Nonviolent Resistance in Palestine: An Interview with Julia Bacha (Web Exclusive)
by Dennis West and Joan M. West
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Brazilian-born-and-raised Julia Bacha studied Middle Eastern history and politics at Columbia University. Since then, she has resided in the United States and continued to pursue her interest in Middle Eastern Studies. Her career as a filmmaker began with her collaboration as co-editor and co-writer on Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room (2004), a controversial cinéma-vérité documentary feature that explored the red-hot topic of the Qatar television news network Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq War.
In 2006, Bacha became Creative Director at the non-profit Just Vision, which bills itself as nonpartisan and religiously unaffiliated. The organization’s mission statement stresses “the power and reach of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation and build a future of freedom, dignity, and equality for all.” Bacha’s work with this group has centered on the in situ researching and documenting of grass-roots efforts by Palestinians and Israelis to end their conflict through unarmed movement building and other collective and nonviolent means. And, indeed, this is the urgent central theme of her feature documentaries Encounter Point (2006), Budrus (2009), and Naila and the Uprising (2017).
A transnational, multilingual team of young women filmmakers produced the emotionally wrenching Encounter Point, which was directed by Ronit Avni, the founder of Just Vision. Bacha collaborated as co-director, writer, and editor. Encounter Point uses a conventional documentary approach to follow the efforts of several Palestinian and Israeli civic leaders to promote reconciliation via nonviolence and to pressure for an end to the Occupation and a dignified resolution to the decades-old conflict. Most of the subjects—all civilians—have themselves personally suffered grievous harm during the conflict, such as the loss of loved ones killed in the violence. While the film clearly shows the high emotional and psychological costs of the Occupation at the personal level, it also stresses collective, nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution—such as the Bereaved Families Forum, which brings together hundreds of affected Palestinian and Israeli families.
Bacha alone directed the acclaimed Budrus, and she also served as one of the producers and one of the editors. Budrus draws on abundant actuality footage shot by witnesses on personal video recording devices to follow the efforts of a middle-aged Palestinian community organizer—and his determined teenage daughter—in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to bring together male and female villagers of different political stripes and also enlightened Israelis. Their seemingly gargantuan task: to day-after-day doggedly use an ever-shifting array of nonviolent tactics to halt construction of Israel’s Separation Barrier. This massive wall would have destroyed cemeteries, dwellings, and the ancient olive groves that represent the villagers’ staff of life. The protestors’ efforts are largely successful, and the film ends with a message of hope.
The latest Just Vision feature documentary directed by Bacha is Naila and the Uprising. It represents her most accomplished feature yet because of its clear structure, assured narrative pace, and creative use of distinctive animation. In her director’s statement describing the film, Bacha characterizes the First Intifada (1987–1993) as “a vibrant, strategic and sustained nonviolent civil resistance movement…led by a network of Palestinian women who were fighting the dual struggle for national liberation and gender equality.” One of the leaders of this movement was Naila Ayesh; and Bacha’s project is to tell the story of this woman’s tribulations and her successful grass-roots organizing—thus recuperating her for the historical record and offering her up as an example for future generations. In addition to animation, Bacha uses conventional approaches, such as extensive on-screen commentary by the protagonist, archival footage, and commentary by knowledgeable journalists and committed women colleagues who participated in the First Intifada.
The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict is one of the most intractable and polarizing of our time. Therefore, the opportunity at the Seattle International Film Festival to interview an activist documentarian who has devoted years of her life to exploring this issue was not to be missed. The following interview, which was conducted in June 2018, centers on her newest film, Naila and the Uprising, which will be broadcast on PBS in the spring of 2019.—Dennis West
Cineaste: In your director’s statement concerning Naila and the Uprising, you contend that mainstream news imagery ignored women’s contributions to the First Intifada in favor of stressing the violent resistance of males.
Julia Bacha: I’ve been working for the past fifteen years documenting Palestinians and Israelis using nonviolent resistance to end the Occupation. The reason I got involved in this issue is the big gap in how international media have been covering Israel and Palestine generally and in particular when there are uprisings where Palestinian civil society becomes engaged in demanding human rights vis-à-vis the Israeli Occupation. The stories generally told, specifically during the First Intifada, tend to focus on imagery that reinforces the narrative that Palestinians are violent and that they are engaged in an effort to threaten the safety of Jews in Israel. What I have seen as a documentary filmmaker working in the region is that the vast majority of Palestinians are actually engaged in what would, in any other geographical location, be described as nonviolent resistance. So my work with the films I’ve made, especially with Naila and the Uprising, is to try to change this imagery.
With the First Intifada what you generally saw at the time, in the late Eighties, was an almost exclusive focus on images of young Palestinian men throwing stones at Israelis, at heavily armored jeeps, and the Israeli Army responding with gunfire against the stone-throwers. Even though many viewers were able to see through what was actually going on—the power imbalance of young Palestinians armed only with stones versus tanks—what those images also convey is that this is a violent eruption. There is chaos and a condition that needs to be clamped down on—an eruption of people and a particular lawlessness. What does not come through in that vision is the fact that organizing was taking place then, which focused on adjusting Palestinian society to be self-sufficient so it could have its own hospitals, its own schools, and even its own vegetable gardens in order to withdraw consent from Israel and the military occupation.
The people doing all that work of organizing, by and large, were women. Because they did not document their activities, however, they became invisible and were no longer part of the story. We wanted to rewrite women into that history to show today’s younger generation of women that there are incredible role models for them to follow.
Cineaste: In the festival Q&A session the other night, executive producer Suhad Babaa indicated that seventy percent of Palestinians today are under the age of thirty. We assume, then, that you conceive of your documentary as a history lesson to pass on to the younger generation.
Bacha: Absolutely. Palestinians today, the younger generation, understand very little of what took place in the First Intifada, particularly the role of women. Women’s rights in Palestinian society have declined since the First Intifada, so it’s a very important issue to raise today. We are working extensively with universities, youth groups, and women’s groups, to really show how having women on the front lines and taking leadership positions in movement building leads to more successful outcomes.
Cineaste: Would you discuss your research for this film, obstacles you encountered, and specifically address how you selected Naila Ayesh as the protagonist?
Bacha: Originally, the film was very broadly conceived to show that the First Intifada was actually a very well organized and maintained uprising involving all sectors of Palestinian society. The women were leading efforts to create sustainability and independence from the occupying military government. What we uncovered during our research was that those women’s roles were considerably more significant than we had initially understood and that what most of the literature up until then had given them credit for. We decided to go really deep into understanding what women had done and ended up interviewing about twenty-four activists—a very diverse group. They came from Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, and from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different political parties. They had diverse reasons for becoming activists. As a result, we were able to paint a fairly holistic picture of how much women were the sustainers of this movement.
When we started putting the film together, we realized that finding archival footage of these women from the late Eighties was incredibly difficult. The work they had done was illegal, invisible; the international media had not documented it. Our greatest challenge, then, was how to tell our story with a film, obviously a visual medium, when there existed little visual documentation of these women’s activities. We decided to use animation, which I’d never used before and which was a creative leap for me as a filmmaker.
The international audience was an important target for us, and we felt that the most powerful way of speaking to those viewers was to ensure they had access to the personal journey of these women. However, in order to fit a feature documentary—inherently a reductive medium—we ended up deciding that it would be better to have a single protagonist carry viewers through the film. That way audiences unfamiliar with the historical context and who were trying to learn and having to catch up with a lot of information could at least always hold onto that one character—a mother (who everybody can relate to because everybody has a mother!) and her relationship with her son and husband. So, since our film investigates and unravels a lot of the political dynamics of the time, from the beginning of the Occupation in 1967 all the way to the Oslo Accords in 1995, following Naila Ayesh and her family and being emotionally connected to them carries us through the entire historical period.
Cineaste: In your experience as a filmmaker, a writer, a public speaker, and a researcher, how do you view the connection between gender equality and nonviolence?
Bacha: Once we realized we were going to focus on women, I started researching beyond the particular context of Israel and Palestine and worked very closely with two researchers in particular, Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, who have extensively studied nonviolent resistance around the world in different historical periods. Their original research focused on whether nonviolent resistance or violent resistance has historically been more effective in leading to successful results for protest movements—whether for independence or equality or liberation. Their findings were that nonviolent resistance is almost one hundred percent more likely to lead to positive results. [Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011]
Stephan and Chenoweth are currently investigating a direct connection between women’s involvement in these resistance movements and those successful outcomes. Some really good research has already been done, particularly on protest movements in the Middle East, which showed that when a movement has gender equality and the idea that women and men should both be equally represented in the public sphere as part of its value system, then it is much more likely to utilize nonviolent resistance. And since nonviolence is more likely to lead to a successful outcome, you can make the link that when women are involved, you are more likely to succeed and have democratic and peaceful societies that are longer lasting.
That means when we make women invisible and don’t talk about their role in protest movements, we significantly reduce our likelihood of building democratic societies because we are not lifting up the model for how movements actually progress, which is by having womenfolk be equally involved in them. That has become a major thrust of the film as well, showing that Naila and the Uprising is not just a story about Palestine. It is also a story of how women often lead movements and then get ignored or sidelined—something that has happened historically over and over again across continents.
Cineaste: Well, not always. Think of Argentina and the abuelas and madres of the Plaza de Mayo—they did well in terms of international recognition for their human rights movement.
Bacha: Yes, at the time they got visibility for their work. But if you look at what has happened since in terms of the process of democratization in Argentina, women were not able to occupy spaces of political power afterwards, and that has had huge consequences for women’s rights in Argentina. So, sometimes women do get visibility but they don’t gain political power once their movement actually leads to successful outcomes in their society.
Cineaste: Of course Argentina has now had a female president, which the United States has not, which is interesting.
Bacha: Well, most countries I think, right? I mean, Brazil has had a female president. The United States is unfortunately very far behind in that aspect.
Cineaste: What would you care to add concerning the work of Chenoweth and Stephan?
Bacha: This is a growing area of research. For a long time there has been a focus, particularly with governmental funding, on research related to the military and military tactics and violence—that has been considered real work. This is beginning to change as we see independent researchers start looking at the actual data and breaking them down. We need to better understand how nonviolent movements work and to educate communities, individuals, politicians, and the military of different countries to recognize when a nonviolent movement is in progress—how to respond, because these are the efforts most likely to lead to long-lasting, stable, democratic societies.
Cineaste: Certainly the very propitious use of animation constitutes your documentary’s most striking artistic feature. Would you clarify what sort of animation that is and how you accomplished it?
Bacha: It’s hand-made, not computerized. It’s called Direct Under-Camera—every single frame is created separately on flat surfaces of various kinds such as glass, metal, or wood using a variety of mediums, for example watercolor, sand, or pencil. You take a still picture of a frame and then adjust it slightly, by hand, for the next exposure, perhaps by adding or erasing some element. And this process continues until all the frames are combined into an animated sequence. The animation was very expensive because it is incredibly time-consuming.
Cineaste: Had you considered rotoscope animation?
Bacha: We did, because of the interview aspect of the film—with rotoscoping you’re working with the exact visual appearance of people. However, once we started using a more subjective sort of animation, we ended up going in a very different, almost opposite direction. You might have noticed the drawings of human figures don’t have eyes?
Bacha: That’s on purpose. We did not want the people to be distinctive. Eyes are a very strong identifying feature; and once you see them you can say, well, that’s someone else, that’s not me. But the absence of the eyes allows the audience to put themselves more into the animation and feel as if they are part of that experience.
Cineaste: Why were no women present in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) delegation brokering the Oslo Accords?
Bacha: Oslo was one of the narratives we really wanted to shift with our film. Those negotiations were a coup against civil society in Palestine. What that moment signified was the end of the possibility of peace and the construction of a system based on security agreements where the PLO became the security manager for the Israeli Occupation. In exchange for power, Arafat traded Palestinian freedom and agreed to become basically a dictator in the name of Israel’s interest. This arrangement essentially put aside, and sometimes in prison, a lot of the activists in the First Intifada—the very people who had made the moment for negotiation possible through the uprising and who had created a political climate worldwide where the Palestinian issue was at the front of people’s minds. People like James Baker and George Bush Sr. in the United States. Bush took actions that were unprecedented, both historically and since, in terms of his willingness to stand for human rights in the region, even at the expense of his own re-election. He was not re-elected because he had pressed for the Madrid Accords. The Oslo Accords did not include women by design—they did not want women involved because women represented a threat.
Cineaste: When you say “they,” you mean the PLO?
Bacha: The PLO, Arafat, Abu Ala—all those leaders in Tunisia at the time.
Cineaste: In terms of U.S. politics, how do we account for George Bush Sr., a Republican, being the only president who has stood up politically to actually threaten to use serious economic pressure against Israel in order to bring peace to the region? How can that be?
Bacha: It’s extraordinary, right?
Cineaste: Well, yes.
Bacha: There were several factors. Bush was not leading on this; he was following. He happened to be in power during a moment when the First Intifada had created the political climate in the United States for politicians to act—politicians don’t lead; they follow. I would say if there was political leadership here, it was from James Baker. He deserves extraordinary credit for understanding that this was the moment internationally to step in and try to broker a just peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. At the time, public opinion in the United States had changed as a result of Palestinians risking their lives in this movement for freedom. Nonviolent resistance works in symbiosis with the international community. It’s a process of generating outrage against an oppressor that is inflicting undue harm against mostly unarmed protestors. When you generate enough of that outrage, you create a political climate where politicians can do things that otherwise would be impossible.
Cineaste: Many viewers in the West may wonder why Palestinian society is so misogynistic and supportive of gender inequality. Given all your research in the area and your extensive thinking about that, what thoughts would you share?
Bacha: Palestinian society is conservative and patriarchal. At the time of the First Intifada, however, there was a different international climate; and we should not lose sight of the geopolitical dynamics and what played out ideologically. The late Eighties were a period when most of the liberation movements in Palestine, and around the world, were influenced by socialist ideology. They rejected religion and believed in equality between the genders. The liberation movements of that time actually encouraged women’s leadership.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, however, an ideological gap opened that has been filled by Islamist movements. So the liberation movement of several groups inside Palestinian society has become associated with Islamist ideology—which comes with fewer roles for women and a belief that women’s place is at home and that the public space is dominated by men. This reflects a geopolitical dynamic and not a specific Palestinian sociocultural trait.
So this is part of how we need to understand movements, right? Like social movements, liberation movements respond to what is happening geopolitically, internationally. This factor did play out very significantly in the context of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Cineaste: How do you account for the growing appeal, it would seem, of the more radical Islamic movements?
Bacha: Just to clarify, Palestinian society has actually been remarkably resilient in that aspect given what it has been undergoing for seven years of very harsh military occupation. Most Palestinian movements and society today do not support an Islamist vision for the world at all.
However, increasingly in Gaza there are small, but very critical groups challenging Hamas for not being enough of an Islamist movement. When you continually deny a population their rights, you end up with potentially worse and more, let’s say maximalist, movements that conclude there is no chance of dialogue because a people’s rights have been denied no matter what strategies they’ve tried.
The solution: more international pressure on Israel to open the Gaza border, to give basic human rights to a population that has been living in an open-air prison. That’s what needs to happen for individuals to believe in other solutions to their situation.
Cineaste: Motherhood is such a central theme in your film, and it’s so unusual in a documentary to combine political aspects with such personal aspects.
Bacha: This subject is obviously very personal [glancing at her cell phone]—I’m just now receiving text messages with pictures of my kids…[general merriment]. Well, I became a mom while making this film—I had two children, which just goes to show how long a film can take to produce! So, yes, the question of motherhood was obviously very big in my mind. These women were struggling to balance their responsibility as moms with their responsibility as activists, and trying to navigate the sacrifices and dangers involved. This problem became a very important theme for me to explore. To this day, women still constantly deal with this same issue—more, I think unfortunately, than men do.
Cineaste: Palestinian women, as your film shows, took such an outstanding leadership role in the First Intifada; but how has this helped them to really improve their lives in present-day society?
Bacha: Historically speaking, the First Intifada was probably the moment that Palestinians and Israelis got the closest to finding a just agreement; and that consequence came out of the women’s work. The Oslo Accords were a huge intervention against that prospect. We wanted the film to highlight what had gone on and have people understand that moment; for if we don’t learn from history, we’re bound to repeat it. That’s the cliché, but it’s so true. We need to understand how movements work, what makes them succeed, and what threatens them—that was the core reason for making the film.
Cineaste: Women during the First Intifada accomplished such wonderful things, but how much of that progress have they been able to bring forward into the present? You mentioned earlier that women’s rights in Palestinian society have actually declined; and your film offers several examples, for instance, that women became restricted from having their own businesses. For years now, encouraging women to become small entrepreneurs has been an extremely successful strategy in helping them advance economically, socially, and personally. Has this restriction been lifted for Palestinian women? Can they now create their own businesses?
Bacha: No. What happened was a creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). At the political level women weren’t involved in terms of being given ministries or given political influence or actually running for office. At the civil-society level, the PA basically became a kind of bloated state bureaucracy. It took over the Palestinian economy and created a society completely dependent economically on the decisions of the PA, which is funded by international donors. So, fundamentally a complete dependence on the political desires of the international community was created: if the Palestinians don’t do exactly what the international communities say, then the money doesn’t come, the salaries don’t come, and these families are impoverished. The growth and flourishing of independent businesses by women—an effort to be self-sufficient and self-reliant—was completely destroyed by the creation of this very corrupt, state-led effort at controlling the economy.
Cineaste: So do Palestinian women still need a male guardian?
Bacha: They do. The laws are still the same.
Cineaste: Is this the same as a chaperone?
Bacha: No, it’s just in order to get certain documents.
Cineaste: Like a passport?
Cineaste: Can a woman have a bank account only in her name?
Cineaste: Why is Naila and the Uprising particularly relevant today?
Bacha: It deals with two things that are incredibly topical and that we could not have predicted would become so big. First is the question of women’s rights that has exploded in the form of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements—and so many other efforts around the world that are examining how women, despite the progress made, have continued to suffer abuse. In this context, Naila and the Uprising says a lot. I believe that putting the story of Palestinian women into the story of women worldwide is a key dimension of this film. It’s important we see the connections between struggles.
Second is what’s happening in Gaza today—the Great Return March.¹ It’s incredible to see how many women who are very involved in the Great Return March (which has received almost zero media attention) talk about being the closest they have ever felt to the spirit of the First Intifada again. Many of the same dynamics in media coverage that played out in the First Intifada are again present. The Israeli military government is attempting to push out a message that this is all the work of Hamas-led terrorists. In reality, all groups, all civil societies have come together in Gaza to participate in this movement; and the women have been playing a very important role.
Now is a really critical time to show that we can’t receive prepackaged messaging and just accept propaganda as the truth. We need to be very cautious—take our responsibility as consumers of media very seriously and demand a more complete documentation of what is happening on the ground.
Cineaste: Speaking of “consumers of media,” you initially conceived of this documentary years ago, before, perhaps, ever having heard of Donald Trump. Now your film is released with Trump in power and the question of the consumption of media and imagery, and news and fake news, has become an extraordinarily important societal issue.
Bacha: Huge. A field that was already difficult has become even worse because we already had a problem with traditional media outlets not covering issues properly; and now, on top of it, we have this completely disjointed social media creation with no accountability and no relationship to reality being pushed onto people as news. So, yes, we are finding ourselves even deeper and deeper in trouble.
¹The Great Return March was a six-week-long series of protests by numerous grass-roots organizations and political parties in Palestinian society in early 2018 to mark the seventieth anniversary of what Palestinians call the “Nakba” (catastrophe) of the founding of Israel. One of the protest’s primary activities, which garnered some international media coverage if only because of the disproportionate level of violence directed against it by the Israeli Army, was to demonstrate against the Israel-Gaza border wall.
Dennis West is a Cineaste Contributing Editor. Joan M. West is a professor emerita at the University of Idaho.
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 2