolutely true.

Some people say that if we could just have a single state, all the problems would end.  I think that’s when the real problems would begin. And that’s not the only reason I want a Jewish state. I want a Jewish state because I believe in the idea of Jewish nationalism, but it’s also clear from just a position of realpolitik that one state would be a potentially disastrous situation.

OR: I want to point out that in Israel today, many ultrareligious Jews don’t speak of the state of Israel, they speak of the land of Israel. To them, that is the more eternal thing. One can dismiss them, but I think that what they speak about has deeply influenced the settlers. Yoel Bin Nun said that the Jews of Tel Aviv have to understand where those settlers are coming from in talking about the land of Israel, and the settlers have to understand what the Tel Avivniks mean by a sovereign state: not just understand it but take it in and appreciate it. Understanding where your own people are coming from and what their understanding of a state is, is as essential to the survival of the state as is the Palestinian acceptance or the Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution.

 

DT:  What was the most painful moment for you while making the film?

JD:  Listening to the Palestinian point of view without being able to challenge it. I’ve done lots and lots of interviews over the course of my career, but one of the most painful moments for me was the first interview I did with a Palestinian, in this case Walid Mula, an Israeli Palestinian. Walid is an extremely sophisticated, college-educated man with a graduate degree, a very thoughtful man whose close friends are Jews as well as Palestinians. Sitting there and listening to his rejection of Zionism was incredibly painful.

He lives in Israel proper, and he elucidated the situation from his point of view, describing his own family history of land dispossession and political manipulation—all the reasons why he felt Zionism was inherently prejudicial against Arabs, why he could never accept Zionism, and why he felt it could never grant equality to Palestinians. This is not some fire-breather from Hamas, this is not a fanatic or radical, this is a very thoughtful man, and hearing him reject Zionism, which is so fundamental to who I am, and my own sense of Jewish identity, was very painful, because my natural inclination of course was to fight back, to challenge, to argue. Of course you can’t do that—in an interview you want to understand the other person’s point of view. That was the single greatest challenge to myself, and I learned, over the course of the project, to take in that point of view.

It was an enormous point of growth for me. This is at the heart of the issue for Jews and Palestinians. It often happens, and has from the very beginning, that acceptance of the other person’s narrative feels like self-annihilation. What both peoples have tried to achieve over time—with some success and many setbacks—is to believe, and to somehow embrace, an alternative narrative. To be able to accept a point of view that will never fully accord with your own without feeling that sense of self-annihilation is what I think is at the heart of the conflict.

OR: I referred earlier to Yoel Bin Nun’s perspective of Jews on both sides needing to hear each other’s narratives. The other obvious narrative that Jews on both sides have to hear and understand is the Palestinian, because there are multiple Palestinian narratives as well. It’s too easy to simplify, but they all need to be able to hear each other’s narrative without necessarily agreeing in any way.

The most difficult moment for me was interviewing Aryeh Eldad, a member of Parliament at the time, who said that the Zionist dream will not be fulfilled until the Third Temple is built. That to me was a painful and difficult moment to hear, because I think he was extremely serious. There was no tongue in cheek there.

 

DT: What do you want to accomplish with this film?

JD:  Our greatest ambition is that this becomes the centerpiece of a national conversation. We went into this believing that conversations about Israel and the Middle East often become shrill. There’s more heat than light. There’s defensiveness on the part of some Jews, and dismissal of Israel on the part of other Jews, but somehow the conversation lacks a certain kind of complexity. We were struck by the fact that the conversation in Israel over the nature and future of Zionism is in many ways much richer and deeper and broader than it is here, for obvious reasons—it’s their lives—but we feel that the best defense of Zionism is a recognition and an exploration of its history with all its flaws, as all nationalisms have flaws. Exploring that history and laying out all the various arguments is the best way to push the conversation here in America over the nature of Zionism, Israel, Jewish nationalism, and the Jewish state…to broaden that conversation for Jews of all ages, but particularly younger Jews who’ve grown up under the shadow of occupation. We grew up in the glory days of Zionism; it was a shining star. Any Jew who’s under the age of 40 has grown up under the shadow of the occupation. The film is not a polemic—it’s the opposite of a polemic—but we’d like to make a case for the possibility of believing in Zionism without having to whitewash it, without having to run away from its flaws.

OR:  What was important for us in making this film was to hear both sides and to make it possible for Jews who are strong supporters of Israel, maybe much more to the right than we might be, to hear Jewish Israelis and Palestinians across the spectrum. Many Americans, and I’m speaking mostly about American Jews, who visit Israel rarely see a complex vision of Israel’s history and its population. This film is a history, but it’s a history in deep recognition of contemporary issues. We intermix history with contemporary scenes because we wanted it clear that there’s a dialectic between that history and what’s happening today on the streets. The history and contemporary scenes play off each other quite deliberately.

I hope that this film, aside from creating a national dialogue, will be used very practically in schools and study groups. We’re putting together a study guide and website that will provide a larger frame than any film can provide. My goal is to educate the next generation, because clearly our generation doesn’t seem to have the answers, or if we think we have the answers, we don’t have the political clout to put them into effect, either in Israel or in the US. I believe Israel will be there for a long time, but what Israel will be is up for grabs, so it’s up to future generations to create a better future.

We’ve been asked by several people to make sure this film gets to Israel and to Israeli students, and we’re hoping to reach very much beyond the shores of the United States in terms of what that dialogue is. We have ambitious aspirations, but the bottom line for me, as somebody who grew up with this history, is to provide a history from a 2015 perspective that is not mythology but doesn’t ignore the mythology. The mythology is a part of what we grew up with. And there are multiple mythologies; all sides have their own mythologies.

 

DT: There’s one more thing I want to bring up. Because this is a film about Zionism from the perspective of people who live in Israel and the West Bank, you didn’t include the issue of Jewish identity, which is of interest mainly to diaspora Jews. At a Q&A after the film, Richard Pena told a story about being upset when his daughter drew an Israeli flag at Hebrew school. His response was, “I didn’t send her to Israeli school.  I sent her to Hebrew school.”

OR:  I think Richard Pena was really speaking in code about something else: Oftentimes people mix up Jews and Israel. That’s true on a very political platform today, and it’s why Orthodox Jews are getting shot up in a kosher butcher shop in France. Jews are seen as the same as Israelis or automatic supporters of Israel. Richard’s wary of that link, and rightfully so.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

The Attack/Ziad Doueiri

Amin Jaafari, a highly assimilated Palestinian surgeon living in Tel Aviv, is horrified by a suicide bombing that brings mangled children to his hospital.  His horror skyrockets, however, when he discovers that the suicide bomber was his wife—a  discovery that launches Amin on a painful reconsideration of his own life. Director Talk would like to salute Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri for his honesty in light of the fact that The Attack was recently banned by the Arab League and Doueiri faces prosecution if he returns to his homeland. •Availability: On DVD and Blu-ray, Cohen Media Group, starting Nov. 12.  Also available on Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, and retailers. Thanks to Aimee Morris and Sophie Gluck, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Let’s begin by talking about secrecy and isolation. Amin, a Palestinian Israel, was isolated from his surroundings and the people around him, while his wife obviously had her own secret.  The Shin Bet conducts secret surveillance, while Nablus is isolated from Tel Aviv. Do you think that secrecy and isolation go hand in hand in maintaining  the conflict?

 

ZD: I don’t know if they do in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but between Amin and his wife we wanted to show it like this.  The whole film was based on this idea that you build a perfect marriage, but do you really know the person you think you know?  We also wanted to show that someone’s perspective on happiness is not necessarily shared by the other person. These are the themes; we didn’t intellectually sit down and say we’re going to deal with this, but instinctually this is how they progressed during the writing of the script. We wanted to get away as much as possible from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Eventually it’s there, but we did not want to make the whole story about Israelis and Palestinians.  We’ve seen that.  You know how many films have been made? A lot. And a lot of the films are a little bit didactic and a little bit about slogans, especially from the Arab filmmaking process, always repeating the bad Israelis and the nice poor Palestinians. I’ve seen that. I didn’t want to get bogged down in this. So when I sat down with Joelle to write, we wanted to take it in a different direction, into more of an emotional reaction, more of a psychological love story.

It’s about this man who absolutely loves this woman but he doesn’t see everything that she needs.  He learns to see it, and then he pays a very big price for it at the end. Those were our motives. But did we really set out to make a message?  No, I don’t think so.

 

DT: So why set it in  such a maelstrom? Why set it there?

 

ZD: Because it’s based on a book.

 

DT: Right, but as a filmmaker, you could write whatever you wanted to.

 

ZD: But it worked!  I mean, we felt that setting it in Israel and Palestine works as long as we didn’t make the Israel/Palestine issue the central story line. The central story line is a doctor looking to understand his wife. It’s a love story, a complex story. Why not the Middle East?  Plus I am aware of this conflict. I grew up in it, I breathed it.  My mom milked me with it, you understand? So it’s very familiar territory. Plus I’m reading this book and some of the passages express what I feel in the right words, because the book is very ambivalent and I’m very ambivalent too. I was much more militant when I was young. I hated the Jews, I hated the Israelis.  Flat out. For me, a good Jew was a dead Jew.  How could a Jew even have his own narrative? We didn’t cause the Holocaust, so why are you making us pay for it: I grew up all my life believing this. Then suddenly, I go to Israel, I’m meeting these Israeli actors, and they are fantastic. And this whole image of this ultimate enemy becomes demystified. Suddenly I’m facing the enemy and I’m liking him; he’s kind,  he’s caring about the film. He’s professional. I’m speaking very personally right now; I’m not getting into the conflict. For me, this ambivalence that I had has evolved. I have evolved. You give me this film twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to make it. Today, my narrative has changed.  Now I’m saying, Wait a second. It’s true that they occupy the Palestinian land blah blah blah, it’s true blah blah blah, we know that. But they have their point of view. They have their fears, their insecurities. I didn’t meet a single Israeli among the people that I worked with who does not want to end this thing. Disarmed.  Ziad Doueiri has been disarmed by my trip. It doesn’t mean that I don’t see the reality anymore—it’s there. There is an occupation, I’m crossing every day back and forth and see the checkpoint and the assholes at the checkpoint. The biggest assholes. But at the same time, I managed to find Israeli actors and actresses who were so dedicated to this film that they came and told me, Ziad, if you do not have money, pay us whatever you want, we’ll make the movie for you.  What does it tell you? It left me hanging.

 

DT: It tells me that secrecy and isolation perpetuate the conflict.

 

ZD: When you don’t know your enemy, you fear him, you hate him. But the minute you have this face-to-face contact . . .  It starts with such a simple thing as “Let’s have a coffee.” Some people are going to accuse me of being banal:  This is a much bigger conflict, don’t reduce it to coffee.  The global issue is beyond me. I can’t resolve it.  The global conflict cannot be resolved  with a coffee. I’m talking now about the personal. I’ve developed an incredible relationship with those Israelis that I hated. Who I hated in principle turned out to be friends. Somebody who tells you, We’ll do anything.  Somebody who doesn’t rip you off. At a certain point I needed to reshoot a scene, and Evgenya, this Israeli actress, said she wanted to reshoot it too.  When I told her we had to fly to Basil to reshoot it, she said, “Don’t worry if you don’t have the money, I just want to do it.” She flew in and she did it for free. She’s a Jew,  an Israeli Jew. Does this make you not question.  Does it?

 

DT: It doesn’t make me question.  I’m an American Jew, so I don’t question it.

 

ZD: But imagine how  much I had to go through this transformation, which took years for me to overcome the hatred that I had. I don’t want to give a false impression, and I don’t want to sound politically correct. The hatred that I had was justified at that time. I was a child.  I grew up under the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, Ariel Sharon invading Lebanon in 1982. The Sabra-Shatila massacre, no, no, no, no. What do you expect—an Arab Lebanese kid to come out and say  “I love the Israelis”? No! Fuck the Israelis at that time. It’s normal! You wake up, you’re under the bombs!  F-16’s are bombing, and I’m going to throw them rice and flowers?  It did not work that way. But then time goes by, I travel, I settle down in Los Angeles. I start working with Jews.  I met Jews (gasps, feigning horror) . . . and then your prejudice starts to break apart. And you start seeing that they are like you. They are kind. You break matzah balls with them, you date them. You understand? I’m serious. It’s the truth, this is what happened.

 

DT: Of course it’s what happened!

 

ZD: It’s an incredible experience for me. It’s not the film itself, which I’m very happy was made and happy it’s getting what it is. It’s just the experience of having filmed with the worst nightmare. At the beginning, you guys were Darth Vaders. This image of a Darth Vader didn’t come out of nothing. It came out of reality also! Let’s not forget. But I’m talking about the global.  You know that bumper sticker that says “Think Globally and Act Locally”? I thought globally, and I couldn’t resolve it. I acted locally, on an individual  basis, and my relationship with that crew was amazing. I would work with them again . . . I would go back and shoot in Israel even though I might go to jail for it in Lebanon, because they’ve issued my warrant of arrest. But it’s okay! My trip as a filmmaker to this part of the land was an incredible experience. I still think about it now. It broke a lot of prejudices. Which tells me that face-to-face contact just drops the secrecy thing. Not knowing your enemy. The only thing I knew about the enemy when I was a child was the war and the battles and everything. And now I have to say, “Roll, camera, action,” and I have to come close and say, “We need makeup here,” and the Israelis are running around doing everything. It’s not battles anymore. When we fought on the set, we would get into arguments that had nothing to do with the political. It was healthy. I was fighting and arguing and screaming at the associate producer or the actors, and everything for filmmaking reasons, not for political reasons. Which is healthy, because people fight on set. But we weren’t fighting because of politics. We were fighting because of craftsmanship. This whole process put me in a different mode, which I’m still trying to absorb. I’m still trying to analyze where I’ve been without being overly analytical.  You know, I’m being read for this opinion I’m sharing on the media.  In Toronto I said it, and in Telluride I said it, and in Qatar I said it. I’m talking about my experience. In every festival or interview, I’m talking about my experience with the Israelis and I’m being scrutinized for it because they’re saying, Ziad has reached over to the enemy. I’m in cahoots with you right now. This is what they’re saying. Well, it’s not true.  All I’m talking about is my experience. It’s true, it’s valid!

 

DT: Why is Lebanon so negative about it when Qatar and Egypt supported the film?

 

ZD: Because the Lebanese have a particular relationship to the Palestinian cause. Lebanon has half a million Palestinians as refugees, and Lebanon paid a very, very big price for the struggle. We still keep on bombarding. I mean, Lebanon is the country that fought the Israelis the most. Don’t forget that. Egypt signed for peace in ’79, Jordan in ’93, Qatar is not in a state of war but they have a business relationship with the Israelis. But Lebanon is still  in a state of war. Syria is in a state of war, but Syria and Israel have not thrown one single bullet since the armistice in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War. Lebanon is the only country that’s still in a state of war, fighting real battles. Plus, the mentality in the Lebanese is so pro-Palestinian, what else do you expect? The Lebanese are not going to be pro-Israelis. Lebanon has a lot more taboo than the Palestinians!  A lot of the Palestinians I meet deal with the Israelis on a daily basis. They go, they shop, they exchange, they talk, they  sit down around the table. The Lebanese don’t  have that. We are more royalist than the king. The Lebanese have a lot of heavy baggage vis-a-vis the Israelis. For good reasons also, and I never forget that. The Lebanese are not born out of their mothers’ wombs just burning the Israeli flag for nothing. Some of the Lebanese reaction is stupid, but a lot of it is justified also.  Lebanon was destroyed a lot by the Israelis over the years. Lebanon was also more destroyed by the Syrian occupation, though nobody wants to talk about that. The Syrians fucked with us a million times more than the Israelis! A million  times, much more subversive. Because the Israelis occupied land. The Syrians occupied land, the court system, the legal system, the sociological system. They penetrated every aspect of life. Plus the Syrian does not declare himself as an enemy. The Israeli says, “You’re my enemy, I’m going to kill you.” The Israeli says this out loud. There’s no ambivalence to it. The Syrian says, “We are brothers, we are the same people.”  But you never hear the Lebanese protesting about the Syrian occupation. I am the perfect Israeli candidate today, I think Netanyahu would  listen to Ziad, and say, “Oh! You’re the perfect candidate.”

 

DT: Let’s talk about the sequence where Amin is being driven home from the hospital after being interrogated by the police. There’s a sequence of shots of buildings.  One shot  just has a fragment of a round building in the lower right-hand corner, giving this incredible  feeling of isolation.  What was your intention as a filmmaker? That was a phenomenally moving sequence.

 

ZD: My approach was to show that suddenly he is not part of the city, the way he was so integrated when he gave the thank-you speech to the Israelis at the beginning of the film. Now he is aware that the building are looking at him too. Suddenly there is a rupture. That’s why he’s looking and he sees the building that you mention, the stoplight, a woman drinking coffee. Suddenly those people that he thought were part of the same society—he’s a citizen of Israel—but suddenly, the bombing is the prelude to everything that follows in the film. He’s started to think,  “Am I really now part of this city? Proud to be a Tel Avivian? Or now, the buildings are looking at me. I’m a suspect. And I’m looking at them.” This is the idea that I wanted to evoke.

 

DT: In Nablus, one of the Palestinians says to Amin, “Anyone can become a terrorist. It can fall on you like a tile or grow inside you like a worm.”

ZD: No, no, that’s in Israel. It’s his Israeli detective friend who tells him this while they’re having a beer on the beach. Amin is sitting with his friend and says, “Tell me, you’ve met a lot of psychopaths. What happened, what happened to those terrorists?”  His Israeli friend answers,  “It can fall on you like a tile, it can grow on you like a worm.” It’s an Israeli interpretation, not Palestinian. A Palestinian would never say it like this. A Palestinian would say, “We became kamikaze because we’re fighting for the cause, because we’re under oppression, because we’re trying to live in dignity.” That’s the Palestinian discourse. The Israeli discourse is it happens to you without knowing why. And both are valid. So ask your question now, but you have to put it in the Israeli context.

 

DT: I don’t know if I can ask the question. I think it’s fascinating I thought he was talking to a Palestinian.  Okay. You grew up in Beirut during the Civil War. Given your firsthand experience, do you believe that anyone can become a terrorist?

 

ZD: No, not everyone can become a terrorist.  I would have—but not a suicide bomber—because I was capable of hating so much.  Not just the Israelis; I hated the Christians. I hated. I’m an extremist, even today. I’m not capable, ever, of committing a terrorist attack, but it’s easy to become an extremist. It really is easy to become an extremist, and people in the West do not understand that. A big part of that extremism is the way you were raised.  I lived it. I swear to you, it is so difficult. Some people say there is no excuse for terrorism, and I believe there is no excuse for terrorism. And in the film I’m not giving an excuse for terrorism, I’m just saying it does not take much for a human being to become very extremist.  To become very radicalized. In my experience, when you feel hopeless and somebody comes to you and offers you a chance for salvation, you’re probably going to adopt it. I’m glad that I was raised in a fantastic family, and I’m glad I was raised in a very liberal family.

 

DT: And intellectual.

 

ZD: Very left wing, liberal. My parents are very, very left wing.  Antireligious.  Life—this is not philosophical, I swear it’s not philosophical even though it sounds it—life is an insecure thing. We go through breakups. Some of the breakups devastate us. And when you’re so devastated, sometimes it doesn’t take more than that to trip and start making the wrong decisions and becoming a big extremist. I’m talking about something as simple and naïve as  a breakup, how much it can affect you. You become suicidal.  Have you ever been suicidal? I have been suicidal. And then you survive it because there is the will to live because you have parents who love you, or whatever. But we all go through very, very dark moments, and I went through it. When you take a population and you tell the population, be it Palestinian, be it Israeli, be it whatever  you want: when you say, you can’t cross, you can’t have a future, you have to live in misery, you have to live in poverty. You’ve lost your virginity—in an Arab culture that’s a huge taboo. Whatever you take, you add layer after layer after layer. Misery, poverty, no perspective. Feeling shame, feeling embarrassed. You could become a suicide bomber.

 

DT: But you know, there’s the nonviolent movement in Bil’in, there are these Palestinians—and I think this is brilliant—adopting the Jewish settlers’ tactics of building huts on hilltops. I mean, do you think that nonviolent resistance—

 

ZD:Does not work.

 

DT: It’s worked in other parts of the world. It worked in East Timor—

 

ZD: Exactly, in India, in South Africa. Not in the same way. I’ll give you an answer right away: In my opinion, it’s religion. The Middle East is very religious. Think about it.  Not like South Africa. The Middle East is where the three monotheistic religions came from, and that’s very, very rare. In Islam you can do this kind of thing. You can do a jihad and kill yourself. In Christianity, you are not allowed to do it. Christianity goes against that. In Islam, religion plays a big role in shaping their minds.  Why don’t you have suicide bombers in other countries? I mean, there are, but very few.  Why is it so systematic in the Muslim world? Because in a way, the Qur’an, in a convoluted way, lets you do it. It’s divine intervention, not a man; it’s not Karl Marx who tells you, Go do it. Cause Karl Marx is a human being; he’s a homo sapien. It’s divine. How can you contest divine call for jihad? That’s why it’s so fucked up, you understand. Did I give you your answer?

 

DT: Yes, but I feel like you’re putting yourself  in danger with it.

 

ZD:Why? Why am I putting myself in danger? Going to Lebanon?  You think? Why?

 

DT: You’re saying some very radical things.

 

ZD: I am not radical. I am not radical at all. I’m talking about why it’s so easy for those people to commit suicide bombings. I give you a list: because they feel oppressed, they might feel no hope for the future, they might feel there’s no perspective, they’re sexually frustrated. Plus you add the religious aspect to it, you should do the jihad. You add all these things, you’re putting more chemistry for this to work.  To have a nice cocktail, you’ve got to have several elements to become a suicide bomber. Islam is the last cherry on the pie inside this cocktail. It’s giving it a divine okay to do it. This is why the discourse should change within the Muslims and they should stop.  Assholes should stop carrying on in the street, and say “Islam should condemn this; you should not be able to do this. It’s against God’s will.” Some people are trying to say it, but the Qur’an is so convoluted—it’s written in a way where you don’t know whether it encourages jihad or not. But again we’re getting into a very philosophical conversation that I don’t want to have. We should talk about simpler things in life. About a nice bagel.

 

DT: I’m sorry, my last question is pretty philosophical. In an interview with Elliott Kotech at TIFF, you said that it’s naïve to say “Let’s extend hands and say, ‘Peace.’” Don’t you think it’s a moral imperative to do so?

 

ZD: To extend hands?  I think it’s naïve because it cannot be solved that way. It happens that for me, I reconciled with Israelis on a film set. But that’s the Ziad way. I’m not representative of my whole community. To be able to all of us sit down and quickly cure things with a handshake, it’s naïve. I wish it would work. But again, I don’t know what works. Do you believe it would work with just shaking hands after all these bloody years? I don’t know, maybe it works.

 

DT: I think it’s the only thing that would work. If  everyone just says, “I can’t take it anymore. Let’s just have peace.”

 

ZD: Okay, but why is nobody saying it? Why are only some people saying it? A very small minority in Israel is calling for it, and an even smaller minority in the Arab world is saying it. Why are the rest not saying it?  I mean, I have my ways of solving the thing, but my ways are so different.

 

DT: Tell me.

 

ZD: Make them fornicate with each other.   All of them.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2013

5 Broken Cameras/Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat

Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers and political activists Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat codirected 5 Broken Cameras, using Burnat’s footage and Davidi’s script to relate the resistance movement in the West Bank village of Bil’in.  The title refers to Burnat’s five cameras that were destroyed while he was shooting. •Availability:   A Kino Lorber release; images courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  When you and Emad met, neither of you intended to make a film about the resistance in Bil’in.  How did you commit to making 5 Broken Cameras?

 

GD:   Emad has been shooting since 2005.  Throughout the years his footage was used by other filmmakers, and he sold some to news agencies, but he didn’t think about making a movie. On my side, I spent five years in Bil’in, going to demonstrations, meeting people, making another film. After a few years I heard that Emad finally wanted to make a film, but there were already so many about the movement that I thought there was no chance to make another one, especially in the same village. In the film industry, once there is a film about a subject, certainly once there are two, it’s a dead subject. Besides, it would be very complicated to do it together because of the political consequences and the cultural differences between us. But then one day Emad convinced me to watch his footage. It contained the most striking image of an old man blocking a jeep. I asked Emad, “Who is this guy?”  And he told me, “That’s my father, and he’s blocking the jeep from taking my brother.” I realized that if Emad would make the film about himself as a cameraman—if we could create his voice, if we could find the jewels in the footage that would support a more personal film that found the connection between the village and his personal life—then we could do it.  But Emad had been doing journalistic work for many years, and he didn’t think the personal elements were of interest to anyone.  In addition, it would not be seen nicely by people from the village that he takes this big, historical movement to tell his personal stories. He was afraid of that, and he was right.  We had to concern ourselves with not making it just a personal story without any general context of the movement.  It was very delicate, but I convinced him that these personal and intimate moments were necessary to retell a story about this movement.

 

DT:  As codirectors from different backgrounds, what conflicts did you experience while working on the film?

 

GD:  There weren’t really conflicts, just debates between us about how to create the film, because every decision you make when you do this kind of project—and when you do it together as a Palestinian and Israeli—is going to be judged ten times more.  For both of us.  Emad is going to be criticized for working with me, then deciding to accept Israeli money, but he was sure that was important for accessing Israeli audiences.  For me as a filmmaker, in order to tell the story the way I thought we should, I had to write the voices.  So I’m writing Emad’s voice, which is a very delicate thing to do.  I don’t want to replace his voice.  It’s my writing, but I have to be connected to his point of view, so I’m reconstructing his point of view.  It’s very delicate.

 

DT:  How did you do that?

 

GD:  We had conversations about the film, about his life, about the way he looked at things. From the conversation I understood the way he thought. Some of the text I heard from other people in the village.  I had a friend who told me, “As a kid you cannot dream in Palestine.  It’s dangerous because your dream is going to break and you’re going to be devastated.”  Emad is a bit more optimistic than my friend, but I used this in the text.  That was a conflict between me and myself, not with Emad.  Emad was completely assuring me, he looked at the text, and if he thought something wasn’t corresponding to his ideas, he changed it or he told me how to change it.  Between us it was actually very good, but it was kind of a self-questioning all the time.

 

DT:  Did you work in Arabic or Hebrew, or both?

 

GD:  The original text was written in English, and Emad and I conversed in Hebrew.  But regarding the question, which was a very important question about the debates between us, the most important and ongoing debate was how intimate the film should be.   For example, I knew he was arrested, and I asked him to find solutions to describe that moment, because we didn’t have footage of it.  Actually he was hiding his footage because he wasn’t sure about being presented that closely with this fragility that he has, a bit weak and depressed and not in his best moment. It’s OK to be shown as a hero, as the great cameraman fighting the occupation, but when you see a moment like his arrest the complete image of a resisting Palestinian is broken.  It was a big process for him to accept it, and after we put it in he was still challenging how long it should be, what moments to use.  But the framework of the film was built in a good partnership between an Israeli activist and a Palestinian activist, and the fact that I was part of this movement before allowed for a lot of freedom and trust between us.

 

DT:  When you’re talking about your friend who says children can’t dream, I think about Soraya’s comment “If they tell us not to demonstrate on Friday, then we’ll demonstrate on Saturday,”  which is a very different viewpoint; in the one, there’s no hope, in the other, we’re going to keep resisting and resisting.

 

GD:  The people who told this story about the kids having to be tough are people who were already broken, who were already in jail and know the price. They say they have to be tough not because they have to be great heroes but because you cannot know when the occupation will catch you.  Of course there are people who have less experience, less tragedies in their lives, so they still preserve this mediatized idea of the resistant Palestinian.  Every culture that is fighting for its liberation has these models of fighters, so of course these models exist in Palestine as well, but I think because so many people paid such a big price this model is tired, it’s exhausted.

 

DT:  Five years of nonviolent resistance in Bil’in achieved a small victory—

 

GD:  A small practical victory.  There are big victories that are maybe not seen on the surface.

 

DT:  Do you think that nonviolent resistance is a viable path to achieving peace in the Middle East?

 

GD:   It’s a big question, but I think when we speak of nonviolent movement we put the emphasis on nonviolent and forget about the movement.  The thing about movement is that it’s ongoing.  It’s developing and it has to develop.  In Palestine the nonviolent movement is still very small. Nonviolent ideas are taken by some people as an ethical decision and by most of the people as a strategical decision,  meaning we take this path as a new strategy replacing violent or diplomatic strategies.  This is a way for the people to be engaged with the resistance.  The path of negotiation and diplomacy was tiring the Palestinian people, and there are big parts of the Palestinian people who are not willing to take the violent way.  Not everyone wants to spend his life with guns, and most of the people don’t want to suffer the consequence for that, but at the same time they couldn’t put all their beliefs and trust in negotiation and diplomacy, which proved after twenty years to be false.  So it’s a very organic development that gives people involvement and a sense of control over their lives, which is beautiful, I think.  And it brings a lot of spiritual force back to the people even though it’s a small movement.  It’s very important, whatever the future is going to be.  Even if the future is not going to be better, with these ideas people have a way of handling depression and suffering, so that’s a bigger achievement than removing the wall in a few hills here and there.  But I think also people are looking at this movement and saying, well, it’s not completely nonviolent.  Of course this is not India, we’re in Palestine and Israel, and we’re not Buddhists yet, so I think there is a path of spiritual and emotional development to follow for both Israelis and Palestinians, because Israeli activists are also part of this.  It’s not a finished movement, meaning it’s not a peaceful movement and that’s it.  There’s a lot of anger, and when people are dying around you people take stones and throw them.  You can’t say that throwing stones is completely nonviolent.  It isn’t, I accept this criticism; of course it’s not guns, but it’s not the peaceful Gandhi kind of way.  But it’s going there.  It’s a challenge this movement has to cross and develop, and I think that once the radical minorities have new ideas and new information, there’s going to be a window of opportunity.  The wheel always turns, and there’s going to be another moment like we had in the ’90s, a moment when people are willing to change whole ideas.  This small movement and small quantities of people have to be prepared with their knowledge and with accessibility to their society so they can influence and guide and navigate and lead in this situation.  It’s going to be challenging, because there’s going to be confrontation with the violent movement, with the aggression with the right wing in Israel, which is so strong and so destructive and so powerful.  Also in Palestine, but I speak about my society, which I know well.  We have to have these instruments for that moment.

 

DT:  You were in Bil’in making your film Interrupted Stream about the politics of water.  How do the politics of water coincide with the politics of the wall?

 

GD:  They go side by side. Israel’s idea of creating the wall is protecting the settlers and Israeli society, but we don’t speak so much about the location of these big blocks of settlements.  They’re close to the Israeli border, which in the west is west of the West Bank and on the east, in the valley of Jordan.  These are the most fertile lands of the occupied territories, the valleys that all the waters from the mountain aquifer of Palestine, are flowing to.  By the settlers’ confiscating, you don’t confiscate just a percentage of land, you confiscate the best lands, the most fertile lands, the land with the most quantity of water, which is a very important necessity in the Middle East.  It’s not just a necessity for the Israeli economy; it also prevents any development of Palestinian economics.  So it’s gaining twice—it’s keeping the Palestinians poor and without ability to develop, and it’s gaining resources.  The wall is part of it, because it is planned confiscation.  You know, the length of the Green Line is something like 300 kilometers, and the length of the separation fence route is 700.  Why is that?  Because it enters the occupied territories and West Bank to confiscate land for all these settlements that are located close to or on the fertile lands and water resources.  These are politics that go together.

 

DT:  What was most heartbreaking for me was Gibreel’s transformation from a baby into a political being by the age of five.  Two of his first words were “wall” and “cartridge.”  It’s a never-ending cycle.

 

GD:  I think there is development, even if we say in the film that it’s an endless cycle. The endless cycle is a main element of the film:  it’s five broken cameras,  four brothers of Emad who are arrested, and a lot of repetition.  The main criticism that we got of the film is that it’s repetitive in many moments, but that’s part of what we tried to manifest. The film is not structured according to dramatic laws of filmmaking.  If we had done a fiction film, we would have been told scriptwise that we had too many dramatic points.  There are too many dramatic incidents.  Better to just take one or two and focus on them and not have ten.  But we have several, we have guys that are being killed, we see kids are being killed in the film.  There is a scene where a good Israeli friend of mine, Limor, is shot in the head, but we don’t even mention his name.  He’s a lawyer, he’s working for years, he’s part of the whole movement, he even handled Emad’s arrest. He’s now epileptic.  Just this dramatic moment of five seconds in our film is a film in itself.  Or like the daughter of the guy who was shot in the leg and was arrested and sent to jail.  That’s a full film there.  We had so many dramatic points that one neutralizes the other, and we had to punctuate them in order to process so many. They were important in creating the atmosphere:  not exhausting the audience but at the same time trying to have this notion of exhaustion that Emad has, that Palestinians have, that the activists, Israeli and international, have also.  So it’s an endless cycle, but there was development when this movement started with Israeli activists—a mediatized movement, meaning every Palestinian in the West Bank knows that there are Israelis going in the middle of the West Bank and getting shot.  So I think it means a lot, and it can develop further for new types of cooperation.  This film challenges Palestinian society.  Some people don’t want to show it because they don’t accept cooperation with Israelis, as I said, not to mention the fact that there is Israeli money in it, which is also a big achievement for the film.  Going back to Gibreel, he experienced a lot of violence, he has a lot of anger in him, like many other kids, but I think he has also a strong connection with Israelis because he knows this movement, he knows his father is doing a film with an Israeli, so I think that while he’s going to have a lot of anger he’s also going to have other instruments.   I don’t want to generalize from him to the whole Palestinian population because the movement is still small, it’s happening in Bil’in and several more villages, and it’s still not a national movement and there are not thousands of Israelis going to the West Bank, there are only a few hundred, but there is a development.  It’s not just a cycle.  Of course from outside you hear the Israeli-Palestinian thing is endless because it stays forever, it’s always a conflict.  But the conflict changes, and the people are changed in it.  So the good question is not, When is it going to end?  The good question is, How is it going to develop and what are we going to learn from it?  And in that sense I’m a bit Buddhist because I do think that this conflict is going to stay for a while because we still didn’t learn what we need to learn from it as people, as societies.

 

DT:  The police were invading people’s homes and arresting children in the middle of the night.  Why were they doing that?

 

GD:   The official argument is that every kid that threw a stone should be in jail.  It’s in order to put pressure on the people to stop throwing stones, but the soldiers know that’s adding fuel to the fight.  It’s also trying to push the villagers to use more violence in order for the soldiers to use more violence—that’s the way I see it.  They see it as the kids broke the law, they have to be arrested.  But it’s ridiculous because they don’t arrest kids who actually threw stones, they arrest people randomly.  I heard and saw crazy stories; sometimes a kid was arrested even though the soldiers knew it wasn’t him who threw stones.  It was his brother, so they took him and told him, “Well, you’re going to stay in jail instead of your brother.” Or they take the kids and do a full interrogation, frightening them and trying to push the kids to say which kids in the village threw stones.  So the kid is frightened, it’s a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kid, and he chooses other kids from the village, three or four, and he says, “Well, they threw stones.”  This is good enough for the court to put these kids in prison, so they take the kids in order to frame other kids. It’s a full system, but the logic is to put pressure on the population:  that’s the basic logic.  The second logic is to put pressure so the population will resist with violence, which is much more convenient for the army in order to react to violence. It’s a bit more difficult to react to a nonviolent movement.

 

DT:  What do you hope to achieve with the film?

 

GD:   Maybe too many things for a film.  I’m still of the old school that thinks film can change the world. I don’t accept people who say films can’t. So why do films?  Just for fun?  I can’t deal with this.  I would do fantasy series like Game of Thrones, which I adore, but if I do a political film I have to be committed to the subject.  It comes with it, so I don’t have the right to say films cannot change the world. Who, what, and how much I cannot measure, but our challenge was to access audiences that find it hard to look at this footage.  And these are Israelis, not necessarily the right wing, just mainstream Israelis, the young generation of kids before their army service that have to watch what they’re going to serve before they’re into the system of indoctrination.  My hope is that I can show the film in high schools in Israel.

 

DT:  Has it had any kind of reception yet in Israel?

 

GD:  It hasn’t screened yet.  The Israeli premiere is going to be at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July, then it’s going to have a semi-theatrical release.  We had a big buildup from January, when it was released in Sundance, and where it got the directing prize, so now we’re waiting for Jerusalem in July.  But it’s going to be well received by the festival and this kind of cultural community, I’m sure.  The challenge is the main population who doesn’t read the newspaper, who doesn’t know what Sundance is, if they see the film won prizes it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good film, it means that it’s an anti-Semitic film.  It means that people abroad like to give prizes for films that are against Israel. Israelis always look at themselves as the ultimate victims, so we had to build the film in a way that will remove as many of the defenses Israelis have when watching films like this or when hearing about the subject.  We didn’t want to use any kind of intonation of accusal in the film, so the voiceover is very soft and lyrical, poetic and accessible for people.  This is a big change from many films, because people are used to being accused, they’re used to having a subtext of anger from the filmmaker in the direction of the scenes.  Even though the film is very brutal and the incidents speak by themselves, Emad’s voice is very soft, in the way he reads it and in his intonation.  Secondly, we didn’t want to enter into this competition of victim: who’s a better victim, who’s the ultimate victim?  Are Palestinians the victims, or are Israelis the victims?  Everyone is trying to prove that he’s the actual victim.  Palestinians have a better case because of the reality, but Israelis play on history and on the cultural differences of West versus Middle East, and terrorism, and many other ideas.  Everybody’s in this discussion, which is  a false discussion that is freezing any change because we only speak about who’s a better victim.  So I at least made a choice not to speak about who’s the ultimate victim.  The only time we speak about being a victim is at the end of the film, when Emad says, “Even a victim has an obligation.  He has one obligation, and the obligation is to heal.”  That’s a message that I wrote also for Israelis, because they see themselves as victims of the world.  Of the history of the world.  And they are victims of the history of the world, they don’t just see themselves, they are victims.  But they have an obligation to heal from that, because when they don’t heal they cause damage to other people and to themselves, so it’s a kind of message from the current victim to those who were victims, I think.  This is the way I see it, so I hope that people who will make a decision to watch the film will go through something. Of course just making people go and watch that kind of film is tough because it’s always categorized.  You have a big system of propaganda and education to confront.

 

DT:  What’s your next project?

 

GD:  I want to do a film about the soldiers and the army.  I didn’t do my military service, I was out after three months of enrollment in the army.  In the scene where we see all the soldiers standing and Adeeb is shouting at them, you feel for the soldiers, you feel their situation. I want to capture something about that.

 

DT:  Feature or documentary?

 

GD:   Documentary.  I’m not sure if it’s going to be released on an international level, but for the international audience I really would like to make something about the army.

 

DT:  I can’t wait to see it.

 

GD:  I can’t wait to do it.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2012

 

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