I am on my way to Israel, knowing that a lot of people are boycotting this country – culturally, academically and commercially. At the film festival DocAviv in Tel Aviv, I sit down with the artistic director, Sinai, to talk about this. He cannot show me any Arab director in the programme, because Arabs boycott this Israeli festival – and they would really get into trouble in their home country if they did not.
Due to this, the politically critical films in DocAviv are made by Israeli and other international directors and focus on power, injustice and human fates. Although the festival gets financial backing from the government, I find the program selection somewhat critical of the “apartheid” politics of the Israeli occupation. So why do they boycott the festival? Sinai shakes his head, he does not understand. That’s just how it is – participating Arabs would probably be accused of supporting the Israeli state.
Boycotting is also the topic of tonight’s film: Under the African Sky by American director, Joe Berlinger, shows how the musician Paul Simon broke the UN’s cultural boycott of South Africa 25 years ago. Simon went to Africa and recruited black musicians for the album Graceland. Here, on an enormous outdoor screen under the black night sky at Tel Aviv Harbour we witness Simon’s message of happiness and reconciliation. He also brought the band all over the world – to symbolise co-operation between whites and blacks. 25 years ago he was harshly criticised for breaking the boycott, part of what was described as the UN’s just fight against apartheid. The film shows the band on tour, and later the contemporary memorial concert in Johannesburg. As Simon tells us today, he saw no reason to doubly punish black people. We also witness how this challenging work revitalised Simon as a human being and artist.
From where I sit, surrounded by around 1000 people, I witness the audience get to their feet at the end and start dancing to the music – a mixture of Western pop and African rhythms.
To me it looked like Sinai had chosen reconciliation as a topic for his programme – in one of the world’s most irreconcilable spaces – because the next film I see here also touches on this topic.
After seeing One Day after Peace I reached out my hand to the row behind and took hold of the hand of the old woman sitting behind me. I had realised she was the protagonist of the film and I was moved, and wanted to show it. Robi Damelin squeezes my hand before the light comes back on in the theatre, where a packed audience is giving the film a standing ovation. What is special about Damelin is that she has chosen to reconcile with the Palestinians who killed her son, an Israeli soldier. A Palestinian sniper killed him at one of the many checkpoints.
The Israeli brother and sister Erez and Miri Laufer followed Damilin on her trip to South Africa to learn from the Truth Commission’s work. In the film we see archival footage of a white mother openly forgiving four young killers for taking her small daughter away. To be confronted with such forgiveness makes these guys uneasy – but seems to teach them a lesson. And we witness how Bishop Tutu and the Commission work to provoke reflection in the perpetrators. Reconciliation between the opposing sides takes away the thirst for revenge. Several of them burst into tears where they are met with love. It wasn’t easy, as Tutu very emotionally tells us in the film.
Interestingly we hear African music as Damelin travels around meeting Palestinian mothers who share the same destiny, who have also lost children. Can they all learn from South Africa?
I wonder what happened to the sniper who got caught and is now in prison. While I am here in Tel Aviv he writes a piece in the daily newspaper, Haree’tz, because of the festival film. The Palestinian who Damelin several times tried to visit in prison but was turned away, writes that he would have done the same again and again – he doesn’t regret anything. The State of Israel has been too destructive to his people to be forgiven. He has nothing left but hate.
Several of the Israelis I meet here in Tel Aviv have resigned regarding the conflict between them and the Muslims. Maybe the conflict has been here for too long. With the wall the suicide bombers have disappeared one tells me. She was afraid of taking the bus for five years – if she saw an Arab she would ask him the time to ascertain if he was a local. If not, she got off as fast as possible.
Another one tells me that it is a dangerous neighbourhood – but doesn’t understand me when I ask who he is really referring to. It doesn’t sound like anybody I meet has any visions of how to solve the occupation and conflict with the four million Palestinians.
For how long can irreconcilable politics be pursued in such a small country of six million Jews in the midst of 300 million Arabs? There are also conflicts among the Israelis. There are different groups and cultures here, Jews from Ethiopia, India and Russia; secular and ultra-orthodox, Jewish Arabs, Christians and Druze. Or as my guide Ayelet tells me: In an average family the children typically consist of one armed settler, one critical leftist, and one praying ultra-orthodox. Maybe also one homosexual Sinai adds, pointing at himself with a smile. Modern Tel Aviv is kind of a bubble in Israel. In Jerusalem gays or lesbians cannot safely show themselves in public.
Next day I do an interview with Stav Shaffir, one of the two leaders of the massive demonstrations here last year when 3 – 400 000 people marched through the streets protesting against the government. They continued this summer too. I ask her about the peace process, about the possible reconciliation of young Jews and Palestinians – if their parents cannot do it. She was much more concerned about the economic outlook for her own people in terms of housing, health and education. But she recognises that the government’s use of enormous sums of money on security politics is an obstacle. So too the amount the government spends on the Ultra-Orthodox, who spend their lives reading the Tora and who grow in number every day. They are not participating in the military service that Israel manages for all its citizens.
Military service is the topic of the festival film Soldier/Citizen by director Silvina Landsmann: She reveals many of the prejudices harboured by the young soldiers while they attend a three-week workshop on civil rights before ending their military service. The soldiers voice their prejudices, racist attitudes and perceived lack of ethical responsibilities. The teacher reminds them that Israel is based on two legs, one Jewish and one democratic. But as they speak, their compassion for Palestinians evaporates as soon as one of their fellow soldiers is hurt. When one soldier calls himself a robot without any responsibility for a massacre, the teacher nearly shouts out that in that incident, the soldier was following “a blatantly illegal order!”
As is said in the film, and also by the Israeli, Shaffit, a step in the right direction would be to teach Jews how to speak Arabic; teach them with respect, wish them a nice day in Arabic.
Travelling around – sometimes within the Occupied Territories too – I meet the older woman Rihab who tells me about the PLO man she loved, how he died due to a shortage of medication in prison, and how she had to drive around with his dead body for hours before she was allowed to bury him. Omar Khassem was one of the PLO’s most famous leaders; half the population came to his funeral. Rihab has fought politically in the intervening 40 years. She was also the first woman with a doctoral degree and has worked within the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. But she also established the Parents Circle, in which Damelin from the film, Day after Peace, currently participates. 600 families on both sides demonstrate against the warfare 1)See http://www.theparentscircle.com/
The following day commemorates al-Nakba (“the catastrophe”) and the new friends I make in the Occupied Territories ask me to join them in supporting the 1600 political prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli prisons. I don’t go. Later on I see that soldiers had shot teargas in all directions, my friends running around in a chaos of smoke and gas. On the way out I ask my taxi driver to stop so I can film the soldiers shooting at the Palestinians. But couldn’t they also shoot at the car from which my lens is pointing at them? Could I film them without being in danger? Stones hurtle through the air, and car tyres screech in the street. My driver shakes his head, tells me that last week he had his rear window broken, maybe we could drive on?
So we did, I am not a war photographer.
Driving back to Tel Aviv I remember one festival film, Home Movie. This film was about preserving the Jewish childhood home, a lovely film depicting good memories. But also a nostalgia for something that has passed; someone else takes over the old home. Focus on the home and the safety of the family is strong here in the Middle East. One doesn’t want to lose one’s home – what the Palestinians have painfully experienced. But ironically it was the Jews this time – they needed the money. This film was shown again and again in packed cinemas – and won the festival prize.