Images from Budrus

Ayed Morrar, leader of the Budrus non-violent protest, talks to villagers.

The graveyard of Budrus lies in the path of the fence.

Animated maps. The 'green line' and in red, the Separation Barrier.

Ayed's mother in the olives.

The first non-violent confrontation.

Olive trees destroyed for the fence.

Iltezam Morrar, Ayed's daughter, looking at video of the protest in horror.

Iltezam asks why there are no women in the protest.

Yazmina, Israeli border police, wanted a role that was tough, she said in her later interview.

As a younger activist, Morrar missed his children's childhood while he was in prison for six years.

Ayed addresses a Budrus Hamas rally promoting non-violence. Ayed says he is "the most ardent critic of the ideology of Hamas. However they are an authentic part of Palestinian society."

Member of the Israeli border police, Yazmina, from an interview shot, speaking to Julia Bacha.

Israelis defending Palestinians from Israeli soldiers who are escalating violence.

People of Budrus celebrate after the Israeli government announcement that, after 55 demonstrations, the government has decided to move the Separation Barrier.

Palestinian Ayed Morrar and Israeli Kobi Snitz look over the olive trees.

  • Julia Bacha’s Budrus (Palestine)
  • Ali Samadi Ahadi’s The Green Wave (Iran)
  • Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars (Indonesia)

Transnational collaborations for art and impact in new documentary cinema

by Daniel Miller

Have non-violent resolutions to conflict between Israel and Palestine actually worked? What terrible things happened to young people in Iran's "Green Wave" revolution? How do families in Indonesia, still between rural life and the globalized economies of Jakarta, deal with i-Phone-loving teenagers like ours?

One might think that long form documentary feature films would find it increasingly difficult in this hyperspeed journalistic present to produce in depth real stories on topics like these, ones that matter. But in fact, as a professor of documentary film in a School of Journalism, I see my  students learn about issues that matter, that are radically news to them through such recent documentaries. Furthermore, in the face of severe economic pressures on funders, communities of support are coming together to improve the financing of documentary filmmakers.[1][open endnotes in new window]

I hope in a modest way to show in this paper that the traditional genres of documentary film live on in new forms and for important purposes. They not only reach student, festival and art house audiences worldwide, but they have a greater outreach and many share an ambition to effect change. I am taking as examples three films that screened in 2010 at one of the world's largest film festivals, the International Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), where I first saw them. In their various ways, all three represent the promise that documentary films coming from all over the world and—importantly—going on to screenings all over the world might have a considerable impact on worldwide opinion. And they potentially can have a big effect on the future of media practice as well as education.

Among the films I saw were three that stood out: Julia Bacha’s Budrus, about the 2004 ten-month non-violent protest movement in the Palestinian village of Budrus;[2] Ali Samadi Ahadi’s The Green Wave, about the 2009 Iranian election protests;[3] and Leonard Helmrich and Hetty Retel Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars, the most recent film in their trilogy about three generations of an Indonesian family facing globalization.[4] Despite the fact that all three of these films appeared at IDFA, they have differing methods of production and distribution, which may affect the kinds of impact they can have. In fact, testifying to the importance of the documentary festival circuit, all three were invited to around fifty film festivals in their first year, giving them exposure not only to audiences but also access to film communities in cities from Berlin and London and Mumbai to small towns such as Bend, Oregon and Bil'in, Palestine.[5]

These films in particular share the following attributes. They

  • employ and address issues of new personal digital video recording technologies and new social media practices;
  • tell dramatic and provocative stories about compelling and empathetic characters—including strong women characters in particular;
  • address social, civil, and human rights issues in a local community, as they touch individuals;
  • are conversant with and informed by both historical practices and principles of non-fiction cinema arts and at the same time by new, innovative and even revolutionary practices;
  • are all products of "transnational" social communities working to support films and advocate for civil and human rights. Here I am borrowing a term used by historian Jay Winter in his insightful book, Dreams of Peace and Freedom, describing new transnational communities more connected by concerns for civil and human rights than concerns for national sovereignty.[6]

The first two films—Julia Bacha’s Budrus and Ali Samadi Ahadi’s The Green Wave—use images, sounds, and words gathered through new media technologies and new social media platforms by citizen witnesses and participants in the events.[7] The third, Leonard Retel-Helmrich’s and Hetty Naijken’s (Retel-Helmrich’s) Position Among the Stars, uses new small handheld hi-definition cameras with advanced auto-features, in conjunction with Leonard’s hand made, “steady-wing" mounting devices, to facilitate his "single shot cinema" moving camera, direct cinema/ verité technique. Characteristically, his camera moves in orbits around his subjects, easily following movement high and low in long uninterrupted "single shot" scenes.[8] Helmrich gives workshops in his innovative equipment and practice; for example, he was at Harvard for a term and is going to teach at New York University.

All three films powerfully document both individual human stories and broader social issues and events across national boundaries. They do so "transnationally," using border-crossing collaborations. Nonetheless, above all, the new documentary is still like the old in that it tells stories that communicate human experience. Summing up the need for this quality, at a festival panel on documentary film funding proposal criteria, a group of some of the most influential funders agreed that above all they were looking for dramatic and compelling stories with strong and empathetic characters. Even funders mandated specifically to fund social civil and human rights issue films such as Orlando Bagwell, Director of the Ford Foundation, agreed that story and character came first. As Judith Helfand, co-founder of Chicken and Egg Pictures, also on the panel put it,

“When we were children, our mothers did not tell us bedtime reports, they told us bedtime stories.”[9]


Budrus focuses on the story of the ten month non-violent protest movement in Budrus, Palestine against the building of a partition for the Israeli Security fence there and the wholesale destruction of ancient olive groves, grave yards, buildings, roads and even school yards it required. To tell the story, director Julia Bacha, who heard about the demolitions several years after the fact, had to reconstruct rather than film events directly, but she was determined that her representation of this recent history should read as authentic and immediate. She began by searching for footage taken by citizen participants in the movement. Social media had in fact kept that community connected and accessible. She discovered hundreds of people who had participated in the protest movement and who had recorded footage during it. She contacted them and sent out widespread requests for photos and video they might have captured. The results were astonishing. She eventually received hundreds of hours of personally recorded images and sounds documenting the Israeli destruction and enforcement efforts. More important, she could use this material to give eye witness accounts, with accompanying video, of the village's ten month nonviolent protest movement and the family discussions, meetings, marches, confrontations, conferences, battles and stand-offs.

As the movement grew to include not only Budrus citizen activists, but also Palestinians from other areas, Israeli peace activists, South Africans, South Americans, and participants from other many other nations—truly a transnational movement—it attracted news coverage as well. Eventually archival b-roll shot directly by these participants and witnesses during the actual events, some contemporary b-roll footage and sit-down interviews, and archival news images comprised the film and the content of the story.

The story of Budrus is propelled by father and daughter Ayed and Iltezam Morrar. Ayed emerges as a new kind of leader. After years spent away from his family in prison, he proposes a non-violent struggle against the injustice of this state-imposed fence and accompanying violence. Iltezam defies tradition herself at the age of sixteen, joining the protests with her father’s consent and becoming an important spokesperson and leader of the Budrus movement. Her example encourages hundreds of other women to join the protests.

The men can't push the trucks, "but the girls can do it." The border police attack the women protestors.
Iltezam jumps in the bulldozer's hole where it is digging. All the women join Iltezam and the bulldozer turns around.

In one of her critical moments on film, Iltezam, risking injury or death, defiantly stands in front of an Israeli bulldozer that is uprooting and destroying ancient olive groves. She has brought with her a small group of other women who join her in front of the bulldozers. Someone there with a video camera captures the event. The traditional-looking women are led by Iltezam, wearing the hibab, their heads covered, with long skirts, but scrambling over the rocks to confront bulldozers and armed Israelis face to face. They transform the violent confrontation of Israeli men and Palestinian men and boys into a different kind of conflict. The men cannot stand up to the Israeli trucks, but, as she says, "the girls can."

Later the women are filmed going to the rescue of Israeli mathematician and peace activist Kobi Snitz, who is being beaten by Israeli forces. He has organized Israeli activists to come to Budrus and join the cause. When he refuses to stand down from his protest against Israeli Defense Forces, they react violently, isolating, pummeling and attempting to arrest him and drag him away. In one of the most remarkable moments I have seen on film, in video captured by one of the citizen cameras, Palestinian women run across the open ground to his aid and astonishingly expose themselves to beatings and reprisals in order to try to free him. Iltezam says in the film that she could not believe that Israelis would ever risk their lives for Palestinians as he did. Likewise I am sure that Kobi was amazed that Iltezam and other Palestinian women would risk their lives for an Israeli. Their perceptions of the world and their possibilities for the future were transformed by the events in Budrus they witnessed and participated in.

Kobi Snitz, Israeli mathematician and activist, is arrested—he says he thought he was going to die. The Palestinian women go to defend Israeli peace activist, Kobi Snitz. He says he "got stronger from their determination."

Iltezam says that they did this knowing little about efforts to fight against the wall:

"The Wall and the resistance against it were marginalized in the media."[11]

Perhaps the perceptions of audiences witnessing what she experienced would similarly undergo a kind of transformation—at least in some small way. The way that politics in Israel and Palestine are difficult, local, seldom unified at a national level, means also that a story such as Budrus must be local, must come from among the people. Although dignitaries and politicians at the national level such as Salam Fayyad, Palestinian Prime Minister, visit the Budrus protests, Morrar says:

“My relationship with these officials is necessary but very touchy. I don't like it. You know their importance, but they don't feel your importance or value. They think the whole world is a tent and they control the tent. And everyone must play by their rules. We are living under occupation, you cannot lead society while sitting in your office. You have to be among the people to lead them.”

Ammad Awwad, a Palestinian high school teacher and Hamas member, tells Bacha in an interview that he was shocked to see Israelis standing hand in hand with Palestinians and risking their lives in solidarity with them. He says that witnessing this changed him and his attitude toward Israelis and the means by which Palestinians could fight injustice. He says that in Budrus non-violence was the only way, as any violence would only give an excuse to the Israeli government to rationalize and engage in total war on the Budrus protest. Seeing him, a Hamas member, participating in this non-violent protest hand in hand with Israelis and women, within the leadership and leadership of Ayed Morror, who is not a member of Hamas, defies stereotype and reveals humanity—as does the Israeli mathematician and peace activist Kobi Snitz, who joins the Budrus protest because he feels that the Israeli Peace Movement’s efforts are ineffective and that the direct action of non-violent resistance taking place in Budrus offers another way. Thus in 2003, this was a remarkable coming together of father, daughter, men, women, militant Hamas member and non-violent Morrar, Palestinian and Israeli. And the images that made up the film came largely from among the people as well, those who were there.

Ahmed Awwad, local teacher, and a member of Hamas who embraces non-violence in Budrus. Awwad and his family. "Unity is the only way to achieve victory."

Over the course of ten months, thousands of people, including Palestinians, Israelis, a delegation from South Africa, and from many other nations came and participated in the Budrus movement. Their efforts achieved the unthinkable, changing the course and the policy of the Israeli Government through non-violent means. The Israeli fence was moved back from Budrus, toward the green zone along the border.

As a scholar of and former participant in the U.S. Civil Rights movement and the nonviolent protests of the Vietnam era, I cannot tell you how moved I was by seeing that the images of the largest Budrus protests looked so much like those of the U.S. and South African Civil Rights movements—and that in Budrus they achieved similar results—in part because of the visibility made possible through journalists, citizens and participants filming them. The Israeli news coverage helped to change Israeli policy and to save Budrus’ olive groves. However, it was not sufficient to make the world notice that non-violent protest had worked in Palestine. Gaining more attention for that amazing news in itself is part of the activist work of Budrus.

This film helps demonstrate a potential future strategy for documentary. Footage collected by small affordable recording devices in the hands of people participating directly in events, citizens if you will, can be formed by a documentarist into a unified, compelling and important story that transcends the individual media itself. Budrus is a high-quality film that its audiences receive not as raw news or social media, but as cinematically powerful. “Transmedia" practices can do more than inform audiences—it can transform them—or at least their embedded attitudes. The events at Budrus happened several years ago; the non-violent victory there was six years past when the film came out in 2010; and participants as well as news organizations in Arab countries and Israel have been filming important events for a decade. So the significance of this film now lies in its finding more audiences, interesting major journalists, gaining screenings to audiences in Europe, the United States, Australia, and South America as well as in Israel and Palestine. The film needs as well to have a pedagogical use, since its story could convey practical as well as inspiring examples to organizations and groups working for non-violent solutions to conflict and it could serve as a prompt for fund-raising and discussion.

The movement grows and gains international support and recognition—the marches might remind us of the U.S. civil rights movement. Iltezam, becoming a strong woman and a leader of her people.
In Budrus an Israel soldier holds a young boy under his arm while he shoots live ammunition. Protestors tear down the fence.

Reviews of the film caused a reconsideration of history. When the film came out in 2010—and not when the events occurred in 2003—the story of Budrus was now covered by major news organizations all over the world, and not just as a film event. Stories appeared in The New York Times, The Economist, The Nation, Newsweek, and on PBS's "Charlie Rose" show and MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports," for example, and in over 170 other newspapers, magazines, and television outlets.[12] Kristof notes in particular the compelling effect of the women in the protest:

"Israeli security forces knew how to deal with bombers but were flummoxed by peaceful Palestinian women. Even when beaten and fired on with rubber bullets, the women persevered."[13]

Most of us, including most of the participants at Budrus, perhaps have believed that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict would not yield to nonviolent resolutions. Budrus demonstrates that it can. But before the screening of the film and subsequent reviews, the event had passed without this kind of notice.

In addition to the artistic merit of the film, it has succeeded in reaching widespread audiences by a distribution plan that addresses both the influential but politically diverse audiences of major film festivals and theatrical screenings in major cities and the activist organizations and potential recruits working to advance non-violent approaches to conflicts, from Amnesty International and Human Rights work sponsored by the United Nations to the women's groups of Israel and Palestine.[14] For example, Queen Noor first introduced the film at a Gala screening in Dubai. Her ongoing support is based on the belief that non-violent protest is invisible in today's news, so she has used her celebrity to help promote attention—for example, appearing on the Charlie Rose show about Budrus together with Julia Bacha.

Julia Bacha and Ronit Avni belong to an organization, Just Vision, whose aim is to use high-quality films and added educational materials produced about them to promote peaceful conflict resolution in Israel and Palestine.[15] Budrus started as a major entry on the festival circuit, had a certain success in art theater distribution, and has now established itself online and in screenings to serve as an educational and organizational resource in considerable demand for its lessons on organizing peaceful protest (do include women) and its message of possible success. Just Vision encourages the audience for Budrus with a host of resources available from the web site, and also in the form of speakers they will provide.

Although the film might well be counted as a great success, however, the campaign for peaceful resolution to conflict in Israel and Palestine continues to be so difficult that even legal victories such as the one at Budrus may not resolve issues—even laws successfully passed may not be carried out.[16]

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