Documentary on coexistence work may inspire others, filmmakers hope

BY SUE FISHKOFF, JTA

SAN FRANCISCO — After years of intifada, the election of Hamas to run the Palestinian Authority and this summer’s war with Hezbollah, there’s little trust left between Israelis and Palestinians.

Ronit Avni wants to change that.

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The 29-year-old Canadian-Israeli film director/producer is part of the team behind Encounter Point, a quiet but powerful new documentary about Israelis and Palestinians who have suffered terrible personal losses but are pushing past their pain to move their communities in the direction of peace.

Avni’s partners include Brazilian co-director and writer/editor Julia Bacha and producers Joline Makhlouf, the first Palestinian woman pilot, and American-born Nahanni Rous. The four young women hope their film will move others to push for peace as well.

Encounter Point was shot in Israel and the Palestinian territories over a 16-month period. It follows eight narratives, including the story of Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose soldier son was killed by a Palestinian sniper; Tzvika Shahak, who lost his 15-year-old daughter in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing; and Ali Abu Awaad, who served time in an Israeli jail and whose brother was killed by Israeli soldiers.

All are active in the Bereaved Families Forum, a group that fosters dialogue among Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members. Others in the film are involved with similar peace-building initiatives.

These people disagree politically, though they all come together on one point: If they don’t talk to each other, the cycle of violence will continue.

Admitting she’s “sometimes angry” with herself for not protecting her son, Damelin asks what one can do with such pain besides working for peace.

“Do you take it and look for revenge and keep the whole cycle of violence going, or do you choose another path to prevent further death and further pain to other parents?” she asked.

Encounter Point can be appreciated on its merits. But Avni and her partners hope people will see the film, have their assumptions shaken and be moved to visit the Web site for Just Vision (www.justvision.org), a non-profit organization they set up as a resource for dialogue and community-building.

In addition to information about the film, the interactive site contains interviews with more than 180 Israelis and Palestinians working for a non-violent solution to the Middle East conflict.

“The film in isolation can’t do the work it’s meant to do,” explains Avni, who once worked for Witness, a human rights organization, training Third World groups to use video for grassroots mobilizing and as court evidence. “We wanted to give people an outlet to get involved, to get more in-depth material than a film can provide.”

Avni is sitting in a coffeehouse in Berkeley, pecking away furiously on her laptop with one hand while trying to shovel breakfast into her mouth with the other.

She and her fellow filmmakers are making the rounds of art houses and film festivals: Avni is in Oakland for two days, then off to Vancouver; Rous is handling a screening in Keene, N.H.; Bacha is at a film festival in Rio de Janeiro.

Last year, Avni and Makhlouf appeared on “Oprah” and spoke about their work. Despite that publicity and the film’s early critical success, it has no distributor.

It’s easy to see why the film would do well in left-wing cities such as San Francisco, where it took the audience award at this May’s international film festival, or across the bay in Oakland, where it was shown in a theater that posts anti-Bush slogans on its marquee.

But the real point, Avni says, is to show it closer to the conflict. This summer there were screenings in Jenin, Gaza, Haifa and Jerusalem — on both the western and eastern sides of the city. Those audiences were a lot tougher than in California.

In July, Palestinian journalists-in-training watched the film in Gaza City as Israeli guns pounded outside in retaliation for the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

“That was a hard screening,” Avni admits. “They wanted their immediate experience to be reflected in the film.”

Audiences were sparse when the film was shown at the Haifa Cinematheque, Avni says: Residents were just returning to their homes after a month of Hezbollah rocket attacks.

More than 100 viewers in Jenin, on the other hand, sat through the entire movie and clapped at the end. But the hall emptied quickly as young men began text-messaging each other that the Israeli army had shown up outside.

The organizer of the Gaza screening was surprised that the Palestinians watching the film had never before “seen empathetic representations of Israelis,” Avni says, since they were “only accustomed to Israelis as soldiers and settlers.”

The organizer felt it was important “to expose journalists-in-training to a variety of perspectives and representations,” and plans to organize more screenings, Avni says.

Hebrew and Arabic have been added to the English captions in preparation for wider distribution in the Middle East. Some 40 high school principals in Israel watched the film, Avni reports, and some want to show it in their classrooms.

The Just Vision team also is developing a related curriculum on civic leadership, non-violence and peace building for American high school and college courses.

This isn’t a feel-good movie, though it holds out hope that — despite the protestations of many Israelis and Palestinians — there are people to talk to on the other side.

Those people include Abu Awaad, who points out in one scene, while driving through the pouring rain to yet another dialogue group, that he easily could sit back and enjoy the status due him as a former Israeli prisoner and brother of a “shahid,” or martyr, as Palestinians call those who die fighting Israel.

Instead, Abu Awaad spends his time dragging other Palestinians to meet Israelis, an enterprise that garners him few friends.

But he’s doing it with his eyes open. While he’ll never forgive the soldier who killed his brother, he says, “I don’t have to love Israelis to make peace with them.”