Two Films: Conversations as Activism

Grassroots contacts between enemies can be acts of resistance and freedom in and of themselves: friendships, community service, cultural cooperation, scholarly research, medical practice, women’s actions, secret meetings and public demonstrations. Two recent and important films about Palestinian-Israeli contact — “Encounter Point” and “Can You Hear Me?” — document such interactions.

“Encounter Point” focuses on the work of the Parents Circle Bereaved Family Forum, Israelis and Palestinians whose loved ones have been killed by the other side. Their families, neighbors and governments encourage them to seek revenge, but they do the opposite. They meet, talk, yell at, cry with, and comfort each other over irretrievable losses while they work together for peace. The film shows the inspiring determination of Israelis and especially Palestinians, for whom this work is more dangerous.

Remarkably, we hear the voices of both sides, each holding the other accountable for atrocities while acknowledging the legitimacy of each side’s need for dignity, political independence, and security. Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose son was killed by a Palestinian in the West Bank asks, “What do you do with this pain? Do you… 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?”

Ali Abu Awad, a Palestinian man whose brother was killed, mother jailed, and nephew shot by Israelis says Palestinians tell him he could have “great status” in his society. “You have the right to hate.” Instead, Abu Awad spent years in Israeli prison reading Mandela and King and risks his life to work with his own people and with Israelis to find non-violent resolution to the conflict. “Can You Hear Me?” is a glimpse of some of the joint actions of Palestinian and Israeli women. Women have been in the forefront of grassroots change, so the film is a welcome attempt to highlight this little-known truth. I think the film understates the difficulty of their work by essentializing women’s propensity for peacemaking. All the women I’ve met or read about experience at least as deep a resistance to making contact with the enemy as any man. The film gives more visibility and voice to Israeli women, but more explanation of Palestinian needs. It is important that Israelis understand the depth of suffering of the Palestinians and take responsibility to help make changes. But it is typical of us as women to be in the role of “understanders” and less skillful at articulating our own needs––in this case, what an Israeli woman might ask of a Palestinian to help create safety for her as a Jew and Israeli.

Both films are made by Jewish women. Ronit Avni directed and coproduced “Encounter Point” (85 min.) and is founder/director of Just Vision, dedicated to widening exposure for Palestinian and Israeli grassroots peacebuilders. Filmmaker and journalist Lilly Rivlin wrote, directed and produced “Can You Hear Me?” (51 min.) “Encounter Point,” has Avni collaborating with Palestinian peace activist and co-producer, Joline Makhlouf. Nahanni Rous, Jewish-American, is Just Vision’s D.C. project co-manager.

It was only with some difficulty that I corralled a colleague (who hasn’t spent decades studying this conflict, as I have) to watch these films with me. It is perhaps no fault of the filmmakers that it’s difficult to convey how radical is this grassroots work for peace.

Sheila Katz is a professor of Middle East history and gender studies at Berklee College of Music.