Berlin Film Festival Spotlight: Julia Bacha's "Budrus"

To tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes cojones, whether you're a politician, a diplomat, a journalist, an activist, a filmmaker, or a regular citizen on either side of the debate. The conversations surrounding this topic, even with the dearest of friends, can be heated, uncomfortable, and emotional rather than calm, objective, and rational. But that was never going to stop award-winning Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha from creating the amazing (and I don't use that word lightly) documentary, Budrus. Financed by the Sundance Institute and named after a village in the West Bank that came together in 2003 to protest the building of the separation barrier which the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) sees as vital to the preservation and protection of its people, Budrus took home the silver Panorama Audience Award at this month’s 60th Berlin International Film Festival.

That Israel feels the need to defend itself wasn't the main issue for the people of Budrus; although the IDF’s military tactics have certainly drawn criticism from the international community, to put it mildly (there are those actively seeking to prosecute Israel for war crimes tied to last year’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza). All that aside, the main problem with Israel’s Separation Barrier at the time was that it went well past the Green Line, which meant taking over hundreds of acres belonging to the Palestinians, specifically Budrus, a land rich with olive trees, which are essential to the local economy. As one woman put it, to uproot the trees is to uproot her.

As with every great resistance movement, at its core there is a leader. In this case, it’s community organizer Ayed Morrar, who has been imprisoned several times during his extraordinary life, sometimes for years at a time. Throughout the well-balanced pic, we also hear from members of the Israeli border patrol and army (at one point, a captain is quoted as saying: “it’s unfortunate for the people of Budrus, but less unfortunate than the death of an Israeli citizen”). Still, Ayed stresses that there needs to be a new, unified and nonviolent form of resistance from the people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Nothing poses a bigger threat to the IDF, he argues. In the end, Ayed manages to do something extraordinary: bring together the people of Budrus with traditionally divided Palestinian political factions (Fatah, Hamas) and left-wing Israeli activists in peaceful resistance (55 demonstrations total), after which the IDF reformed plans for the barrier, scaling them back to Israeli borders.

I was moved to the point of tears during several points of the film, watching people like Ayed’s teen daughter Iltezam— who rallied the women of Budrus— standing in front of bulldozers and chanting songs that honor their faith and land. But the most powerful thing was to see the people of Budrus standing side by side with left-wing Israeli activists who reject the IDF’s fear-based ideology. It should be noted that some of those brave Israeli citizens were arrested and attacked by soldiers of their own army. (A couple of them actually flew to Berlin and participated in the Q&A portions immediately following the screenings). Dodging the bullets and bulldozers in Budrus were also journalists and citizens from around the world, including a (white) South African woman who said she joined the protest because she experienced firsthand the damage apartheid did to her country. 

At one point during the Q&A following the last screening, a Colombian man raised his hand and said: "Coming from a war-torn country, I want to say thank you for making a film like this." I join that man in thanking Julia and the non-profit she works for, Just Vision ( for providing a medium through which global audiences can build the cojones to have a real dialogue about the issue—and act.

Here, Julia talks about what drives her, how a brasileira became so focused on the Middle East, and how she feels about the future of the region.

How resistant are people in general to this idea of Palestinians and Israelis working together?

I don’t think it’s so much resistance, it’s a bit of a shift that needs to happen because the American mainstream media has been covering the conflict so much in terms of the violence from either side—it’s either the Palestinians with the suicide bombings or the Israelis with the incursion into the West Bank— that the vision of who the Israeli is and who the Palestinian is has become ingrained in a certain way. Our film, Budrus and our previous one, Encounter Point, challenge those notions very much and that can be seen as controversial. But there is a leap of faith that festivals, distributors, and sales agents in the US need to do to trust that their audiences are ready to be challenged. We’ve been getting a very good response, people who are incredibly touched and moved by the film and want to help get it out.

How does a girl from Rio de Janeiro become so actively involved in the Middle East’s politics to the point of making films?

When I was 17 I came to the US to study Middle Eastern history and politics at Columbia University. History was always the subject that I loved the most and I felt it gave me the deepest sense of our humanity and who we are and where we’re going. When I came to Columbia and started taking classes with some of the Middle Eastern professors, it really opened a world for me that I hadn’t had the chance yet to experience. Then I got accepted to Tehran University to do my masters but the Iranian government wasn’t issuing visas to international students at the time. I was caught in a limbo because my visa to be in the US had expired and yet I couldn’t go to Iran. So I accepted an invitation by an Egyptian filmmaker to go to Cairo and work on this documentary called Control Room, which was a chronicle of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the war in Iraq, and we compared it to the way the US military media headquarters had portrayed the war to Western journalists. There was a big sense among Western journalists that they had failed professionally in how they covered and supported Bush’s war. Control Room was one of the highest-grossing political docs in the US of all time and it got phenomenal coverage. That for me was incredible because it was what I set out to do. That film really shifted my vision of what I was going to do because I realized that I could, through documentary film, be engaged in political discussions with a much larger audience than I ever could through Academia.

You also work with Just Vision and currently serve as its media director. How did that come about?

Ronit Avni, who was one of the founders of Just Vision, saw Control Room in New York and told me she was starting this org and wanted to make a film about Israel and Palestine and right away I jumped on the idea. That was five years ago; we were four girls with very diverse backgrounds— a Palestinian American, an Israeli Canadian, an American, and myself— and we did our first film, which was Encounter Point. Since then, we’ve grown considerably. We’re a staff of 10 now, our budget has quadrupled, we have offices in Washington DC, New York, and East Jerusalem. I’m really committed to this vision and it’s become very much a part of who I am. I’ve developed personal ties with the region at this point and I really hope that I can get people to get engaged in the conflict in a constructive way.

What difference have you noted on the American audience’s part to get engaged, from the time that you did Control Room, to when you did Encounter Point, to Budrus?

I think it has a lot to do with the political climate and to the change that we’ve seen in Americans’ perception of the West’s foreign policy [currently under President Obama]. Throughout the years of the Bush administration there was a lot of fear-based politics. Historically, it [9/11] was a huge watershed for Americans because they had never really felt attacked in that way, it was a tremendously scary moment and that generated a lot of support for militaristic reactions and we happened to have an administration at the time that was very eager to take advantage of that climate and I think committed a lot of mistakes in the process in its foreign policy.

It’s been a year since Gaza. Why is it important to show Budrus now?

I just really feel that there is a moment here, similar to the moment that Control Room met when it came out, and journalists are starting to care and catch on to the fact that there is a shift in how Palestinian resistance to the Occupation is happening. The same way that you had the First Intifada and then the Second Intifada, I think now you are seeing a shift to a third type of resistance. It’s much easier to write about violence. Non-violence is not glamorous and you don’t see the effects right away. But I think now journalists from mainstream outlets are starting to identify this shift and the film really contributes to people understanding what is going on in the ground and can really attract the international attention and support to Israelis and Palestinians working together to really find a way forward. Clearly, the current situation is unsustainable; you have people living under Occupation.

How do you feel Israel has responded to international criticism?

The way it has worked so far is that Israel hasn’t really responded to international criticism; the more criticism Israel receives, the more it feeds into their fear and rightfully so, historically speaking. There are people alive today that experienced the Holocaust personally, and unfortunately it seems that the more Israel is isolated, the more militaristic it becomes. So what’s hopeful about what’s going on in the ground right now is that there is a chance to take into account the rights and the needs and the dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians. When conflicts end non-violently, it’s more likely that the result will be longer-lasting, democratic societies. So this is a moment that I think we need to jump on and give it all the support that we can.

Budrus had its world premiere at the Dubai Film Festival in December 2009, followed by Berlinale in February 2010, and will screen in April 2010 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.