“Budrus,” the title of Julia Bacha’s feature documentary in competition at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in NYC, presented in conjunction with the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, refers to the tiny Palestinian town (population 1,500) at the center of the struggle against Israel’s razing of 300 acres and 3,000 olive trees, in effect destroying the village to make way for a separation wall. Led by activist Ayed Morrar and his daughter Iltezam the townsfolk – including Hamas members – and Israeli activists come together to prove that nonviolent tactics can make a difference. Especially when cameras are rolling.
Yet perhaps the most shocking thing about this award-winning filmmaker’s by-the-book doc is how predictably the story unfolds. Utilizing talking head interviews, a classical score, maps of Israeli and Palestinian territories, shaky-cam footage from marches and protest rallies, and an excessive amount of clips from Israeli Channel 1, Bacha has crafted what amounts to a slow moving CNN special that mistakes shots of bulldozers for digging deep. Rather than illuminate Bacha chooses to merely illustrate, resulting in an unenlightening journey that takes us exactly where we thought we’d end up.
The director is so bent on “telling” rather than inventively “showing” that her filmmaking becomes repetitive, distancing us and depersonalizing her subjects. Talking heads talking about a standoff are interspersed with images from the standoff. Protest footage is alternated with news reporters discussing that footage. One interviewee cites the Palestinian people’s connection to land as culture, how olive trees represent life.
Cut to olive trees standing. Daughter Iltezam remembers that watching the trees being bulldozed made her feel like crying. Cut to trees being demolished. When Ayed talks about his loved ones family photos appear onscreen. When he reminisces about his time in prison run-of-the-mill images of Israeli prisons are trotted out.
But because we never really get to know Ayed and his family (What does he do for work? What does Iltezam do for fun?), they seem generic “activists” as opposed to flesh and blood human beings whose plight we come to care about. They resemble those anonymous protestors always being uploaded to YouTube, mere random characters cut from stock footage. Likewise for the Israeli Army captain and the female soldier. And since the filmmaker never probes her subjects – the captain says with a straight face that rather than bulldozing people “The answer is a fence” as if there are only ever two choices – the doc becomes dry testimony in lieu of thrilling cinema.
Instead Bacha shows Ayed expressing standard frustration that the Palestinian officials don’t understand the common people on the ground. When the Israeli activists join the protestors in solidarity Iltezam says she’s learned that not all Israelis are baddies. (Though the image of two Palestinian women rushing to the aid of an Israeli peacenik as he’s arrested is powerful for it’s being the only moment of visceral spontaneity in the entire film.) By the time the South Africans descend on Budrus and a female anti-apartheid leader speaks the doc itself has descended into a conventional checklist.
Even more problematic is the fact that both the Israelis and the Palestinians are engaged in a manipulative PR war, are both way too media savvy for any true narrative tension to bubble to the surface. We know no one is going to do anything unpredictable that might jeopardize that all-important international image, so there’s no suspense.
The member of Hamas doesn’t join with Ayed because he’s suddenly renounced violence – he does it because nonviolence is the only way to avoid being labeled a terrorist. The Israeli soldiers know that if they’re seen brutalizing unarmed townsfolk it’ll be broadcast around the world. Ayed happily speaks with reporters, even gets a call from Al Jazeera saying they won’t come to Budrus that day unless there’s a protest.
When the Israeli captain claims it ultimately was a legal and political decision not to build a wall on Budrus – and not a direct result of the protests – the liberal audience I saw it with laughed. But why is that so hard to believe? After all, the protests themselves were political schemes.
The battle for Budrus was always staged theater, thus about as exciting as a press conference. Watching rubber bullets fly before the few rounds of live ammunition (that inevitably kill no one) are fired brings to mind nothing more than the staged danger of the WTO protests in Seattle. Bacha’s camera doesn’t capture emotion so much as cool calculation, which doesn’t translate well to the screen in Arabic, Hebrew or English. That key component to understanding, the universal language of the heart, is sadly, MIA.