One of the outstanding films to be screened this year at “48 mm: The International Festival on Nakba and Return” will require the special task force recently established by Culture Minister Miri Regev to decide whether the story of 18 cows – yes, cows – violates Israeli law and can justify cutting the budget of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, where the festival is taking place.
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“The Wanted 18,” the Palestinian candidate for the Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Film, is an animated documentary that tells a true story. It’s hard to decide whether the most suitable description is funny, sad or absurd. The film breathes life into a story from the days of the first intifada, and leaves Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers in supporting roles in order to clear the stage for a group of cows that steal the show: They talk, they’re funny, they deal with a long series of dramatic turning points and manage to do all that in a captivating and heartwarming manner by means of charming puppet animation.
The culture minister announced on Sunday that the task force will be asked to examine the films to be shown at the festival, which is sponsored by Zochrot, an organization that works to raise awareness of the Nakba and promote the right of return, and is celebrating its third year at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The task force will have to decide based on the Budget Foundations Law, which allows the finance minister to fine an institution that receives money from the government if it has funded a work that encourages incitement, racism or support of an armed struggle against the State of Israel, or presents Independence Day or the day of the state’s establishment as a day of mourning.
The case of “The Wanted 18” will be very interesting, because the filmmakers have refused until now to show it in Israel, the director refuses to be interviewed by Israeli journalists, and recently he also publicly attacked Israel for preventing him from participating in the film’s American debut.
The film, which will be screened in Jaffa on Sunday, combines amusing stop-motion animation, illustrations, filmed interviews and archival material to tell an interesting and not very well known story that took place in the town of Beit Sahour in 1987. A group of intellectuals and professionals (teachers, an academic, a pharmacist, a butcher, et al) from the city near Bethlehem decided at the time to stage a nonviolent revolt, by boycotting Israeli products.
They realized that such a step would require them to produce the products that they would stop purchasing from Israel on their own. After deciding to boycott Israel’s largest dairy producer Tnuva, they decided to buy cows from which they could produce milk for their own use.
For that purpose a Palestinian teacher from Beit Sahour was sent to buy cows from a kibbutz. The cows were housed in an improvised cowshed in Beit Sahour. They sent a representative to the United State to learn everything necessary about raising and milking cows, and enthusiastically devoted themselves to the new and totally unfamiliar agricultural pursuit.
But the Israeli army was far less enthusiastic. The person responsible for the region on behalf of the Israel Defense Forces decided that the initiative was dangerous, ordered the Palestinian owners of the cows to get rid of them quickly, and when he discovered that the cows had been transferred to a hiding place, the strongest army in the Middle East embarked on a determined if unheroic pursuit of the 18 missing animals.
In order to tell the story the film’s two directors, Palestinian Amer Shomali and Canadian Paul Cowan, found the protagonists on both sides and conducted a series of interviews with them.
Jalal Oumsieh, the high school teacher who bought the cows, says, “The moment I saw the cows I felt that we were beginning to understand our dream of freedom and independence, the moment the cows entered the truck on the kibbutz and we started driving back to Beit Sahour, we were happy, but also scared.”
He recounted that the military governor came to the farm one day with some soldiers. “The first thing they did was photograph every one of the cows in order to record the numbers branded on them. He told us we had to get rid of the cows. When I asked why, he replied – and I quote: ‘These cows are a danger to the security of the State of Israel.’ I told him I didn’t understand why, but he said, ‘You have no right to speak or to cast doubt. It’s a military order and you are obligated to obey.’”
Israeli interviewees don’t deny the claims. “We had clear orders to handle the people who established the popular committees [the Palestinian committees that decided to boycott Israeli produce and to produce independently] with all our might and all the legal means at our disposal, in order to prevent a mechanism that would replace the Civil Administration,” says Shaltiel Lavi, former commander of the Bethlehem District.
Ehud Zrahiya, who was presented in the film as the military governor’s adviser on Arab affairs, says “It was clear that from 17 cows you don’t build a dairy economy that can provide the needs of an entire population,” and that the entire issue was only a curiosity. But it developed into a nonviolent rebellion that caused most of the city’s residents to stop paying taxes and bills to Israel, causing quite a headache for the army.
As to the cows, after they were hidden somewhere else in Beit Sahour, the IDF began a search for them, with hundreds of soldiers and even two helicopters. “It became a joke to see the Israeli army searching for the cows of the intifada,” says Oumsieh’s wife, a geology professor. Oumsieh adds with a smile, “They had pictures of the cows, and they asked people whether they had seen them.”
The interviewees tell the story from their point of view, the animation adds a comic element when it often shows events through the eyes of the talking cows, and the choice of this technique proves itself when it succeeds in emphasizing the absurd aspect of the story. In an interview with the British weekly The Observer, when asked about his decision to make a funny movie, Shomali said: “It was quite frightening, but I’m a cartoonist and humor is part of the way in which I see things. I believe that a nation that is incapable of looking at its wounds with humor will never be able to heal them. First be aware of your shitty situation and then laugh at yourselves.”
Shomali said that one of the challenges was the lack of suitable archival material. “Almost all the material we found focused on the violent aspect of the intifada: Israeli soldiers breaking bones, killing Palestinians and burning their homes; mothers crying; Palestinians throwing incendiary devices or breaking windows in an Israeli bus. There were no materials of a Palestinian milking a cow or planting in his backyard in order to grow his own food, as part of the boycott of Israeli products. No such Palestinian images were filmed, so we created an alternative archive and used animation to create it.”
Shomali, who lives in Ramallah, refused an interview with Haaretz and the filmmakers refused to send Haaretz a copy of the film to watch in advance, as is usual for festival films – the producers also refused to show their film at the International Film Festival in Jerusalem or in the DocAviv Festival in Tel Aviv. “Palestinian artists are afraid that screening their film here will look like a type of support for Israel or a type of normalization,” says Jerusalem Cinematheque program director Elad Samorzik.
The filmmakers accepted the invitation to show their film at the “48 mm” festival, but on condition that it be screened in Jaffa rather than at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The executive director of Zochrot, which is producing the festival, explains: “The Tel Aviv Cinematheque is an institution funded by the government, and we are increasingly seeing a trend that Palestinian artists refuse to have their films screened in such institutions.”
In June the film was shown in the U.S. at the Human Rights Watch Festival in New York. Shomali was supposed to talk to the audience afterwards, but was unable to attend. He claimed that Israel had prevented him from going from Ramallah to Jerusalem in order to obtain a visa for the U.S. “Official Israeli organizations told me that my request was denied for security reasons. And I’m not alone. The same is true of tens of thousands of other Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the occupied territories.
“My co-director Paul Cowan and I wanted ‘The Wanted 18’ to be a festival of freedom and creativity. We wanted to illustrate the power of civil disobedience – then and today – in the face of military occupation and oppression. I believe we succeeded. And now Israel is making it clear that everything is in effect under its control, but it’s not really. We Palestinians repeatedly find ways to cross, to bypass and to extricate ourselves from the barriers to equal rights and freedom put in place by Israel.”
Is peace possible?
So what films will the members of the Film Review Council who will compose the task force established by Regev to watch the films of the “48 mm” festival actually see? The festival includes four short films by local artists that were produced especially for the festival: The animated film “Man with Two Beards” directed by Amir Yatziv, based on a collection of illustrations from Israeli and Palestinian history textbooks; the documentary “Anava Interchange,” about two Israeli directors who, 30 years apart, documented the same Palestinian refugee returning to visit his village; “Guava,” an experimental film by Thalia Hoffman about human situations on refugee routes in the Middle East; and “Lighthouse,” about a 71-year-old Palestinian who wakes up in his new home in Lod.
“Roshmia” is a documentary about an elderly Palestinian couple living in Roshmia, the last natural wadi in Haifa, who are forced to leave their home and see that as another expulsion. “On the Bride’s Side” is an Italian documentary in which a Palestinian poet and an Italian journalist meet five Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Milan, who have fled from the war in Syria to Europe, and offer to help them get to Sweden disguised as a wedding party; and “Sar’a,” a documentary directed by Michael Kaminer, who was born on Kibbutz Tzora and using archival materials and conversations with the kibbutz founders and refugees from the neighboring village of Sar’a reveals the story of the expelled residents of the Palestinian village.
Finally, Eyal Sivan in his film “Aqabat Jaber” returns to the refugee camp where he shot a film in 1987 and asks whether peace between Israel and Palestine is possible with the return of the refugees to their homeland. After the Israeli army left the area, the refugee camp is under Palestinian control and its residents are still unable to return to the villages from which they were expelled in 1948.