The PeadeThe riveting documentary Disturbing the Peace takes a hard look at the Middle East conflict from the perspective of former enemy combatants, some of whom have spent significant prison time, who are now challenging the status quo and finding ways to shatter a destructive narrative of war. You'd think forging a path toward peace would be a boon to all. Last month, at the Hamptons International Film Festival, I had the opportunity to sit down with a delegation, filmmakers Stephen Apkon and Marcina Hale, and several of their subjects from Combatants for Peace: Sulaiman Khatib, Palestinian co-founder, Chen Alon and Avner Wishnitzer, Israeli co-founders, and Mohammed Ouedah, Palestinian General Director. Middle East politics arouse intense passions, but to engage with this group it became imperative to look beyond my own given history.
Q: After decades of observing the conflicts in Israel, I don't believe in peace anymore. Your film seems to present a view of peace. How can peace be achieved?
Sulaiman: Instead of looking for differences, we ask, how can we help? How do we come to light from darkness? It takes visionary people. That's not easy. People feel hopeless. I was in jail; in a hunger strike, you believe in something spiritual. I see despair as a privilege. Hope is a mode of survival. Every time I feel hopeless, I ask, who profits from my despair?
Q: Who profits from keeping the status quo?
Stephen: Hamas and the Israeli government collaborate on a new war in Gaza. Netanyahu believes that change is dangerous. He is trapped in a narrative. He is not willing to step outside. It is our role to show the possibility of stepping out of that narrative of fear.
Q: Who benefits from fear?
Stephen: Look at our election, look at the way leaders run for office, Trump, for example, instills fear. The way leaders come to power is through fear, the way they perpetuate power is through fear. The US just gave $38 million package to Israel. If you look at where the money goes, there is a direct benefit to many companies, and conflict continues. Where does it take us?
Q: Do you think this film will create an awareness of that particular problem?
Stephen: Look at the way we do this in our own lives. We create out of fear. This is not just about Israel or Palestine, this is what we are bringing into the world.
Q: As a mother of daughters, I was struck by the decision of the Palestinian woman in your film to put on a vest of explosives, and the heart-wrenching moment she chose to say goodbye to her daughter before setting out on her mission.
Mohammed: We spoke to that woman this morning. Her mother did not want her to grow up in the occupation, and now it's her children. You would think the daughter is most important for the mother. But she is not: When she lost hope, she lost her daughter. She did not care. Hope is more important to us than our children.
Marcina: What's unique about Israel is the occupation. I don't think there's a person who wants to live under occupation. As human beings, we must agree, there are things we cannot allow. This is not the world we have to live in. We have other options.
Q: What about the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, so the Holocaust would never happen again?
Chen: When I began this project 4 years ago, I had to confront my upbringing just as all of these people did. If you were born where they were born, you were taught what they were taught, you believe what they believe, so it is painful to go through all the places where a particular narrative is embedded. Understand it is not reality. The narrative is constructed for us. There's a freedom when you can transcend the narrative.
I'm a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. They lost all their relatives in WWII. I grew up in Israel, became a major in the army. My father taught, this is the only shelter that we have. I thought if I serve in the occupied territories, defending the only shelter that the Jewish people have, I realized that what I was doing it boils down to certain actions that violate international law like collective punishment, arresting people without an order, violation of human rights, arresting children, bulldozing houses with no order, it is a massive violation of human rights by the Israeli people. I realized I was violating human rights and also destroying my own ends, the shelter of the Jewish people.
Q: Is a one-state or two-state solution a solution for you?
Sulaiman: One state or two state, we don't have the privilege to think about this. We try every day; it is not us or you. We need courageous groups of people. My family living in Jordan loves Palestine. What we try to do is legitimize these feelings. We struggle for moral values we can both share. We all need to live in peace.
Q: What made you want to make a film on this subject, and was it hard to fund?
Stephen: Meeting people like Mohamed, Sulaiman, Chen and Avner. When we came back with the story of these people who had done an amazing transformation of themselves --this is the only bi-national group working together for non violence-- that was a compelling story.
Q: What do you hope audiences will get from your film?
Stephen: We come from violence. And still we choose to believe. So much is about believing, about hope. This is our call to the people who come to the movie. Join us.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.