Thursday, December 2, 2010

Budrus: A Small Israeli Film with an Enormous Message

Last night I went to a Manhattan screening of an Israeli/Palestinian film called Budrus. I dragged my husband along with me even though he usually finds such ‘smoleneem’ films one-sided. But he is open-minded and, in the interest of placating his more left-wing wife, came with me. Budrus, produced and released by JustVision in 2010, has been celebrated internationally (Panorama Audience Award, Second Prize, at the Berlin International Film Festival, 2010, Special Jury Mention, Tribeca Film Festival, 2010, and others), but is only now reaching a few US screens. Go see it.

The film itself was remarkable for reasons I’ll talk about below, but the screening itself was also well done. Before and after, there were small receptions of wine and cheese, and two of the three producers, Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha, discussed the making of the film and took questions from the 100 or so spectators. In between, a three-person ensemble including a vocalist (Palestinian), keyboard player (Israeli), and trumpet player (American) serenaded the audience.

Budrus, to be brief, is a documentary film about a Palestinian community organizer, Ayed Morrar, who unites local Fatah and Hamas members along with Israeli supporters in an unarmed movement to save his village of Budrus from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier. Budrus, for those of you not familiar with Israeli geography, lies in the northern West Bank just east of the green line. Budrus’s 1500 villagers support themselves through agriculture, largely the cultivation of olive trees.

Israel’s separation fence has long been a point of controversy. I’ll go on record as saying I find its existence largely positive. Since its erection, suicide bombs in Israel have largely stopped (though there are dozens of attempts caught at the border every year). As a stepmother of four with lots of friends and family in Israel, I relish the protection. With that said, Israel has no business putting the fence one millimeter beyond the 1967 green line. Unfortunately, the fence often veers into what is by all international and moral reckoning Palestinian territory.

In the case of Budrus, the planned separation fence was going to uproot acres of Palestinian olive groves, divide the village cemetery, and would have passed meters from their only school. You understand the villagers’ anger and anxiety.

To protest the fence, Budrus’ residents, led by Morrar, unite in nonviolent protest. Over months of protest, residents together with international witnesses and participants put themselves between bulldozers, Israeli border police, and what they consider their blood, their olive trees. While the two sides exchanged tear gas, rubber bullets, a rain of rocks, remarkably no one was killed though apparently tens were seriously injured. In the end, and I am skipping past all that is interesting about the film, Israel relocated the fence closer to the green line and away from Budrus.

What was significant was the Budrus protests marked an embrace of nonviolence as a means to change facts on the ground. Of course, Palesinians consider the First Intifada nonviolent (highlighting the difficulty defining nonviolence), but why digress? Since Budrus, similar strategies are being employed in other West Bank villages.

Also significant was the importance of women to the Budrus campaign. The film spends a lot of time with Morrar’s daughter, who is now studying medicine in Bosnia, and she talks of how village women forced the men to allow them at the front of the protest marches. Not only did this hinder Israel’s ability to respond, but also, I hope, underscored the importance of female voices in the Arab world (a world that largely oppresses women). In addition, the Budrus protests required cooperation between Fatah and Hamas, the two ideologically opposed factions of Palestinian Arabs. Morrar, who is a member of Fatah and who spent intermittent years in Israeli jails (though the reason for his incarceration is never explained), stated that he disagreed philosophically with Hamas but pragmatism required cooperation. For this, the two sides came together. Moreover, both camps welcomed and embraced the Israeli activists who also joined their fight.

Which brings me to a third remarkable aspect of the film--the importance of the Israeli activist movement. Tens of Israeli activists spent months supporting and protesting alongside the Budrus residents, even when arrested and in the face of real violence by the Israeli border police. Many of the Budrus residents went on record stating their surprise and gratification that there were Israelis who not only rhetorically opposed the occupation but who were wiling to demonstrate their commitment with their presence. I can’t imagine a better means of building trust and belief between the two sides.

While the film downplayed the injuries some of the residents received and didn’t explore the background and mindset of the Palestinian leaders, it was an evenhanded, even uplifting film. Budrus demonstrated that nonviolence as a consistent means of protest can have effect.

I applaud JustVision for producing the film.

But there is more work to be done and the film raises another question. My husband, who is a native Israeli and who found the film overall positive put it best. His question at the end, “Yes, it’s hopeful to demonstrate that cooperation is possible and that not all Israelis are bad. But for peace, we also need Arab Israelis and Palestinians protesting and standing alongside Jews when Hamas, Fatah, when people representing them shoot rockets, suicide bomb Israeli civilians. When that happens, there might be a chance for real peace.”

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