Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Lesson of "Budrus"

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The Lesson of "Budrus"

(from 10/5/10)
Budrus, an instructive political documentary that will make your pulse race and spirits rise, should be on your "Must-See" list. I met the filmmakers, Julia Bacha and Ronit Avni of Just Vision, when they brought their marvelous 2006 doc, Encounter Point, to the Tribeca Film Festival and I moderated their panel. I also met several remarkable men and women they brought with them, Israelis and Palestinians who had lost family members during the years of conflict but had joined together in an effort to bring peace and equality to their land through nonviolent resolution. It was a panel of heroes, including Avni and Bacha. Ronit directed that film and Julia produced and they told me that they were going to switch roles for their next film. Well, Budrus has finally arrived and it's a gem, a riveting, enlightening film that opens the world's eyes to the successful nonviolent struggle that took place in the small West Bank village of Budrus that resulted in the Wall being rerouted. Julia [center for panel] and Ronit [to Julias left on panel] showed their new movie at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and brought along three more extraordinary individuals to a panel: Ayed Morrar [to Julia's right], Iltezam Morrar [to Ronit's left, alone in a still] and Rula Salemeh [to Ayed's right]. I took part in the following discussion that began with Julia's introductions. I make note of my questions.
Julia Bacha: I'm Julia Bacha, I'm the director and producer of the film. Ronit Avni is the Executive Producer. Rula Salemeh is the producer of the film. Ayed Morrar is the leader of the Popular Committee Against the Wall in Budrus. And Iltezam Morrar, Ayed's daughter, launched the women's contingent demonstrations in Budrus.
Q: Can you talk specifically about what led you to making this film?
JB: We have been working together for six years now at Just Vision. Ronit is the founder and director of Just Vision and we did Encounter Point together, with Ronit directing and me producing. So we've been researching the work that's being done on the ground for many years. We actually have an office in East Jerusalem where Rula and Israeli Outreach work from. So we have a presence on the ground. When we started doing the research, everybody was talking about Ayed Morrar and Budrus and it seemed to be very much a model for what people were looking at in regard to nonviolent resistance achieving results. Eventually, after some work, I was able to convince Ayed to let me follow him. He was very conscious of not wanting to be placed above other leaders, so he kept referring to other people, but they kept referring me back to him.
Ronit Avni: Our choice of subject resulted from the touring we did with Encounter Point. The question that we were asked constantly was: Where is the Palestinian nonviolent movement? There was a real disconnect between what people's expectations were here and what we were hearing about there. So we wanted to address that in a concrete way. People were also asking: If the Palestinians and Israelis do recognize the humanity of the other, then what do they do with that? Where can the energy be channeled? So we really wanted to look at a story where people can do that constructively and are able to achieve results. And that is what led us to the story of Budrus.
Danny Peary: In terms of finding a story that would be accessible to Americans and other viewers, were you thinking that the story of Budrus--where the Wall was erected through a cemetery and through the middle of the olive grove that is vital to the town's economy--was an obvious choice?
JB: Definitely. The power of the story is that it is simple. I constantly go back to this notion that there's family, the father has a daughter, there is a threat to the community,
a decision is made to activate even people who you'd think wouldn't necessarily come to your side, and nonviolent strategies are used to address the injustice. This could have happened anywhere in the world; it is not specific to Palestine and Israel. It happens domestically, internationally, across borders. The idea is of a community uniting and reaching out and crossing so many boundaries; and through that process ultimately members of that community are empowered and benefit, with women being the clearest example--when women participate in the struggle they will be more empowered afterward. When you have unity between political movements, where you have to negotiate your differences during the process of the struggle for a common goal, the result it likely to be a society where it's possible for people to talk to each other while respecting differences. The goal is stronger than the differences. Finally, the cooperation of Israeli activists with the Palestinians really creates a process whereby these two populations that live so close to one another but have very little contact can learn to understand that they have much in common. In the end, when that peace that they reached for together arrives, that will be the foundation for the two societies to live together and respect and understand one another. The struggle together has the potential to result in a long-term peace, not just a cease-fire.
DP: Ronit, Just Vision does films about people from opposite sides joining together for peace. So if there were no Israelis who joined the Palestinians in their nonviolent resistance, could you have made this movie?
RA: You're right that a lot of our work is about people coming together. When Just Vision was founded we were looking at stories of Israelis and Palestinians engaged in conflict resolution through nonviolent initiatives. Early on we focused on people who were crossing all kinds of boundaries, but over the last few years it has become increasingly difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to physically work together in that direction. It's because of a lot of things, but the Wall is a big piece of it, along with the violence of the second Intifada [beginning in late September 2000], the political climate, the lack of interaction. There are some key aspects to the work going on in society to make a resolution to the conflict. The nonviolent movement is critical as far as Just Vision is concerned. So now we're increasingly looking toward stories that may not be about cooperative work but have a vision of two societies in one region being able to co-exist in dignity and freedom.
Rula Salameh: The international media and the local media are not interested in highlighting nonviolence. so Im happy to be part of this film. My background is as a journalist and this is the first time I'm involved with a film as a producer. As a Palestinian, and this is beyond my work with Just Vision, I believe that the stereotypes and images must be changed because we promote nonviolence, too.
Q: Talk about the decision to give the women such prominence in your film.
JB: It was based on the fact that they were key in the movement. We learned how the Popular Committee was being organized. At first it was supposed to be only men demonstrating but very quickly because of Iltezam Morrar's initiative, there was a very strong women's contingent that got engaged. It was absolutely essential to the movement. Without the women there was no way what happened in Budrus would have happened. A lot of the women were able to do what the men weren't able to. So they were integral to the story.
Iltzeman Morrar: When the Israelis started the construction of the Wall, as a Palestinian woman I saw them confiscating our land and dealing with check points every day, so it wasn't normal not to participate. I needed to go to college and had to wait many hours for the soldiers at the check points allow me to pass, so everything was affecting my life. I thought it was very important for me to participate and that I had the right to.
Q: Was this your first participation in something like this?
IM: Yes. When I was a young girl my father was in prison for seven years. My mother and grandmother were really strong and they took part in the first Intifada [1987-1991]. They would talk about what they had done and all the time I was thinking about what I could do because there is still an occupation and lots of things going on. When they started putting up the Wall in 2003, I thought this was what I should start with, to stop the bulldozers with nonviolence.
DP: I hope you see the 1954 movie Salt of the Earth? It's a narrative but really a quasi-documentary about a real mining strike in New Mexico where the men kept getting arrested for protesting so their wives went out to do all the picketing. And the women and men both are empowered. What effect does the involvement of women in the demonstrations have on your culture?
Ayad Morrar: In Budrus we didnt encourage the women to become involved in our movement, we just opened the door in front of them. The nonviolent struggle in Palestine has gone on for a long time, since the British occupation, then the Israeli's occupation. So were used to nonviolent struggle in our history. What we tried to do in Budrus is bring back the nonviolence to our resistance as Palestinians who are suffering from the occupation. We have the right to struggle and a duty to struggle, and we want to use all sources to put up with the occupation except killing. We can use women, kids, old people, the Israeli Solidarity, the Palestinian Solidarity, but we must try to reduce the level of the violence because of the number of people who are killed.
Q: Ayed, how did you personally arrive at the conclusion that nonviolence is the best way to get anything accomplished?
AM: The first time I was arrested I was about nineteen. All my life as a person living under occupation, freedom was the obvious target. You must choose the easiest and shortest way to reach it according to Yitzhak Rabin. In my opinion, the nonviolence is the easiest and shortest way. We are unsure when we are going to reach our target,
whether it will be one year or ten years or one hundred years but it is our duty to keep struggling and achieve equal rights for our people, freedom, and real peace. So we will continue struggling although its difficult. We must persuade all the good people around the world to support us. We try to send our message around the world that were not against Israelis or Jews, just the occupation, and that we have the right to live peacefully on our land. We are growing, as almost all the political parties in Palestine are encouraging us or supporting our targets of freedom and peace.
DP: What we see in the film is that you had the perfect blueprint for nonviolent resistance. But were there mistakes made along the way in terms of strategy?
AM: Nonviolent struggle is more difficult and complex than violent struggle. It's not easy to involve all the components of the Palestinian people. There has to be a high level of trust between you and the people, especially in Palestine. No symbols exist, no prophets exist, so you must persuade everyone that he is your partner and that he is very important when you stand face-to-face with Israeli soldiers. There needs also to be a high level of sensitivity between the political parties. During our nonviolent struggle, hundreds of Palestinian people are injured, many are killed. It's very difficult but this is the price of our freedom and we must be able to pay it. There are many obstacles, but we have no choice. We cant remain silent, we must keep going.
Q: This film seems to be a direct response to those who say there is no hope for Palestinians so suicide bombings and violence are the only solutions to the occupation. Can you say if most outside money going into Palestine is directed toward violent organizations rather than nonviolent groups?
RA: Just Vision doesnt invest its time into tracking finances for any military or violent groups, so I dont feel qualified to answer that.
JB: I want to clarify that Just Vision is actually not engaged in this nonviolent struggle. We are an organization that documents the work being done on the ground.
RS: I'm not only with Just Vision, so I can answer as a Palestinian journalist. We also hear rumors that there is money that goes directly to Palestinian militant groups. How much and who sends the money and why they are doing this, we dont know. Of violent groups, who dont have accurate information about who supports them and what kind of support they provide. But we know there is no money that went to the popular Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement from other countries. This is still a small movement--in fact, I'm not sure we can even say it's a movement. We're doing a lot of research of nonviolent organizations and haven't heard from any of them that they get funds from Arab countries. What they get is training from local and international NGOs on how to use nonviolent methods to do actions and on what kind of actions to do. I think we can start by highlighting what's going on in Palestine, in the West Bank, in Gaza, in East Jerusalem. We need to bring the attention of the local and international media to cover this. Then, I think, other Arab countries will come and support the nonviolent popular resistance.
Q: How does one counter that very large funding source that is fueling the pro-Israeli effort to keep the Wall in place?
RA: As an organization, Just Vision's response to that question is to tell the stories of the two societies. How is the conflict affecting the lives of Ayed and Iltezam? What does it look like? We toured across America with Encounter Point and met people who had never seen a Palestinian; they didnt know that custom and society encompassed both Christians and Muslims; they had very specific ideas in their head that were challenged seeing these stories. That's where media plays a critical role, assuring that we have in-depth, comprehensive coverage of this issue. That people aren't exposed to the images of Ayed and Iltezam is something were looking to have an impact on.
Our response is to challenge the stereotypes and lack of awareness that exists in this country around what it means to be Palestinian or Israeli, and to also look at the underlying structural issues. This is a fight for freedom, this is a fight for dignity--those are values Americans can relate to yet this issue hasn't been framed in those terms before.
Q: I see this film as a powerful tool. Will you try to get it into schools and university settings?
RA: We are doing the high-profile festival circuit in order to drive media attention to the issue and get people excited about the film. The goal is to get it into theaters in New York City and elsewhere and on television, and also to take it into university settings. The advantage of Just Vision as an organization is that we have outreach staff and a track record or taking films and associated educational materials into schools and to community and religious settings across the continent. Encounter Point is actually in two hundred cities around the world. We're always looking for opportunities not to just to show people the movie but for them to connect it to their real life and historical experiences.
RS: We also want to alert more Palestinians to this issue. We want NGOs, women NGOs, to see the film. There are a lot of demonstrations these days against the Wall and the expansion of the settlements so we want to send the message to the various forces that violence will lead to violence. We had a huge screening in Budrus. That was scary even for me because I didnt know what the reaction would be. It was the best. Even people from Hamas were there with their families and they were proud to be part of Budrus. It was a very emotional experience and I'm very proud of the community and the people.
DP: Is everyone in Budrus united around nonviolent resistance?
AM: Everybody in Budrus and all the political parties, families, men and women, kids, old people were involved pretty much. Budrus contains 1,500 people and you can imagine that one demonstration might contain 500 people, one-third of the population. I used to write a lot about nonviolent struggle and make speeches and we wanted to make an example on the ground and had the opportunity when the Wall arrived in Budrus. More than fifteen Palestinian villages were suffering from the Wall at the same time. The Wall was 150 kilometers long when it arrived in Budrus from the north, so all the villages were struggling and using the same strategy to force the military to stop and move the Wall close to the Green Line. We are proud of what we did, and I think the Palestinian people were persuaded by this kind of struggle.
Q: One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when the Palestinian women call to the female Israeli soldier by name, telling her to put down her gun. How was that scene shot?
JB: That scene was a collage of footage shot by three or four people who were holding cameras that day. What's amazing about this movement was that it had galvanized so many people to be there that every day someone was holding a camera. We were able to contact about twelve Israeli activists who were filming there. They weren't filming with a documentary in mind, trying to find a good story to tell, but just documenting what was happening at that moment. Their footage is what was genuinely happening in a very raw way. There were different reasons people were filming. Some wanted to prevent an escalation into violence by having cameras present, and in case something did happen they would have video documentation. The activists see our film now and can see the whole picture. It's very rare for activists to look back because once they were done in Budrus, they moved on. Now they can look back and see what they were part of, and this movement is special because, as the film shows, there was progression. There was a strategy and they succeeded in the end. And the screening we had in Budrus reminded the people who live there why the nonviolent resistance took place what they had achieved.
RA: Prior to founding Just Vision. I worked at a human rights organization called Witness that Peter Gabriel co-founded.
Witness equips human rights activists around the world with video cameras and trains them to document violations and works with them to create films about human rights issues. One of the reasons I left and founded Just Vision was because I felt there was so much activists' video on this issue but not a lot of storytelling that could rise above the glut of content so that unlikely audiences would come and see it--rather than just preaching to the choir. The films I wanted to make would be of such high quality that people would come see them on a Saturday night. It was a conscious decision not to utilize Witness and others' approach, which I think is a very valid approach that I highly respect. We benefited from it clearly because there were so many activists on the ground with cameras. That's going on all the time and I value that kind of footage--as evidentiary submissions and as a mobilizing tool within constituencies it is absolutely critical. But we're trying to reach audiences who wouldnt normally be exposed to that kind of content and that's why it has to be of higher quality of storytelling and why we make feature-length documentaries. That's also why I recruited Julia. I loved The Control Room, which she wrote and edited, and I wanted her on board because I wanted that quality of her storytelling.
Q: Julia, there have been a number of documentaries of late in which the subjects participated in the editing. Is this how you work?
JB: I tend to be, let's say, protective of my editing room. Not only the subjects, but also none of the funders can ever come into it. They can't see anything until the film is screened. That includes the board members of Just Vision--they dont see the film until they're sitting in the audience with everybody else. It's very important for me to be able to tell the story as it is. I wouldn't sacrifice that. Saying that, I'm aware there are things that could go in this film that could threaten the safety of the subjects. So after Budrus was finished we did show it to Ayed and a few other people in the film to see if anything needed to be changed because of safety concerns. My filmmaking is not as important as people's lives.

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