Hamayel Budrus: The Documentary

In its third successful film-making, after Control Room and Encounter Point, Just Vision won multiple awards for its documentary on Budrus’ non-violent resistance against the construction of the Separation Wall on its land. Just Vision’s director is Julia Bacha, who directed her first award-winning documentary about Al-Jazeera network in Control Room. Just Vision defines itself as a “non-governmental organization supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace-builders through media and education.” Without going through the details of the lessons learned from the Budrus example in resisting the construction of the Separation Wall, suffice it to say that the experience is indeed valuable and important. It is important to have that struggle documented as the film did, to make it a historical record and a testament to a crucial period in the continued Palestinian resistances against Israeli colonial measures, in all its forms. Yet this article attempts a meditative look at the way that the Palestinians and the Israelis in the film were portrayed and represented. The film begins with Ayed Morrar, who is a Palestinian man in the village of Budrus and the leader of the non-violent resistance in Budrus, directing a statement to the camera. We don’t hear the question posed to him. The form of the film is made in a way that lets the those who are in the film speak in a free flow, not in a question and answer form. Ayed organizes a meeting with the men of the village to brainstorm ideas for the best course of action against the Wall’s construction. In his own words, Ayed explained to the gathered men that they have to decide whether they want to resist the Wall’s construction or accept their fate as a given. After a few male-only demonstrations against the Wall occurred, it was time for Iltizam and the rest of the women in the village to join the resistance. According to Iltizam, the time had come for her to join the resistance, just like her earlier generation of family members did before her in the First Intifada. Resistance should not exclude women’s participation with her fellow men, Iltizam told her father. Iltizam’s courage surpassed her fear of the Israeli soldiers. At some point we see her crawling inside a hole dug by an Israeli bulldozer to stop the bulldozers from uprooting more trees. No one would have imagined that a girl would do that, but here she did it, and other women joined her, she said. Ayed was able to gather Israeli, Hamas, and Fatah activists in the demonstrations and marches. We also see a group of international peace activists from South Africa and other countries come to support the resistance.


The most memorable moment of the film occurred after Salam Fayyad came to visit the village. In preparation for the visit, the people of Budrus made extensive arrangements befitting a presidential welcome, where the people welcome Fayyad and a Scout troupe of boys and girls played on their musical instruments. A tense moment arises between Mr. Ayed and one of the advisors to Mr. Fayyad about the latter’s lack of concern to the threatening Wall on Budrus land. A frustrated Ayed said, “they cannot act like they own a tent that they want to control. A leader under occupation does not sit at his office; he should be among his people in the field attending to their needs.” In Ayed’s view, Fayyad’s visit and the accompanying welcoming celebration served the latter’s PR image and did not in any way help or show any sympathy to the plight of the villagers. Even more than that, the statement also reflected a general disappointment with the Palestinian Authority for not supporting the people of Budrus in preventing the uprooting of the olive trees, the theft of lands and the construction of the Wall.


This last statement made a good impression on the audience in Ramallah attending the premier of the film. Some cheered and clapped. In addition to documenting the escalation of violence on the side of the Israeli border army and the daily demonstrations that Budrus’ men and women held for nine months, the film also zoomed in on the story of a female Israeli soldier. The film focused on her life, in addition to interviewing other Israeli soldiers one of whom was an American-speaking soldier who was the representative of the Israeli Army in Budrus. The film producers put the spotlight on this aspect of Palestinian-Israeli interaction as a way to put a human face to the Israeli bulldozer machine as they are razed the olive trees to the ground. The second effect of incorporating the Israeli soldiers’ narrative was to lessen the impact of the brutal acts on the Palestinian civilians. Indeed, Yasmina the soldier explained to the camera that she chose to join the Border Police Army unit because it is “on the front line and it ensures the most equality between male and female soldiers.” We see her beating up Palestinian men and women with a baton. The film credit stated that Yasmina finished her military service, got married and made a family. Watching this entire account in New York City had a different feeling altogether. The US context of the soldier’s lives that was shown by the film, served to create an intimate, humanizing image of the Israeli soldier that strikes a sharp contrast with the image of her beating up the Palestinians and oppressing them, as if the latter image were the exception to the norm. As though this account is not what Palestinians live and see in their daily interactions with the Israeli soldiers. Thus showing the extra-military context that worked to find a common denominator between the Israeli military persona and the American audience, deprived the reality of a Palestinian context, in essence a propagating a myth – that beneath the military machine lies a human face. But the film also showed other cases of Israeli men who opposed the Wall’s construction and stood with the Palestinians to protect them against the Israeli soldiers’ beating of Palestinians. One particular man chose to go to prison for his support of the Palestinians and for posing as a human shield in front of Israeli violence. The biggest pitfall in the film is that it portrayed the Budrus experience as a victory, when in fact the only victory that happened is that it was no longer built on Palestinian Budrus lands but on Green line lands – the Palestinians were able to save 95% of the land. But what about the remaining 5%? Neglecting this fact and brushing it aside reflects the entire agenda and the tone of the film, which essentially celebrated the means (Palestinian non-violent resistance) as an accomplishment, regardless of the ends’ outcome. The viewer concludes that using non-violent resistance was a remarkable achievement that deserves congratulation. Portraying this as a victory essentially perpetuates an injustice. As much as the film succeeded in portraying the insidious designs of the Israeli army and soldiers, there still is some criticism to be made here. At the outset, the Israeli soldiers overall were portrayed as mere robots coming to Budrus’s land to “construct the Wall no matter what” for the security of the state of Israel.


The soldiers were interviewed extensively to explain what they are doing. “Just following orders.” The spokesman of the IDF in Budrus was an American-looking soldier speaking in his perfect English to the camera about the necessity of constructing the Wall. The power disparity between Palestinians and Israelis did not seem to be a central issue in the film dynamics. We see that the Israeli Army opted not to use violence against the Israeli and international activists on site. In fact the Israeli soldiers ordered the citizens of their country to leave the site so that they can beat up the Palestinians who stand in the way of the bulldozers. Although we see that an Israeli activist gets arrested violently and later put in prison for not complying with the orders of the Israeli soldiers. Aside from feeling that Palestinians have to settle for less with regard to their just cause and rights, the film left much to look for in terms of accurately representing the issue of the Separation Wall. This occurred particularly when Ayed addressed the camera to explain his reasoning for resisting the construction of the Wall. At one instant Ayed stated that “even though he believes that all states and nations have the right to defend themselves and protect the security of their borders, including Israel, yet Israel cannot build a wall on other people’s lands.” This reflects another dilemma with the representation of the Palestinian cause and Palestinians generally in the film. It mainly reflects the way that the Palestinian leadership distorted the Palestinian liberation strategy for resistance.


Another critical issue in the film is the way the Palestinian non-violent resistance was portrayed to have happened solely as a result of Ayed’s leadership and ability to gather IDF in Budrus and other Fatah activists together against the Wall. This is a point to be debated much, as it purports to show that it was an extraordinary feat to have a Hamas and a Fatah activist come together to resist the Occupation. But in fact, all Palestinians, of all walks of life and political affiliations fight and resist in different ways. The last point to mention here is that local Palestinian cinema is able and willing to represent the Palestinian voice accurately and in a nuanced way. The problem, however, is that this cinema does not get endorsed abroad the same way that Just Vision’s Budrus became famous and was received in major international and American festivals. Palestinian cinema suffers from a lack of representation abroad that is on par with films about Palestine that are made by non-Palestinians and feature a select few Palestinians stars (most famous of them Hiam Abbas). 
Without giving an exhaustive list of Palestinian film-makers and Palestinian cinema in general, suffice it to say here that Palestine has a lot of talented filmmakers and excellent films that portrayed the conflict and the resistance that ordinary Palestinians face and conduct on a day-to-day basis. These films include Rae’d Hilou’s Hopefully for the Best, a documentary about the lives of ordinary Palestinians in the city of Ramallah and their reaction to the impending war on Iraq. They also include films made by Mai Odeh that are never mentioned. Palestinian voices documented by Palestinian film-makers need to be endorsed more abroad to show the reality of the Palestinians in their own contexts.


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