By Gabi P. Remz
In the wake of the second intifada, anger, fear and pessimism dominated society in Israeli and Palestinian communities. Yet, despite the difficulties of achieving some type of peace for the two sides in one of the world’s most prominent conflicts, there were, and still are, those who search for alternative roads to peace. They strive for something beyond a political maneuver, whether that is a Palestinian declaration of state or direct negotiation between Israeli and Palestinian diplomats.
In My So-Called Enemy, an award-winning 2010 documentary currently making its rounds through film festivals and screenings across the country, director Lisa Gossels looks to shed light on these alternative, grass-roots peace efforts by focusing on six participants in a program called “Building Bridges for Peace,” which at the time of filming in July 2002 was a women’s leadership program for Palestinian and Israeli students that convenes in New Jersey (the program has since become co-ed). The film then follows the women for the next seven years, showing their efforts to maintain the relationships made at the program and the evolution of their thinking about the conflict.
And while the film seems to at first present itself as an optimistic vision of peace dependent on the people, specifically women, and not the government, (Gossels said as much following a recent screening at the Roxbury Film Festival in Brookline, Mass.) perhaps the greatest success of the film is its ability to remain grounded and balanced.
The film does not necessarily leave the viewer with a grand vision of hope for peace in the future. When Gossels asked the crowd in Brookline who was left with a feeling of pessimism, perhaps half the crowd raised their hands, leaving Gossels with a look of shock on her face. But that surprise was the key achievement of the film.
While Gossels may have gone into filming assuming she would come out with groundbreaking and realistic solutions, what she came out with was a confirmation of the frustrating complexities and the fact that even driven youngsters cannot seem to make any major strides in developing a peace.
Gossles did a wonderful job focusing on a wide range of thinkers, and not limiting herself to one perspective. She devoted much of the film to both more moderate and hawkish thinkers, who, especially now, appear to represent the majority. One of the six participants she focused on, and perhaps the most compelling, was a student who voiced her support for the 9/11 attacks during the “Building Bridges” program and said she had considered acting as a suicide bomber. It seemed she actually grew more religious and extreme as the film went on. It was no surprise, then, that she struggled greatly to connect in a positive way with the Israeli students.
Two other, more moderate students, one an Israeli and the other a Palestinian however, were able to maintain a close but occasionally contentious relationship, which provided fascinating footage for the seven years after the program. One key and touching moment is when the Israeli participant, on leave from the IDF, visits a Palestinian participant at the Security Fence. There, the two carve messages of peace into the wall while easily brushing off and laughing at some of the extremist statements already written on the wall.
To be fair, the focus of the program itself was simply to provide a safe space for dialogue, not to create any specific solutions or make tangible progress in achieving peace. Nonetheless, the dialogue was often dramatic and harsh between participants.
A final blow at the end was during the final testimonies of the participants. One student said in clear terms that she was far from hopeful that any type of substantial progress would be made in achieving peace. This, after the program and seven long years of follow-up.
It was exactly that type of footage—of frustration and doubt—that served as the sobering theme, and also as the triumph, of the film. There was certainly the occasional fluff—team building activities like trust falls and building actual miniature bridges took up several of the film’s 89 minutes—but in the end the viewer was able to come away with a hard taste of reality, which may not be the most satisfactory or reassuring feeling, but such is the truth of the conflict.
My So-Called Enemy is a piece of work that is certainly interesting and valuable, but is far from providing any key revelations or important developments.