The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
Earlier this year I saw a film that filled me with such extraordinary hope that it seemed more like a movement than a movie. As I observed the audiences' reactions to it and witnessed the first person testimony of two of the Combatants, Chen Alon and Sulaiman Khatib, one Israeli and one Palestinian, I knew that this was a message worth spreading. My interview with the director, Stephen Apkon, the founder of the Jacob Burns Film Center in New York, follows. I also want to mention that I am deliberately publishing this article today, November 8, 2016, the day of the presidential election for possibly the very first woman President in the history of the United States. While that would be wonderful and historical, we will have so much healing to do after this unusually ugly, divisive election campaign that I wanted to share this story as proof that there is indeed hope in the world.—Chaz Ebert
As you know, after I saw your movie, "Disturbing The Peace," I immediately invited it to Ebertfest, the film festival Roger and I started 19 years ago. What you didn't know is that I wanted to award it the first ever Ebert Humanitarian Award. Roger said that movies are giant machines that generate empathy. What was your purpose when you first undertook this project, and why did you do it?
Your invitation to Ebertfest and then receiving the Humanitarian Award was a thrilling beginning to the film’s journey as it was the first time we shared it with a public audience. We had finished it only weeks earlier. I couldn’t agree with Roger more, and believe that empathy stems from our ability to experience the humanity of the other—which is one of the great gifts of movies—especially documentaries. There were several things that made this project compelling for me. At the time I was researching a potential film project in Israel, but felt that it wasn’t really going to work and I wasn’t sure there was anything new to say about the decades long conflict.
When we met this group of men and women from Combatants for Peace, I saw something completely original. Here were a group of former enemy combatants who had taken part in the violence on both sides. They came together, laid down their weapons and were working through nonviolence to end the conflict. As they explained, they were a “community of people taking responsibility for their own creation.” At the time, my partner and fellow producer on the film, Marcina Hale, and I were starting a new non-profit which in part was based on exactly this notion—how we need to take responsibility for the world and lives we create. We saw within this project the opportunity to tell a compelling story while exploring these themes relevant not only to the Middle East but to all of us on a very personal and universal level.
I also realize that in many ways the project found me (and us). I wasn't "looking" for a film to make or another project to take on. In fact, I was a bit reluctant given my sense that there was nothing new to say about the conflict. What I saw when I met these guys was something far more powerful than just a group of people focused on Israel-Palestine. I believe they represent and embody an energy and a consciousness that is emerging in the world in many ways. Yes, there is seemingly more polarization and extremism in the world—but also an energy of compassion, nonviolence and peace.
The three words I try to stress with emerging artists, filmmakers, writers and technologists are Empathy, Compassion and Kindness. But this film made me realize I left out an important fourth word—Forgiveness. What did you learn about the capacity and necessity for forgiveness while making this film?
This is such a great and subtle question. Lewis B. Smedes, a Christian theologian and ethicist wrote that, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” I very much believe in this concept. Our desire to hold onto our victimhood—in so many circumstances—is what keeps us stuck within the cycle of suffering and ultimately violence. What I came to understand in making the film is that there is a first step toward forgiveness which is the understanding that as Marcina likes to say, "everything makes sense." Or as Abraham Lincoln is quoted, "If you were born where they were born and you were taught what they were taught, you'd believe what they believe."
This is why personal storytelling is at the core of the work of Combatants for Peace. As they acknowledge their roles in violence against the other, they are collectively able to move forward in creating a new future. There's an important element to this, however, which relates to the idea of forgiveness. The forgiveness must come not from a request, but rather from the free will of those doing the forgiving. When the Combatants share their personal stories with their former enemies and victims of their past violence, they are not doing so in a transactional way, but rather expressing their involvement as an act of "confession" that is beyond any request for forgiveness. That is critical to this process within their work and within the way I understand the power of forgiveness in our lives.
I have heard too often that there can never be peace in the Middle East in our lifetime. What made you think there was hope for Combatants for Peace? And how is their organization regarded over there?
Leaders have very often come to power and maintained their power through fear. We have seen this in our country as well, and often the media is complicit in this. In so many of the great political and humanitarian shifts in the world, it wouldn’t have been believable until the moment it happened, and only then did it seem inevitable. The falling of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet, Union, South Africa, peace in Northern Ireland. I believe peace in the Middle East is inevitable. Whether it happens in our lifetime is only a question of will—and I don’t just mean political will, but the popular will. That is what Combatants for Peace understands, and they are doing the hard work of creating this will and the foundations for peace, which begin with humanizing the other and challenging their national narratives. While it is challenging there for them, especially over the last years, they also have a level of credibility within their own societies given their history as fighters.
This is your first directorial effort. What difficulties did you encounter shooting in Israel and Palestine and how did you overcome them?
I was very fortunate to be working with Andy Young as my codirector and our DP. Right from the start we built a binational production team, bringing Palestinian and Israeli crew together. They not only gave us the support we needed in the region, seeing them come together was part of the experience. There were only a few times in which we couldn’t have a shared crew, like filming in the prison in Nablus, where it would not have been possible for Israelis to be there with us.
Trust is a key factor in any documentary effort. How did you get the Combatants for Peace to trust you?
Trust may be the most important factor in a documentary like this where people are revealing very intimate and painful experiences. The simple answer is that I think it takes time and also opening your heart to them in the same way you desire from them. We spent almost 4 years on this project and it takes time just being together, for the cameras to begin to recede from the forefront of wherever we are shooting. We also wanted to build an element with the interviews that would create a real sense of intimacy and directness with the audience. We did this by borrowing an Errol Morris kind of idea. While Andy and I were in the room with them, we were behind a curtain, and my face was projected through a teleprompter onto the lens of the camera. This way I could connect with them as we spoke, while they were looking directly into the camera at me.
Some of the stories are not easy to hear, for instance, Shifa, the woman who would have been a suicide bomber. The New York Times did a story about her that explains it further, but it is still difficult for some people to imagine a mother doing this. She could very well have asked you not to include her, but she didn't. Were you surprised? Her scenes with her daughter are quite moving.
Shifa is an amazing woman, who never backed down from being included in the film, despite any potential challenges within her community. It is of course difficult for any of us to understand how anyone could contemplate what she did, let alone a mother of a young child. What I have come to understand in talking to many Palestinians was the loss of hope they felt in these circumstances. This was a critical element to getting to that place.
Similarly, I was moved to tears by the men whose families fought each other, and later, because of empathizing with the humanity of the other, had a change of heart. What kind of emotion did it engender in you as a director? What was the biggest surprise for you?
I met a group of people who had spent years wanting (or at least willing) to kill each other, who now I believe would die for each other. THAT is the power of human transformation! They each overcame the narratives they grew up in and were able to realize that it didn’t have to be this way. I saw how painful that process could be and also how liberating it is. Al Maysles, the great documentary filmmaker, once told me that all documentaries, regardless of subject, ultimately hold some sort of autobiographical element, or in some way represent something we are personally working through—even though this isn’t necessarily revealed until well after the film is finished. Each of us of course had a different experience with this film—myself, Andy, Marcina and others. For me, it required me to do the hard work to challenge my own narratives and to “disturb my own peace.” I suppose the biggest surprise was how challenging this experience was and how freeing.
I imagine that some families and friends of the Combatants for Peace are not so happy with them. Not everyone thinks that compromise or working toward peace is useful at this point?
That is true. There is a whole range of family situations for each member of the Combatants. One of the most rewarding aspects of the project, was seeing the Combatants sharing this film with their families and communities, and how it often led to a powerful breakthrough and understanding of the courage and strength it takes for their family members to do what they do.
I hear that you have shown the film in quite a few different situations including at the Wall in Israel. What has the reaction been?
The reaction has been astounding and gratifying. We screened the film at the Jerusalem Film Festival and a week later in the West bank on the Separation Wall itself. Under a star-filled sky, hundreds of Israelis from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem came together with Palestinians from Nablus, Tulkarm and villages around the screening, and watched their stories projected on the wall and dreamed of a new future. It was an absolutely thrilling experience! Everywhere we have gone—whether at a private screening at the House of Lords in London, or at one of the many film festivals, the conversations have been so gratifying, and underscore what we have felt, which is the longing we all have to move beyond the current systems and narratives and find our common humanity, and create from that place.
Have you shown the movie to any Jewish Organizations in America? If so, what has been the reaction? Have you shown it to any Palestinian groups in America? What has been their reaction?
We have had leaders from many different organizations—Jewish and Palestinian—see the film, and the reaction on a human level has been essentially the same. What is challenging for anyone seeing the film for the first time is that it will provoke our own defensiveness and our desire to hold onto our stories, which often keep us as the victim and the other as the villain. This having been said, the film has created a space for experience and conversation that begins to transcend this, and we are talking with many of these organizations about partnering and expanding the conversations within and between their communities. In fact, on November 13th in NYC, one of the leading Rabbis in the City, Rabbi David Ingber, will be in conversation with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Founder of Cordoba House.
One of the reasons I want to highlight this film so much is it seems to have it's own "spirit," if I can use that word. And it seems as applicable to rival gangs in urban areas, or Native Americans for the pipleline struggles, or the IRA. What do you think the film pinpoints that so many diverse groups can relate to?
The film has been embraced by so many diverse groups who find that it speaks to them—from other conflict areas, but well beyond this, into some of the areas you mention, like gang violence, Native American struggles and more. I believe that the “spirit” of the film is one that embraces the essential humanity within us and doesn’t turn anyone into the villain, or justify our own victimhood. As in most situations of conflict—external or internal—by embracing and holding multiple narratives we can begin to allow new narratives to emerge, that aren’t about being “balanced,” but rather, integrated. With the essence of the film being the possibility of human transformation through nonviolence, it seems to hold a powerful vision for so many right now in our increasingly polarized world.
What growth or evolution have you seen in either the Combatants or their situations from when you first undertook this movie until now?
They have grown in numbers and also in amplifying their voice and their understanding that they hold a place for so many in the world who desire to resolve conflicts in a different way than through violence. They have recently introduced monthly freedom marches in which hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians come together to march for freedom—for both sides, as they realize that the Occupation not only creates suffering for the Palestinians, but on a very basic existential level for the Israelis as well. They have also just added a Womens group within Combatants that allows the women in the movement to work within the regular regional groups but also directly with each other.
When does the movie open and where?
The movie opens in NYC on November 11th at Lincoln Plaza and at Landmark Sunshine and then in LA at the Laemmle Theater on November 18th, with other cities coming in in early 2017.
If I gave you a magic wand, what is your ultimate hope for this film?
I don't believe that any one film or action brings peace, but I believe they are steps toward the inevitable end to the conflict and reconciliation. I hope that this film continues to create a larger conversation—about Israel and Palestine, but also about all of the ways we get stuck in our own stories of who we are and how we relate to the world. I hope it provides an opportunity for each of us to humanize “the Other,” whoever that is in our own lives and communities. In the film, Avner, an Israeli ex-soldier, says of their first meetings: “We found we had something in common—the willingness to kill people we don’t know.” And Shifa, a former Palestinian member of the armed resistance, says, “we shared the desire for peace.”
What we ultimately need to do is to recognize and integrate, that we also hold both of these—the capacity for violence and hatred, and the capacity for compassion and love. By seeing this both within ourselves AND the other, we can begin to transcend our current realities and create from a new vision for our future. It does seem like this film is coming out at a very interesting time, given the polarization in this country around the election, as well as everything else happening in the world. It might be that we still haven’t found ourselves in a bad enough place to question everything and know that we don’t have to do it this way, but I sure hope we have!
You are correct, it would be impossible for anyone to expect that one film can solve all the world's problems, nevertheless, I have one last question. Feel free to disregard it if you don't want to answer it: How can the Combatants for Peace movement be utilized to destabilize forces of oppression and terrorism abroad, particularly in regards to ISIS?
No one film or action can bring about peace, but I do believe we need every moment possible to expand the conversation and movement. I believe that Combatants represent a model for people in conflict who can bridge competing narratives and transcend them to recognize their shared humanity. It's not easy, especially when fear is injected into the mix. ISIS is capable of extremely cruel violence. Without comparing any specific action, so are we. Avner says that he found they (the Combatants) had something in common: The willingness to kill people we don't know." So do we, and in fact we do it all the time, in the name of democracy or our values in the world.
As the Combatants understand, we can't resolve the conflict in someone else's society before addressing and integrating it within ourselves and our own communities. I believe that if we begin there and start to "disturb our own peace" and begin to take responsibility for our own creation, without redirecting our energy toward someone else like ISIS, then this is the only way out. Right now ISIS and others in the world look to the hypocrisy of our own actions in the world and see it through a very different cultural lens than we do and we need to acknowledge this as we move forward.
"Disturbing the Peace" opens on November 11th at the Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza in NYC; on November 17th at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville; and on November 18th at the Laemmle Music Hall in LA. For more information, visit its official site.
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