Hope can be hard to come by these days, especially regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations. But the new documentary Other Voices does give a glimpse of hope that things could change.
The film, shot during the latter years of the Trump administration, follows several Israelis from Sderot, and Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, who develop meaningful relationships with each other. Sderot is 1 km. from the Gaza border and has been hit by thousands of rockets in the past 20 years. When under fire, residents have 15 seconds to reach a bomb shelter.
Gaza has also been ravaged by retaliatory strikes from Israel and from their own oppressive Hamas-led government.
The film’s director, Ose Oyamendan, was born and raised in Nigeria. He had a diverse group of friends that broke apart in adolescence because the Arabs and Jews refused to associate. In what he recalls as a subconscious effort to bring his friends together, Oyamendan wrote a short story while he was in film school about two boys, one from west Jerusalem and the other from east Jerusalem, who united in the city for a day playing soccer.
Oyamendan was in Haiti in 2010 during the aftermath of the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the nation. There, in the one hotel with electricity, he was approached by members of an Israeli NGO who asked to use his computer to send messages home. He showed them his story in an effort to enhance geographical accuracy. In turn, they told him about Gaza and Sderot, two regions separated by a wall, with friends forced to spend life apart on each side.
He was hooked and felt moved to make a film about the contentious region. The rest is history.
OTHER VOICES opens with a red alert countdown and Israelis running for shelter, followed by a young Palestinian girl describing how Israeli soldiers burst into her home and shot at her and her family relentlessly, causing her severe permanent brain damage and killing more than two dozen members of her family.
Roni and Ahmed are the first set of people we are introduced to, seen communicating over the phone from opposite sides of the border during protests in Gaza.
Ahmed does a lot of community organizing in Gaza, speaking to groups and helping them to connect with Israelis like Roni, and bolstering their faith in peace and the possibility of coexistence. We see him speaking with his mother, who does not fully support his work with the Israelis. She admits that “some of them are good” and that “among them are Jews who follow the customs of Islam.” But she maintains that “without a doubt, Israel is our enemy and until Judgment Day.”
Over the course of the film, viewers get to know Roni Keidar very well. She made aliyah as a child with her family from England. She went back to the UK as a teenager, then returned to Israel, married and settled down. She and her husband lived in the northern Sinai region until 1982, when they were compelled to move following the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
“We must make [peace] work,” explained Roni, a grandmother of 13. “Otherwise, what did we leave [our home] for?” Like Ahmed’s family, not everyone in Roni’s family is on board with her efforts toward peace.
The film also profiles Natan Galkowicz, whose daughter (a close friend of Roni’s daughter) was killed by a Qassam rocket three weeks before her wedding. Rather than harbor resentment, Natan traveled throughout the country, speaking about his daughter and his experience of losing her. He also opened a Brazilian restaurant in her name, in honor of her love of his home cooking.
Finally, we meet Maha Mehanna, one of the few Gazans allowed into Israel once or twice a year to accompany her nephew for hospital visits. She and Roni are dear friends, and viewers feel the warmth of their friendship. At the end of the documentary, the pair travels to the US to speak at a J Street conference about the situation in Gaza and Sderot.
The process of making Other Voices was not easy from a logistical perspective. Oyamendan had difficulty crossing back and forth over the Gaza border. He had to have two camera crews, one on each side of the wall. Interviews were often cut short by rocket sirens, which forced both the interviewee and the camera crew to rush into bomb shelters. But he was committed to telling the story and he did a beautiful job.
The film is available on Amazon Prime Video.