Middle East conflict gives rise to work, doc of peace

Middle East conflict gives rise to work, doc of peace

CHAMPAIGN — Co-director/cinematographer Andrew Young admitted after his new documentary "Disturbing the Peace" was shown Friday at Ebertfest that he had felt anxious and fearful every time he traveled to the Mideast to shoot it.

But when he returned from the region, one of the most conflicted in the world, he felt elevated and hopeful because of the work being done by Combatants for Peace, the subjects of his and co-director Stephen Apkon's documentary.

The group is made up of members of elite Israeli forces and Palestinians, many of whom fought the Israelis and spent time in prison.

Feeling personal transformations themselves and ultimately concluding violence begets more violence, they began working together toward peace.

"They have jobs and family but are tireless and staying with this even when beaten down by their societies," Young said during the post-screening discussion at the Virginia Theatre.

It was the first public showing of the new documentary, brought here by Chaz Ebert. She had seen it at a special screening in New York in March.

She was so moved she wanted to bring it to Ebertfest and to give Apkon and Young the first Roger Ebert Humanitarian Award.

The documentary, the fifth movie of the festival's 12-film lineup, received the most sustained applause so far at the 18th edition of Ebertfest.

And the filmmakers — Apkon, Young and story consultant Marcina Hale and two of their subjects — Israeli Chen Alon and Palestinian Sulaiman Khatib — received a standing ovation as they came on stage.

Ebert invited 20 random people in the audience to join them on stage to show solidarity with the efforts of the other members of Combatants for Peace.

The documentary will premiere this summer. Apkon said he hopes to show it at festivals and then at synagogues, mosques, universities and other venues to create dialogue.

The 90-minute documentary opens with footage of the West Bank in 2005, showing images familiar to anyone who watches newscasts from the region.

In talking-head interviews, Alon talks about how his grandfather, an ardent Zionist, left Poland in the 1930s and how all of his family left behind did not survive the Holocaust.

Palestinian Jamil Qassas tells of how his family was forced out of their village by Israeli forces in 1948. His grandfather refused to leave and was killed in his house.

Qassas, who did not travel to Ebertfest, eventually became a freedom fighter and then, like Alon, a member of Combatants for Peace.

For his resistance toward the Israeli occupation, Khatib spent time in prison, where he and other inmates began learning about the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and other peace activists.

He tells of how moved he and other prisoners were by watching Steven Spielberg's Holocaust film "Schindler's List."

In prison he also attended a Revolutionary University, learning about both peaceful and other revolutionaries such as Che Guevara.

Khatib began reading Hebrew media and learning more about Israel.

"I tried to see things beyond boundaries," he says in the documentary.

Eventually after his release from prison he was among Palestinians who met other Israelis including Alon in their first efforts toward reconciliation. They admitted that before their first meeting they felt they were entering a trap and would be killed.

Tense and mistrustful at first, they learned the first step toward peace was to confess. They also learned they had something in common: the willingness to kill people they didn't know.

In 2006, they began working together as Combatants for Peace and began staging nonviolent protests while holding puppets and signs. The documentary shows how their demonstrations don't go ever well with other members of their societies, many of whom view them as traitors.

Khatib said the movement has grown, though. Combatants for Peace stage a freedom march monthly and have their own Facebook page. He invited the Ebertfest audience to "like" it.

He said the group also is working with other peace organizations.

"Now hundreds of people are joining us," he said "We believe we have to create momentum, that people will come to break down the boundaries and live free in this world."

Alon said in two weeks Combatants for Peace will have a memorial service for both Israelis and Palestinians who have lost people to the violence. The first memorial took place seven years ago, attracting 70 people. The service last year drew 3,500.

"We think it's the only place where conflicted people are organizing and memorializing their losses while the conflict is still bleeding," he said.

Apton said he had been asked to make a documentary about the Mideast by people who felt Israel is unfairly portrayed by the media.

"It's not an issue of misrepresentation but of people being stuck in their own narrative," or the national narrative, he said.

After he and Young traveled to Israel and met Alon and Khatib, they decided they would rather make a documentary about Combatants for Peace, who were taking responsibility for their own personal transformations, changing their narratives and hopefully the national one.

"Here's a completely different story that wasn't being told and was off the radar of the media," Young said.

Hale said: "A lot of people say we don't have the answer to conflict, but we do and we all know what it is. The only way to do it is love and these guys exemplify it."

Audience reactions to "Disturbing the Peace" were mixed. Two women said they loved the movie. However, one said changing the status quo in Israel would remain quite difficult.

One man he believed the documentary adds nothing to the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding that other peace groups have existed in Israel for a while.

Jordan Fein, a young documentary filmmaker from New York, said he believes "Disturbing the Peace" will appeal to a wide audience and has great characters.

He said it's obvious the filmmakers worked from a position of trust with their subjects.

"This movie is a slice of time," Fein said, adding he hopes the filmmakers follow up on their subjects.