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Why films give me hope in these times of war

July 24, 2014 09:59 IST

What happens when two teenagers -- one Israeli and one Palestinian -- discover that they were accidentally switched at birth?

The Other Son is a wonderful vision of Israel and Palestine. There is no positive future for the region and its people without this vision, feels Aseem Chhabra.

Inch’AllahIn one of the crucial scenes in the 2012 film Inch’Allah, (photograph, left), a Canadian doctor is at a border crossing in the West Bank, as she pleads with a tall young Israeli soldier that her patient -- a Palestinian woman -- is in labour, and in desperate need for oxygen and blood. She says the woman has to be taken to a hospital across the crossing to Israel.

The soldier sees a mass of Palestinians in front of him. He fears for his life. He is not moved and finally asks the doctor to step aside. 'It's war,' he says.

War is a part of the daily lives of people in the occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and West Bank. It is the experiences of Israelis who are often hit by rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza. It is also the face of the Israeli army -- made up essentially of teenagers just out of high school and doing their compulsory military service. The current Israeli offensive in Gaza only complicates the matter with the high Palestinian death count that has shocked the world.

At times like this, films become an important tool in understanding the human toll of the war -- what it does to the lives and the psychology of the Palestinians and Israelis. Cinema can perhaps also become a means to bring empathy and compassion between the Arabs and Jews destined to live as neighbours, sharing borders even when politicians and terrorist organisations may think differently.

The border crossing is a major part of Inch’Allah as the Canadian doctor, Chloe (Evelyne Brochu), makes daily trips across it along with hundreds of Palestinians who commute to Israel for their jobs. Chloe lives in Israel, sometimes hanging out with her Israeli neighbour -- a soldier and her friends in Tel Aviv's hip bars. During the day she works at a UN sponsored maternity clinic in the West Bank.

It is not an easy life for the Palestinians living in abject poverty and certainly a cause for concern for an outsider like Chloe as she also experiences the wealth and comfort of life in Israel.

In the 2012 film Out in the Dark, a gay Palestinian also passes through the border crossing, often looking for the sexual freedom in Tel Aviv. He manages to get a permit to study in a Tel Aviv university, leaving behind his lower middle class family in Ramallah, West Bank. He also starts a relationship with a successful Israeli lawyer. The relationship will lead the young Palestinian to be blackmailed by the Israeli secret service who even suggest that he should become a collaborator.

And in the 2007 Oscar nominated masterpiece Paradise Now, two dejected young Palestinians volunteer to become suicide bombers, but things do not go well for them as they try to illegally cross the fenced border and enter Israel.

It is easy to paint Hamas as a terrorist organisation -- an expression that resonates with people across the world, even when they have little knowledge of the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But Paradise Now is a rare film that shows us the human face of the suicide bombers, takes us on a tour of their daily lives and lets us understand their frustrations, disappointments and fears.

Paradise Now was directed by the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad. Six years later his gripping film Omar (photograph, left) was also nominated in the best foreign language film category.

OmarIn Paradise Now, Said, one of the two protagonists, lives with the daily shame that his father was a collaborator with the Israelis. Said decides to become a martyr -- a suicide bomber. In Omar, the title character -- a heartbreaking performance by Adam Bari -- becomes a collaborator when he realises that the life and honour of the woman he loves is at stake.

And in the Israeli-Palestinian film Bethlehem (Israel's official entry for the 2013 foreign language Oscar race), its 17-year-old protagonist Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) passes information about his friends and family to his Shin Bet handler. Sanfur and his handler develop an uneasy father-son relationship, where the young Palestinian is lured by the gifts that the Israeli officer gives him.

All of these films reveal one singular fact. Even at times when there is no official declaration of war by Israel, the occupation of Palestine is a psychologically complex affair. These films show the daily cost of the war on the Palestinians.

The current war has a devastating effect on the people in Gaza, with over 700 killed, including almost 200 children. There is global outrage, but the Israeli government will continue its mission, even as a cease-fire seems imminent. The Israel Defence Forces have lost at least 30 soldiers in this war.

The Israeli side of the story has also been explored in many remarkable films, including the 2009 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winning Lebanon, and the Oscar nominated Waltz With Bashir (2008) and Beaufort (2007).

In Beaufort on the last night of the Israeli presence on top of a mountain inside Southern Lebanon, a young solder on guard duty, fearing rocket attacks from Hezbollah, says this to his commanding officer: 'It's hell there now. I am scared to death.' His officer allows him to abandon the post and move inside to a safer location.

In the current scenario, a cease-fire can be enforced, but peace in the region will not come that easily. But I get hope from films. Two years ago I saw a film called The Other Son, the story of two teenagers -- one Israeli and one Palestinian -- who discover that they were accidentally switched at birth in hospital. The news is devastating for the families, but the teens accept their fate and even start to hang out together, and with each other's friends.

It is a wonderful -- a bit utopian -- vision of Israel and Palestine. But there is no positive future for the region and its people without this vision.

Aseem Chhabra