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(photo credit: Just Vision)
"You don't have to love the other side to forgive it," said Robi Damelin after a Jerusalem screening of Encounter Point. The mother of an Israeli soldier killed by a Palestinian sniper, Damelin made the comment in a question-and-answer session following the award-winning documentary, which chronicles the work of the Bereaved Families Forum, a peace group made up of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the ongoing conflict.
Produced by Just Vision, a charity combining the efforts of civilians on both sides to build a basis for peace, Encounter Point has been screened at festivals across North America since premiering at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in April. In May, the film took home the audience award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It's now showing at select locations in Israel and the West Bank.
Damelin, whose son was killed in 2002, is undoubtedly one of the two heroes of the film; the other, the equally remarkable Ali Abu Awaad, was in Saudi Arabia receiving treatment for a gunshout wound inflicted by a settler in 2001 when he heard that his brother had died at an IDF checkpoint. Both have chosen to channel immense personal loss into working for reconciliation between their communities.
They're joined in the effort by an impressive collection of individuals. There's Shlomo Zagman, who grew up in a settlement believing all Palestinians should be deported and who now lives in Modi'in working to promote interfaith dialogue. Ruti Atzmon serves as the director of Windows, a charity that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youth, while Sami Aljndi, who spent 10 years in prison for involvement with a Palestinian terrorist group, used his incarceration to read Gandhi and Martin Luther King and has since worked as the director of the Seeds of Peace Center for Co-existence in Jerusalem.
From the start, the film resists painting an oversimplified picture of the conflict. It avoids casting blame, acknowledging instead the complexities of local history and politics. A news clip on whether suicide bombers are created by desperate conditions in the Palestinian territories or the culture of Islamic extremism cuts off abruptly, leaving the audience to pause for reflection on both views. Poignant images of Palestinians waiting at checkpoints appear on screen while an Israeli subject questions what viable alternative there is to ensure Israel's security. The immensity of the problem is best summed up by Zagman, who explains that "people on the Left and Right can fit their opinions on bumper stickers, but mine's a full page."
The film's main focus, however, is not political. Instead, Encounter Point centers on the human cost of the struggle, with stories from Forum members like George, whose 12-year-old daughter was shot dead when Israeli soldiers mistook his car for a terrorist's, and Tzvika, whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing. Most important, the film charts the group's attempts to make something positive of its members' pain.
"Instead of looking for revenge, we choose to use our mutual loss to empathize with each other, and that's the message we spread," Damelin said. "We believe it's necessary for both sides to see each other as human to stop the cycle of violence."
The group and its supporters promote their views by encouraging interfaith dialogue and by tackling prejudice within their own communities. In the film, viewers see a visibly ruffled Damelin engaged in fiery debate with soon-to-be evicted Gush Katif settlers who assert that Palestinians are better off under Israeli control than they would be in other Middle Eastern countries. Another member of the group fares better when confronted with a Palestinian child who espouses anti-Israel views echoing those preached by Islamic fundamentalists.
Despite its somber content, the film also hopefully showcases its subjects' determination to overcome personal bitterness and confront wider opposition within their communities. The belief that their actions can ultimately influence the political process and soften the stance of extremists on both sides is ambitious at best, na ve at worst, but as the movie progresses this matters less and less. What does matter, as one leaves the theater, is the reminder that such people exist.
Encounter Point next plays at the Haifa Cinematheque Monday at 7 p.m. There are also upcoming screenings in Bethlehem and Ramallah.