It was International Peace Day on Friday 21 September, a day marked by several events in Israel, including the screening of a remarkable documentary, Within the Eye of the Storm, directed and produced by Shelley Hermon. The synopsis of the film on the website reads:
Bassam and Rami, a Palestinian and Israeli, were once dedicated fighters willing to kill and be killed by one another for the sake of their nations. Yet each one of them came face to face with the price of war when their daughters were killed in the conflict. Left with the excruciating pain of bereavement, they chose to do the unexpected. They set out on a joint journey to humanize the very enemy, which took the dearest thing from them and prevent the vicious cycle of retaliation in themselves and their societies. Along the way they reveal the friendship and humor that keeps them alive. The film follows their two parallel stories and the moments where they converge, both in their personal experiences and peace work as they face their shattered families, confused communities and opposing society. This is a critical junction in both their lives, as their life mission and personal agenda clash and they stand the biggest test to their friendship.
The film itself is an image of peace, or rather a set of images of peace. The key image is the friendship that is displayed between the two fathers, the Israeli Rami Elhanan, whose 14-year old daughter Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers in Jerusalem in 1997, and the Palestinian Bassam Aramin, whose 10-year old daughter Abir was shot in the head with a rubber-coated bullet by an Israeli soldier in Anata, East Jerusalem in 2007. Bassam had already been politically active in founding the bi-national Israeli-Palestinian peace group Combatants for Peace in 2005, whereas Rami was roused to activism in the wake of his daughter’s death. Their friendship is highlighted in the public conversations the two fathers had with each other in weekly broadcasts on All for Peace Radio, in which Rami takes the lead. But the friendship is perhaps most evident at one point, after Bassam has had good news about the civil case he brought against the State of Israel for being responsible for Abir’s death, when Rami hugs him and tells him “You know I love you” in the same way that he hugs his son and his deceased daughter’s friend Danielle, who was badly injured in the same bomb attack as Smadar.
Another image or meaning of peace in the film is that Bassam does win his civil case against the State in 2011, although he’s still pursuing his criminal case against the soldier who shot his daughter in violation of military procedures. No justice, no peace, and although Bassam’s court victory is but one very small piece of justice, and such victories are very rare in Israeli courts, so is the friendship between Bassam and Rami but one small piece of peace.
Within the Eye of the Storm is a moving film, as demonstrated by the audience’s response, thanks in part to the intimate camera work that puts viewers inside the homes of Rami and Abbas, making us feel closely connected to their lives. The music also plays a significant role. Yet, the main affective power of the documentary consists in its composition as an act of mourning for Smadar and Abir. For the most part, these are separate moments for the two characters and families. Bassam’s wife weeps as she holds up a younger daughter to compare her to Abir’s picture, and towards to the end of the film Bassam prays next to a poster size image of Abir in their temporary house in Bradford, England (where Bassam studied for an MA in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution). There are also photographs of Smadar on display in Rami’s home, but his mourning is most evident in his visit to and embrace of Danielle, his daughter’s friend who survived the attack. When Shelley Hermon described the film as a memorial to the two girls in her comments after the screening, she choked up, almost unable to continue. The sense of loss was palpable throughout the cinema hall.
The screening event itself was another image of peace, though more problematically so. The depth of feeling among the audience of about 400 people, of simple empathy, of shared grief, cannot be denied. As Bassam was called to the stage to speak, he received a standing ovation. One woman in the audience remarked that this film was the first time she felt that ‘her side’ had been listened to along with the Palestinians’, and so she said to Bassam and Shelley from now ‘I’m with you’. Other questions revealed more scepticism: how were Bassam’s activities and the film received by his extended family and community? Would the film get the same reception in the West Bank? Yes, he said, catching the implicit racism (and common assumption that ‘we Israelis want peace; it’s those Arabs who don’t) but responding cleverly with humour: they’d applaud it just as loudly in Ramallah, even though it’s full of Arabs. The film was screened on a Friday afternoon at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque (and other Cinametheques across Israel), thus marking it as a ritual for a secular, bourgeois, Ashkenazi audience, who mingled and chatted as they would at any cultural event. Participation in such a ritual of spectatorship can easily displace any felt need to act to prevent the grounds for further acts of mourning. The film also leaves largely untold the stories of the two mothers, who are not seen to participate in the blood bond of shared mourning that prompts the men’s friendship.
Within the Eye of the Storm is not, however, a naïve documentary, certainly less naïve than my spontaneous feeling as an audience member that if there are such caring and sensitive people, surely Israel can find a way to make peace with Palestinians. In the film, there are several scenes of Rami failing to persuade Israelis that reconciliation and dialogue are the best way forward. Danielle’s boyfriend expresses a common view when says he can’t understand why Rami is helping those who murdered his daughter. Rami himself breaks off a discussion with a member of the public at a rally for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was then being held by Hamas, at the point when the man says he’s prepared to pay any price to keep a Jewish state. Rami has already paid the price, and even though he is distributing stickers saying ‘It won’t stop until we talk’ (a slogan of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace Circle), he cannot continue to speak to another Israeli who would have him pay the price again. And why should he? Why should we? Because we prefer to mourn?