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Release Date: 2016
by Ben Cheever

A crowd of Palestinians holding over-sized puppets in the air is marching at the wall that separates them from Israeli land.  They’re making a lot of noise.  No rifles can be seen, but Palestinian fighters often conceal their weapons.   Some of these men have a history as soldiers in the war that never ends. 

On the far side of the wall other people are waving puppets and making a racket.  The men are all in mufti, but we know that many are Israeli soldiers. This is Israel after all. 

The crowds converge at a place where the border is a narrow no-man’s land, separated by a towering concrete wall that gives way to two lines of barbed wire reinforced fence.  This dog-run like enclosure is the obvious weak link in fence meant to separate the two people.

 As the parades converge and call to each other, it is into this dog kennel that a band of Israeli soldiers pour themselves. The soldiers are in uniform.  The soldiers carry guns and greet the non-violent protesters with a stun grenade.  Caged and outnumbered, as odd as it sounds, the soldiers are the ones in danger.

 Unarmed and disorganized the puppet-wielding citizens were free to write their own story.  The uniformed soldiers had had their story written for them long ago.  The former combatants call out to them and invite them to join their non-violent band of brothers, explaining that they understand that transformation can happen even in moments of violence because “it happened to us.”   Often in these demonstrations soldiers will arrest the non-violent resisters. The charge: Disturbing the Peace.

This fresh and intimate documentary by a first-time director and his veteran partner has changed the world I know. Some stories we inherit.  Some stories we invent ourselves.  We live in these stories.  Change those stories and we change our world.

Stephen Apkon has a reputation for turning fairy tales into stories and stories into buildings and buildings into movie theaters. When Apkon came to Pleasantville NY to start the Jacob Burns Film Center few of us thought he had a prayer.  An art house in Westchester? And started just when the storied theaters in Manhattan were dying off.

But Steve didn’t understand why it wouldn’t work.  Apkon might have an optimism that borders on insanity, but often he’s right.  Steve Apkon gave life to an institution that changed thousands of lives. He started a community in a part of the world where there was no such thing. Opened in 2001, the film center has grown it’s own community and along the way, engaged filmmakers like Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme among many others.

In Andrew Young, Apkon found a more than able partner.  An exceptionally talented cinematographer, Young has directed or shot many documentaries, including the Academy Award nominated Children of Fate.  Together, the two men turned their lens on one of the most challenging of subjects – the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The subjects of the film are an unlikely group.  Once they were sworn enemies with blood on their hands.  Now they work together.  Now they are fighting a different war.  They are breaking an old story and birthing a new one.

They were heroes in the story that’s called war.  As pacifists they are outcasts.  They stopped being able to hear the voices of hate.  Instead they turned to Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.  This sort of thing doesn’t happen often in this world, but unbeknownst to many of us, it’s happening in Israel and Palestine.
These tough men and women all chanced on the same truth. And they knew it was good. They also knew that they were in the fight of their life. They call themselves Combatants for Peace and this movie tells their stories. The movie is a story about old stories that are broken, and new ones that are forming in the heart.   

Movies are meant to draw an audience.  Anyone who’s been stuck in traffic behind a line of drivers craning their rubbernecks for a glimpse of blood knows that carnage draws a crowd.  This is just one of the many factors that make  Disturbing The Peace, so precious.

Conflict is at or near the heart of every narrative. And every nation every person has a narrative.  It’s us against the others.  We are good.  The others?  Not so much. For decades now, America has watched the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And mainstream media has only perpetuated this narrative of violence and conflict. 

Therefore it’s profoundly disorienting when Apkon and his co-director Young, zoom in on Arab freedom fighters and Israeli combat veterans and find—to one’s confusion—that they dress, look and think alike. What’s even more confusing is that the personal histories of the Palestinian freedom fighters mirror those of the Jews. 
The “crazy Zionist” grandfather of tank commander, Chen Alon, left Poland for Palestine in the 1930’s. “All his brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts…. none of them survived.”

In 1948 the boy who would grow into freedom fighter Jamil Qassas and his family were forced out of their village.  The grandfather refused to move.  The grandfather was shot. Years later he would watch his 14 year old brother shot by the Israeli army for going out during a curfew.

Children of both narratives grew up to become heroes in their own national struggle – elite fighters in the Israeli Defense Forces and heads of local cells in the Palestinian guerilla militia.  Along the way, amidst war, they each came to the realization that while they love their Country and people, violence could only lead to more violence.  No one can win.

 A group of Israeli soldiers sent a letter to their government. They would do their utmost to defend the state of Israel, but they’d had enough of conquest. They would no longer serve as part of an occupying army. The reaction was explosive. The former heroes were accused of lacking conscience.  They were “An embarrassment to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Palestinians who were also fed up with the cycle of violence, learned of non-violent movements around the world, mostly while sitting in Israeli prisons, and embraced the philosophy after finding that hunger strikes change more minds than bombs do.  It wasn’t easy for them within their society either.  One veteran of many years in jail is castigated by his wife.  He cradles his laptop against his chest.  She drinks her coffee. She’s not buying.

One of the Combatants for peace muses about why they are unpopular.  They were threatening everybody’s story he said. “It is indispensable for a fighting system to deny the humanity of the other side.”

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  That’s Robert Frost, but the wisdom of an American poet is echoed in the courage of a Palestinian turned pacifist.  After watching Disturbing the Peace, we see how much we look like that unfortunate band of soldiers on the border.  We are the prisoners of ourselves. When we shuck off our national narratives, it becomes impossible to deny the humanity of the other side.   In the rubble of these antique stories, we can plant some peace.

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