US filmmaker sets sights on W. Bank

Maker of ‘Holy Land’ offers olive oil to funders of Kickstarter campaign to complete documentary

Peter Cohn 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Peter Cohn 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It wasn’t by chance that one of the six subjects in Holy Land: A Documentary About the West Bank, a work in progress by American filmmaker Peter Cohn, is Rabbi Menachem Froman.
“Meeting him and being exposed to his ideas was one of the most inspiring experiences I had making the film,” Cohn said last week from his New York home on the day Froman, the rabbi of Tekoa, died. “He was a very great man, and was the spiritual center of the film.”
The documentary focuses on a number of Israelis and three Palestinians whose lives revolve around the West Bank and tracks them over the course of a year. In addition to Froman, Cohn also puts the lens on Froman’s son and successor, Shivi Froman, young settlement outpost activist Aaron Katsof, Peace Now’s settlement watch director Hagit Ofran, late Hamas official from Nablus, Sheikh Beitawi – who died during the filming – Palestinian activist Ahmad Attoun, Palestinian media activist Mohammad Ataallah Tamimi, who is also involved in protests at Nabi Saleh, and Nasri Sabarna, the mayor of West Bank village Beit Ummar.
“My idea was to find representative characters on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides with the view of getting a spectrum of Right, Left and moderate,” said Cohn. “That was my guiding principle, even though I know it’s impossible to find a truly representative group of characters, and I acknowledge that it’s impossible to be truly objective, but I tried to accomplish both of those goals.”
Cohn, who had never visited Israel, spent almost three months in the area on six different filming trips between the fall of 2011 and 2012. Previously, he had made two social-issue documentaries – Golden Venture, about Chinese immigrants to the US, and Power and Control: Domestic Violence in America, about gender violence.
“I like to make films about big problems and the heroic people who try to solve them,” said Cohn. “For some reason, it came to me one day that the West Bank and the conflict between Israel and Palestine was one of the biggest problems in the world and I felt there was room for another film about it.”
The attention and Oscar nomination that the West Bank conflict-centered Five Broken Cameras received backs up Cohn’s assessment. But according to the filmmaker, he had no desire to make an advocacy film.
“It’s focused strictly on the characters that I think are interesting and compelling,” he said. “I came to Israel on a working vacation with my son Ben in August 2011, and having a background in journalism, I have a little experience in making calls and putting together a list of sources and educating myself about an issue. We spent some time going to settlements and villages to get an overall view of what is going on.”
Coming in cold to the subject proved to be an advantage, according to Cohn, because he didn’t have anything to unlearn on the issue or any axes to grind. Working with a team of Palestinian, Israeli and American producers and directors of photography, he was experiencing everything first hand and for the first time, whether filming altercations between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security personnel or spending time at settlement outposts.
“Some things were difficult to experience, like being at my first Palestinian demonstration that was broken up by the IDF – that was an important moment,” said Cohn. “But also very meaningful was getting to know some settlers. I spent Shabbat in Migron and developed some strong emotional attachments to people who are often demonized in the outside world.”
Despite such polarizing scenes, Cohn said he was left with a feeling of optimism about the future of the region – because of the people that he met.
“The main surprise for me was a feeling of hope. The degree of energy, imagination and passion that I found makes one hopeful,” Cohn said. “It left me with the feeling that if the problem is ever resolved, it could result in a golden age in the West Bank. It may be very pie-in-the-sky, but that’s my deep feeling.”
In addition to the film, Cohn plans to develop a website about the West Bank and make available a library of 140 hours of footage that he filmed during the year, including interviews with everyone from Hamas leader Sheikh Khaled Tafesh of Hamas to government spokesman Mark Regev and former Council of Judea and Samaria head Dani Dayan.
“The transmedia aspect of the project is extremely important, as important if not more important than the film itself.
Because we are non-partisan, I hope that people from all points of view will use the site,” said Cohn.
But first, Cohn’s objective is to finish the film. And with his budget depleted after the filming, he’s launched a campaign on the crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter to raise $20,000 to edit the film and pay other post-production costs.
In keeping with his theme of conciliation, Cohn is offering donors to the project a novel – and apt – reward: a bottle of olive oil produced by the Heaven’s Field farm, a joint production between Gush Etzion-area Palestinian farmers and settlers. The effort was inspired by Froman, who also supported the farm’s sponsoring network Eretz Shalom (Land of Peace).
“I wanted to find a gift that would be meaningful to people and reflect the spirit of the film,” said Cohn. “It seems like olive oil has the right symbolic value – there’s something very elemental about olive oil and its connection to the land in the West Bank. It’s such an iconic part of the Holy Land.”
Since the campaign was launched in late February, over 60 percent of Cohn’s goal has been raised, and he’s confident that once he’s able to complete the rough cut of the film, he’ll be able to raise the rest of the post-production funding required to complete Holy Land.
“Many people have been very generous and enthusiastic about backing the project and I’m very humbled by it,” he said.
Along with the support, the film – as well as the Kickstarter olive oil project – has been met with criticism and suspicion on both sides of the fence. Some Palestinians involved in the making of the olive oil fear that it could put them on a blacklist for being involved with a “settlement” project.
“It’s sad that the situation is so heated the people have to be so fearful,” said Cohn, adding that he’s also been slammed by nationalistic Israelis who feel the film will be anti-Israel by virtue of what it depicts.
“So, if we’re getting heat from both sides, it must mean we’re doing something right,” he said.
Once Holy Land sees the light of day, Cohn said he thinks the fear surrounding it will dissipate, and what it will portray are stories of individuals who are being forced to develop ways to live together. In that regard, it all comes back to Froman, who spent his life pursuing coexistence ventures between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.
“I hope that in the end, the film will in some way, be a fitting tribute to him.”
For the Holy Land Kickstarter page