DISTURBING THE PEACE (2016) review
produced by: Stephen Apkon and Marcina Hale
directed by: Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young
runtime: 82 min.
U.S. release date: March 10, 2016 (EbertFest 2016), November 11, 2016 (NY) & November 18, 2106 (LA)
As I was looking up information on the award-winning documentary “Disturbing the Peace” from co-directors Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young, a definition of the term film’s title popped up before I could type ‘documentary’ in Google. The criminal offense is described as: a crime generally defined as the unsettling of proper order in a public space through one’s actions. This can include creating loud noise by fighting or challenging to fight, disturbing others by loud and unreasonable noise (including loud music), or using profanity. Some of that definition can be applied towards what we see transpire in this film, which looks at the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it mostly comes across as an ironic title, since “peace”, a word that has more than one definition, is subjective and sometimes needs to be disturbed.
Here is a unique and poignant documentary that emphasizes the power of embracing peace and reconciliation. It follows a group of former Israeli combatants (soldiers from elite units) and Palestinian fighters they fought against decades ago. Many of those fighters served years in prison and some of those soldiers had disavowed their duties. They have come together to form a nonviolent movement called Combatants for Peace, consisting of a group of people from both sides of the conflict who used to engage in violent acts against each other. They have come to terms with their past actions and have determined that there is another way to live – to live alongside each other in harmony. It takes shaking the status quo, ‘disturbing’ the so-called peace – after years of accepting the order of things – and understanding and appreciating where each other come from.
The movement holds non-violent protests, sometimes using artistic creativity by incorporating giant puppets they can include in their public protests. They also host lectures and group meetings where former enemies sit and listen to each other’s stories and confessions. It’s raw and real stuff, primarily because of the emotional and revealing backstories that co-directors Apkon and Young for just about the first hour of the film. Through a combination of decade-spanning newsreels and handheld footage (I truly wonder how they landed some of it) from the past and specific reenactments recounting the memories of certain Combatant for Peace members coming forward and sharing their harrowing stories, we’re able to see the motivations that drive someone to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at armored tanks or the soldiers assigned to demolish Palestinian homes, some of whom have killed relatives and/or friends.
These are Israelis and Palestinians who have found their way to atonement and healing, who are grief-stricken and have humbled themselves to each other, and it’s truly amazing to behold. One former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, Sulaiman Khatib, observes, “We found that we actually had something in common, that willingness to kill people we don’t know” just by sitting down with others during these Combatants for Peace meetings and hearing each other out, confessing and learning where the other side comes from, what is shown is literally peace in action. They’ve experienced, partaken in and witnessed horrors of years of conflicts between the two nations, and they see how the nature of violence has been and will be recycled, so their goal is to do something about it.
Many in the group are often seen as traitors by their own people, who can’t possible understand how Israelis and Palestinians could work together, let alone form a peaceful union. We learn about these members in intimately gripping interviews, where they look right into the camera and divulge what they did in the past and come to terms with who they were and who they want to be now. It’s easy to become accustomed to talking heads in documentaries, they’re typical and expected, but what we see transpire here truly feels like a breakthrough in culpability and vulnerability. The confessionals and details revealed are powerful, opening up viewers to the potential when unleashed when we are sobered by our misguided past and take hold of new convictions.
It may take almost an hour for Apkon and Young (who also served as cinematographer here) to introduce us to Combatants for Peace and their purpose and functions, but it’s necessarily decision in order to establish for viewers the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the point-of-view on each side and also how former soldiers and victims come to terms with mutual violence and loss. It’s important for viewers to see that “Disturbing the Peace” is not just a film that follows everyday people who took extraordinary actions by standing for what they believe in – they also have a past that brought them to where they’re at now. For the documentary to challenge us, which it does and should (especially those of us who live in the States and have experienced a volatile and divisive presidential campaign and election), we have to understand the narratives they’ve lived within and through, which helps us to examine our own roles in our societies, and to decide what role we are going to play in creating a more humane world, for all.
The best thing Apron and Young does in “Disturbing the Peace” is give the audience plenty of time to get to know who the members of the Combatants for Peace are. We’re given the opportunity to see their struggles, past and present, which provide a greater understanding of who they are and the cost their decisions have had in the past, currently and for their loved ones in the future. There’s a sequence in the home of a Palestinian man, Jamil Qassas and his wife, Fatima, as they discuss whether or not to allow their tween daughters to attend a non-violent demonstration. Her concern is that they’re not imposing their beliefs on them, but her stance is really coming from the pain she still has toward Israelis. Jamil’s grandfather was killed when he refused to leave his village and had watched as Israeli soldiers shot and killed his 14-year-old brother when they were kids, but still sees the opportunity to end bitterness, hostility and violence, by aligning with the Combatants for Peace. Jamil is one of many we see and each time we spend with someone I found myself wishing more people could see how relatable their lives are and how open and vulnerable they are. It sheds a spotlight on the humanity of protesters and demonstrators in general.
As the film closes out, we’re shown a sequence which finds the Combatants for Peace staging a demonstration along the Israeli West Bank wall. Their puppets are held up high as they chant, “Two states for two peoples!”, and we see marchers holding up their own wall that breaks apart to reveal a large, hand-crafted face with open giant-size hands. Israeli soldiers come out and immediately lob flash grenades at them instead of hearing therm out or allowing their voices to be heard. One former Israeli soldier, Chen Alon, is part of the demonstration and observes the soldiers reaction and now, knowing what he’s seen and knows, observes that those soldiers are the real prisoners. with sudden violence.
The subjects we get to know from both sides of the conflict in “Disturbing the Peace”, provide an important and relatable connection to the film’s purpose and our own understanding of the courage it takes to make the first steps toward healing. To get someone to understand your own experiences, hurts and traumas, requires empathy – something that is sorely needed in life and in a film like this, so very important .
NOTE: While “Disturbing the Peace” has been working the festival circuit since premiering at EbertFest last March, it just had a limited release in New York City and in Los Angeles, but you can expect it to get a wider release come February 2017.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE FILM HERE!