Reels for peace

Two new documentaries from female American-Jewish directors explore dialogue as a means toward an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

reel peace 88 298 (photo credit: )
reel peace 88 298
(photo credit: )
It might seem that this moment would be the worst possible time to call for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue as a way to end the conflict, but two documentaries at this year's Jerusalem Film Festival (which began on July 6th and runs till the 15th) both strongly endorse dialogue as the best solution. Lilly Rivlin's Can You Hear Me? Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace and Ronit Avni's Encounter Point focus on how dialogue, even with those with whom you have the most heated and profound disagreement, can bring positive and significant change. The outlook of the filmmakers and the message of their films is extremely similar (the main difference is that Rivlin looks exclusively at women peace activists on both sides), as is the fact that both directors have deep connections to Israel - Rivlin was born in Jerusalem to a family that has lived in the city for seven generations and Avni's father is Israeli - but live in New York. Interestingly, one of the central figures in both movies is the same: Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose son, David, was killed by a Palestinian sniper when he was serving at an IDF checkpoint in the territories. She is a member of the Parents Circle-Bereaved Families Forum, a remarkable group that brings together 500 families that have lost loved ones in the conflict - 250 Jewish families and 250 Palestinian families. In both films, the articulate, feisty Damelin counters questions about why she is not seeking vengeance with a different question: Why was it necessary for her son to be guarding a checkpoint? At the end of Encounter Point, many viewers will be startled to discover that she is trying to arrange a prison visit to the sniper who killed David. Each woman has a different explanation for why she made her film, but both are sensitive to the fact that, although they spend a great deal of time here, they do not make their homes in Israel. They understand that they may face accusations of ignorance or naivet from Israelis who are not sympathetic to their point of view. "Most social transformations, both positive and negative, were due to decades of non-governmental efforts... One can think that that's na ve in this case, but history is on the side of people who acknowledge the contribution of non-politicians to the long-term process of social change," says Avni. Encounter Point has been shown at many festivals around the world, including the prestigious Hot Docs festival and the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it recently won the Audience Award. Before making Encounter Point, Avni founded Just Vision, a non-profit organization that aims to widen the influence of both Israelis and Palestinians working for peace. She has produced and written several previous short films in collaboration with filmmakers from Brazil, Africa and the US as part of the efforts of WITNESS, rock star Peter Gabriel's human rights organization. Damelin and a Palestinian active in the Bereaved Families Forum, Ali Abu Awwad, are two of the most compelling figures in Encounter Point. Awwad was recovering from an injury - he had been shot by an Israeli settler - when he learned that his brother had been shot and killed by a soldier at a checkpoint. Although at first he didn't know what to do with his grief, eventually he came to the realization that, "I don't have to love the Israelis to make peace with them." In one of the most memorable scenes, he sits with a group of young Palestinian men, all of whom have been injured by Israeli soldiers (one lost a leg), who espouse the militant line that the only solution is to win an armed conflict against the Jews. Awwad argues passionately with them on the need for making peace, but clearly faces an uphill battle. Surprisingly, though, Avni mentions during our interview that the young man who lost a leg and who has had family members killed in the conflict has recently joined the Bereaved Families Forum. Part of the force of Encounter Point comes precisely from the fact that nearly all of those interviewed have lost close relatives, often children, in the conflict. At a rally, one member of the group holds up the sign: "We buried our children, let's protect the living." Of course, many Israelis would disagree with the participants in the Forum as to how exactly to secure the safety of the living. Still, the Forum members interviewed are so thoughtful and articulate it would be difficult for even the most fervent opponent of the peace movement to dismiss them out of hand. "You can't say that these people [members of the Parents Circle-Bereaved Families Forum] are na ve about the consequences of the conflict, about what can happen when things go wrong," Avni points out. Although the one time in Encounter Point when Robi Damelin seems to lose patience is when she is listening to a settler give a lecture at a Gaza Strip settlement (before last summer's Israeli withdrawal from the area), a central figure in the film, Shlomo Zagman, grew up on a settlement, Alon Shvut. Zagman, who is not part of the Bereaved Families Forum and has not lost a relative, recalls that his first political allegiance was to the Moledet Party, which supports the resettlement of Arabs. Recently, he has begun to question the settlers' approach and was one of the founders of the Movement for Realistic Religious Zionism. He has moved his family out of the West Bank and into Modi'in, but says he misses the closeness and sense of community he and his family enjoyed as settlers. Admitting to being uncertain about some issues, he asks a key question that was clearly on Avni's mind when she made the film, "If your position is a full page, how can you make it into a sticker?" RIVLIN, A LONGTIME independent, feminist filmmaker who was last at the Jerusalem Film Festival five years ago with Gimme a Kiss, a personal film that focused on her parents' marriage, comes to the issue from a somewhat different vantage point, a desire to try to find a solution by examining how women can contribute. "I've been working on this film for 20 years," says Rivlin, who is a member of the famous Rivlin family, a prominent and distinguished clan that has two Jerusalem streets named after it. Former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (she calls him Ruby) is a cousin, although the two most likely disagree on every major issue. On a visit to Israel in 1984, in the midst of the Lebanon War, she found herself thinking, "What if women had written the story of Sarah and Hagar?" In response to her question, she decided, "If women had written the Bible, it would have been very different... I became fascinated by the idea of the separate narratives of the Jews and Arabs," that began after Sarah banished Hagar from her household. At the time, she thought of making a dramatic film on the subject, and filmed "tons of material" with actresses in the Judean desert acting out the Biblical story. In the end, though, she discarded all but about one minute of that footage. "This is clearly a film that's dealing with the present," she says. Given the current controversy over the security fence, "The idea of where the separation begins is more relevant than ever." She knew from the beginning that it would be critical to have the participation of both Jewish and Palestinian women in the film, which features interviews with various women in Israel - Jewish, Christian and Muslim - on how they view the conflict, as well as what work they are doing to try to solve it. In recent years, as she looked for women to participate, "People warned me. They said, 'You'll never get Palestinians to talk to you, nobody wants to talk to you about this.'" She worried that the nay-sayers were right, that Palestinians would refuse to take part because she is a Jew and that Israelis would not respect her because she lives in America. In the end, though, she was able to get the cooperation of a great many women on both sides. A centerpiece of her film is a meeting between Israeli Orthodox peace activist Leah Shakdiel and Mahu Abu Dayyah, a Christian Palestinian who works for women's rights. The two get into an emotional argument about the right approach to solving the conflict. It's one of the few moments in the two films when a Palestinian and an Israeli get into a heated disagreement and it gives a window into why such dialogues are rare. But Rivlin insists that since their argument does not turn violent, it's a kind of victory. While Rivlin hopes that her film will be a "mobilizing vehicle for women" on both sides to join the peace process, she realizes that a lot of Israelis don't want to hear what a woman from the Diaspora has to say on the issue. Still, she believes, "We cannot afford to be cynical, because after a while you can't see the other side." Avni concedes, "I'm not hopeful that the conflict will be resolved in the next few years or perhaps even the next decade. It will be a really long haul." However, she points out that although the situation is grave, "Politicians are clearly in the position to make the greatest changes quickly... But civil society is going to have to come on board to create a climate for long-term peace and reconciliation. It's inevitable that the civilian populations on both sides will have to buy into the process." In the heat of her argument with Abu Dayyah in Can You Hear Me?, Shakdiel says, "This is not the time for dialogue." But Rivlin disagrees: "This is the time for dialogue." To contact the filmmakers via their Web sites, go to , or