Palestinian and Israeli film-makers pair up for a journey along Route 181

The Daily Star, 25th March 2004

Route 181: Fragments of a Journey through Israel-Palestine, shown as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London this week, is an epic new documentary film which is a creative collaboration between Israeli documentary film maker Eyal Sivan and Palestinian director Michel Khleifi, both award-winning directors.

A low budget documentary road movie, the two directors travel along Route 181, the frontier sketched by the United Nations in 1947 which was intended to divide Palestine into two states. Fifty-six percent of the land was to go to the Jewish minority and forty three percent to the Palestinians, with a small central area to be held under international supervision. The Palestinians refused the split and ended up losing most of their land when Zionist Jews created Israel in 1948.

Following the 1947 partition line from south to north, the directors stop and talk to the people they pass and those who unknowingly live and work along it. In three parts, each of which is an hour and a half long, the film really has to be engaging, and it is indeed a fascinating and powerful slice of contemporary Israeli life which progresses at an appropriately reflective pace and never feels slow.

Mostly Jews who came to Israel from all over the over the world, and a few Palestinian Israelis, the people they encounter on their picaresque journey talk about their lives, experiences, beliefs and dreams, gently coaxed by the two directors, who are very skilled at getting people to open up. By telling their interviewees about the film they are making and with a few well-placed questions, they gently prod them into revealing their stories: where they came from, what they do, how they feel about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Their stories are discomforting and surprisingly moving – often simultaneously.

Most are trying to get on with every day life and reconcile themselves to less than comfortable circumstances. We meet a young Israeli and his father who founded a co-operative when he immigrated from Hungary shortly after 1948. They see no solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict but do not believe it is feasible 'to let the Arabs back in.' A second generation Russian Israeli recalls his mother's stories of how Jews and Arabs used to live happily side by side before 1948. Some of the most moving stories are those of the Moroccan Jews who, on the whole, regret having immigrated to Israel. One woman, who had been in charge of recruiting Jewish immigrants to Israel, expresses her belief that she had participated in a lie. They had been promised better lives in Israel, but in reality they were simply needed to fill the land from which Palestinians were driven and would have been better off in Morocco.

The sadder cases are those of the Palestinian Israelis, those who wait at the ubiquitous roadblocks and suffer daily injustices - the family whose house is bulldozed by an Israeli tank, the woman who thinks 'ghetto' means 'Arab quarter'. Two young construction workers want to immigrate to America because they have no career prospects in Israel. Khleifi points out that they are standing on the site of what was once a Palestinian village. One young man shrugs his shoulders and talks about the differences between Russian, Israeli and Arab girls. A moment later, he pauses and asks what the village was called.

Older Arab Israelis relate their experiences of the Nakba, or Catastrophe, which is what Palestinians call the creation of Israel in 1948. The old men of Lod tell their eye witness accounts of the massacre of 300 men, women and children in the local mosque, of the pillaging of Palestinian homes and the raping of women, and of their lives fenced in a ghetto in the years following 1948. 'The most upsetting thing about the Nakba,' one old hairdresser says, 'is the loss of all the friends and relatives who left. When they left, life went.'

Some interviewees reveal themselves to devastating effect, like the café owner who covers the walls of the premises with pictures of war to make herself feel secure. 'The houses and land around here and my café used to belong to Arabs', she explains, fearing that one day they will come back for them, when 'Muslims will take over the world'. In another remarkable vignette, Sivan interviews the manager of the Negev Museum of Water and Security at Nir Am. He had fought in Hagana, one of the underground Zionist movements during the 1940s and explains the tactics they had used to secure all the water resources and and Negev area for Israel. He ends up deafening Sivan with a belligerent anti-Arab rant that displays a lack of self-consciousness barely imaginable in the politically correct West.

It is probably such moments that have led some to accuse Sivan and Khleifi of partisanship. The film was due to be shown twice at last week's International Documentary Film Festival in Paris. In an unprecedented act of censorship on the part of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, the second showing was cancelled, under pressure from lobbyists who were worried about 'increasing acts of anti-Semitism in France'. The single showing of the film was to be preceded with a warning about the film's 'unilateral view'. Sivan and Khleifi have stated that they are as worried as their anonymous critics about anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. Supported by several French journalists and academics, they condemned the decision as 'shameful and very serious', and warned that it could only encourage extremists, lead to censorship and discourage real debate.

Any film that reveals the complexity of Israel's reality is bound to attract detractors. One cannot, however, doubt the directors' humanistic approach to their material and their underlying goal of presenting a vision shared between an Israeli and a Palestinian. Route 181 is an eye-opening documentary, a detailed testimony that will be valuable reference in the future. It is also a compelling, moving and unexpectedly humorous journey that neither simplifies the Israel-Palestine problem nor flinches from confronting its less publicized facets. The viewer leaves the film convinced that the current situation is untenable in the long run and deeply uncomfortable for Israelis who, fifty-five years on, cannot avoid being effected by the trauma inflicted on the Palestinians.