The rhythms of the second intifada break down thusly: 66 Palestinians killed per month, 30 suicide attacks per year, more than 5,700 dead. The diegetic sound is provided courtesy Qassam rockets streaking over Hebron, the staccato of IDF machine gunfire and the drone of bulldozers. Mix in the voiceovers of militants on both sides of the 8 meter high separation wall and you begin to understand over what cacophony the protagonists in Julia Bacha's newest documentary are trying to be heard. You begin to understand the difficulty in creating a dialogue.
Bacha, whose 2004 documentary Control Room won accolades for a truly "fair and balanced" portrait of Al-Jazeera, returns to the Middle East with Encounter Point which she co-directed with Ronit Avni. In Hallmarkian terms, the film is the heartwarming story of four Israelis and four Palestinians who overcome their prejudices, see through their anger, and work together to find a peaceful resolution to the discord between their two nations, well technically between one nation and one occupied territory. The devil is in the details.
Robi Damelin lost her son David to a sniper's bullet. Damelin came to Israel from South Africa in 1967 to serve in the Israeli Army and hasn't left since. Still, in 2002, it is difficult to imagine how Damelin, who was 58 at the time her son was murdered and who ran a successful PR company, would turn into a militant, or, if she did, how much damage she could do. Though she lost a son, she still had too much to lose and lived in a society that, in general, leaves assassinations to state-sponsored professionals. To ease her grief, Damelin traveled overseas and to India.
34-year-old Ali Abu Awad, the tall Palestinian leading man with a luminous smile, lost his brother to an Israeli bullet. Ali had spent four years in prison for throwing stones in the first intifada, and as a child, had seen his mother arrested many times. During the filming, his cousin is shot by Israeli soldiers. By his own admission, Ali would be a hero in the eyes of his peers if he advocated violence. That he doesn't, makes him vulnerable to claims of treachery, collaboration and cowardice. When he can get to Jerusalem to advocate peace and to talk to Israelis, the commute is often prolonged by hot hours stuck at Israeli checkpoints. Like all Palestinians, he has a hard time getting around. And when his brother died, traveling to India wasn't an option. It is hard to see what, if anything, Ali Abu Awad would lose if he had turned toward extremism. The Israelis featured in the film--Damelin, a "reformed" settler named Shlomo, Ruti who with Aziz runs a NGO and Tzvika the founder of Bereaved Families Forum whose daughter was murdered by a suicide bomber--live First World lives. Their lawns are irrigated; They have lawns. Their homes are heated; They have homes. They don't wait at checkpoints. Violence, though dismayingly common, is an abhorrent phenomenon in their daily lives. Though the initial decision to strive for a peaceful solution and to find forgiveness may be difficult, once made, it is fairly easy to maintain. For Ali Abu Awad, Sami Al Jundi, Aziz and the other Palestinians portrayed in the film, the decision to work for peace is made not once but every moment a Palestinian is strip-searched at a checkpoint, or a town bifurcated by a concrete barrier, or a the family of a "martyr" given money. As Ali Abu Awad asks, "How can the Israelis expect there to be many others like me when my people are living under occupation? The Israelis are living comfortable lives, so it is no surprise that there are many good Israelis who want peace, but how can the Palestinians produce people like me?" In other words, it is easier for the oppressor to forgive the opressed.
Hatred is not a subtle emotion, grief is rarely rational and rage, like war, is total. Yet Damelin and Awad, and 500 other Israeli and Palestinian families have managed to moderate the political absolutism that often follows loss and tread a line that, though meandering and indirect, might be the only path to peace. Bereaved Families Forum, the organization in which Damelin and Awad are both active, operates on the assumption that one bereaved mother can sit down with another and that the body of grief between them will bridge them together; that a grief so personal must also be universal They make small talk and agree to try to stop the violence and to have hope. One of the main aims of the group is to let the other side know, "not all Jews are Arab-hating hawks; not all Palestinians radical militants."
It is a nice message to hear, made even nicer by the fact that it's true. But, in the end, does it matter? Maybe not all Jews are hawks but Ehud Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ariel Sharon are. Maybe not all Palestinians are radical militants either but Hamas is. The rhetoric of Kadima, though couched in post-Enlightenment government speak more palatable to western ears, is merely an inversion of Hamas' tirades against the Enemy Occupier Israel. Cue the timpani, it's a mutual symphony of destruction.
In counterpoint to this eschatological motif, Awad and Damelin and the other peace activists sing a mediated melody. Stop this violent cycle, they plead. Have hope. But it's akin to playing Kumbaya on kazoo in front of the New York Philharmonic performing Der Ring Des Nibelungen. On the other hand, perhaps its more like a man standing in front of a line of tanks in a square somewhere not that long ago.