Culture

How cows might’ve undone occupation

ABU DHABI: Like most episodes of Palestinian resistance, the Intifada – the unarmed popular uprising against Israeli occupation of 1987-93 – tends to be held hostage to hindsight.

Resistance has been so thoroughly overmatched by the military and intelligence apparatus of the occupier – and, it’s been suggested, the corruption and ineptitude of the Palestinian political leadership – that the prevailing media narratives are those of flight, victimization and defeat, and of a militancy more likely to target Israel’s civilians than its army.

Bereft of nuance, these narratives overlook imaginative responses to occupation. One such story is the subject of Paul Cowan and Amer Shomali’s documentary “The Wanted 18.”

The 2014 feature had its world premiere in September at the Toronto film festival and is now screening in the documentary competition of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

It tells a story about the people of Beit Suhour, a village a few kilometers east of Bethlehem, who in the still-hopeful days of the Intifada were at the forefront of the Palestinian civil disobedience campaign.

One of the more egregious facets of the occupation was, and is, the occupier’s taxation of Palestinians – that being one of Israel’s flagrant violations of international law.

Another is the Zionist state’s deployment of its security apparatus to enforce the monopoly of Israeli companies in the occupied territories.

Beit Suhour’s residents spearheaded the Palestinian boycott of Israeli taxation and commodities. To bolster this campaign, they founded a collective farm.

This set the stage for the purchase of 18 dairy cows from a left-leaning kibbutz, so that villagers could produce and distribute their own milk. Though they had no knowledge of bovine-driven commercial dairy production, the farm was a remarkable success, with a lively demand for hand-delivered “Intifada milk.”

Organized and managed by middle class professionals, Beit Suhour’s farming venture was far more worrying to the occupation authorities than the stone-throwing youth the Western media habitually photographed to represent the Intifada.

Fiscal and economic non-cooperation posed a real threat to the occupation regime because its success could provide a model for civil resistance in the West Bank and Gaza as a whole. So Israel’s military governor ordered the cows’ confiscation, declaring them “a danger to the security of the state of Israel.”

The cows of Beit Suhour had to go underground.

Shomali and Cowan’s telling of Beit Suhour’s story of non-cooperation combines the classical documentary approaches with some narrative innovations.

At the core of the doc are testimonials from some of the Palestinian villagers involved in the collective farm – like Jalal Oumsieh, the schoolteacher who purchased the 18 cows, geology professor Jad Ishad, pharmacist Elias Rishmawi and butcher Virginia Saad – which describe the day-to-day travails of the civil disobedience program as a whole.

Complementing these recollections are those of two members of the Israeli security apparatus – Shaltiel Lavie, then military governor of the region, and Ehud Zrahiya, his Arab affairs adviser.

Augmenting these memories is some Intifada-era archival footage, Shomali’s sketches and a series of black-and-white recreations.

Live-action re-enactments provide bridges between the villagers’ recollections and segments narrated from the perspective of four of the cows – Rikva, Ruth, Lola and Goldie – rendered in stop-motion animation reminiscent of the U.K. television series “Shaun the Sheep.”

“The Wanted 18” pools the talents of two generations of filmmakers.

An Oscar-winning cinematographer and documentary-maker, Cowan worked for many years with the National Film Board of Canada. The Kuwait-born, Ramallah-based Shomali (b. 1981) is a visual artist who uses digital media and technology to explore Palestinian revolutionary iconography. “The Wanted 18” is his first film.

The work that emerges from this collaboration is a bittersweet tale of imaginative resistance to ever-more absurd occupation policies.

The film’s brashest innovation – English-speaking cows, and a few other animated elements – brings an aspect of “fun” to the film that is quite alien to most discussions of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. It’s not completely out of place in this story, however, since those Beit Suhour residents who were kids at the time recall the campaign as having been just that, fun.

The animation, one of Shomali’s contributions, may also guarantee the film continues to have a pedagogical life long after it completes its film festival career. Cowan’s hand is quieter.

It’s clear, for instance, that the film’s Israeli informants haven’t adopted pro-Palestinian sentiments in the post-Intifada years. In fact, they clearly they see their role in the film to be one of recounting how they broke Beit Suhour’s civil disobedience campaign. Yet their candid recollections of state policy on the ground do tend to confirm the policy’s comic absurdity – nicely complemented by the movie’s cartoonish segments.

It also appears to have been Cowan’s decision to have his Palestinian informants speak against a black background – as if from Darkness itself – while the Israeli vets are set before a white background. The irony is unspoken but palpable.

“The Wanted 18” documents how occupation authorities took ever-more draconian measures to subdue Palestinians’ nonviolent resistance. Yet in the end, the filmmakers point out, Israel didn’t kill the Intifada. That was the work of the PLO, when it signed the Oslo Accords.

Look how well that turned out.

ADFF continues through Nov 1. More information can be found online at http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 28, 2014, on page 16.

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