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2012 / Budrus

Julia Bacha, Ronit Avni and Rula Salamehi

Julia Bacha, Ronit Avni and Rula Salamehi

Julia Bacha, Ronit Avni and Rula Salamehi have been awarded the inaugural Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize for Budrus, an inspiring documentary about a Palestinian community organizer, Ayed Morrar, who in 2003 united local Fatah and Hamas members along with Israeli supporters in a peaceful movement to save his West Bank village from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier. Success eluded them until his 15-year-old daughter, Iltezam, launched a women’s contingent that quickly moved to the frontlines. Struggling side by side, father and daughter unleashed a stirring, yet little-known movement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories that is still gaining ground.

While this film is about one Palestinian village, it tells a much bigger story about what is possible in the Middle East. Morrar succeeded in doing what many people believe to be impossible: he united feuding Palestinian political groups; he brought women to the heart of the struggle by encouraging his daughter Iltezam’s leadership; and he welcomed hundreds of Israelis to cross into Palestinian territory for the first time and join this nonviolent effort. Together, this unlikely coalition stood in the path of bulldozers and tried to halt the destruction of the ancient olive groves on which their livelihoods depend. After ten months of demonstrations, they succeeded in altering the route of the wall. Many of the activists who joined the villagers of Budrus are now continuing to support nonviolence efforts in villages from Bil’in to Nabi Saleh to Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem.

The movie is directed by award-winning filmmaker Julia Bacha (co-writer and editor of Control Room and co-director of Encounter Point), and produced by Bacha, Palestinian journalist Rula Salameh, and filmmaker and human rights advocate Ronit Avni (formerly of WITNESS, and the director of Encounter Point).

The Ridenhour judges salute Budrus — the inaugural winner of the Ridenhour Film Prize — an action-filled documentary that shines a light on people who choose nonviolence to confront a threat.

Documentary Film Prize Remarks

Transcript of Documentary Film Prize Remarks

RONIT AVNI:  Thank you so much, Mona. Thank you to The Nation Institute, to the Fertel Foundation and, of course, to the incredible inspiring leadership and courage of the late Ron Ridenhour. It’s an honor to be here today. This award really celebrates the courageous Palestinian men and women and their Israeli allies who joined together in the village of Budrus.

I want to also accept this prize on behalf of my team. We’re a group of Israeli, Palestinian, North American, and South American journalists, human rights advocates, and filmmakers. And we’re part of a nonprofit organization called Just Vision. And Just Vision was founded to tell the stories you don’t hear on the nightly news of Israelis and Palestinians engaged in nonviolence and conflict resolution work. This is slightly different from the other prizes that are being received today. This isn’t an instance where people are operating in secrecy. People here are operating in the light of day; it’s just that they’re not being reported. It’s just that nobody’s paying attention to them.

I’m an Israeli citizen and after the collapse of the Oslo process, one thing became incredibly clear to me, and I think we see it in Egypt and in Tunisia today. And that is that without civil society support and involvement at the grassroots level, no diplomatic agreement will hold. The top will not hold without support from the bottom. And yet, we keep ignoring the bottom.

So between 2001 and 2003, I went out and interviewed 475 Palestinians and Israelis engaged in nonviolence and conflict resolution work to ask them what were they doing, what mistakes and lessons learned did they have to offer, and what did they need. And overwhelmingly, their response was that they felt invisible to their own communities, they felt marginalized. They felt the world didn’t know about them, and they needed help. And that’s how Just Vision, the nonprofit organization, was born. We’re based in Jerusalem, here in Washington, and in New York. And Budrus was, in fact, our second film. We first produced a film called Encounter Point that we released in 2006. And as we toured around the world, we kept getting the same refrain that Mona just mentioned, particularly in American and Israeli audiences. The question was, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” And the follow-up statement was that if Palestinians adopted nonviolence there would be peace. And at the same time in Palestinian society, people would say, “We tried nonviolence and it failed.” And they were referring to a very long history of nonviolent efforts, but particularly during the First Intifada. In fact, we have someone here who is the spouse of Mary King, who documents this long history.

And so we felt that there was a tremendous gap and that gap needed to be addressed. And we also felt that the issue was much more complex than these simple distillations of the issue. And that’s how the film Budrus was born. Budrus is a village in the West Bank, near Modi’in, for those of you who know the region. And in 2003, they were facing destruction by the route of the Israeli separation barrier that was going to be built through the community, through its village, through the cemetery, next to the school. And a community organizer named Ayed Morrar decided to unite his village, starting with the men, to oppose the construction of the route of the barrier in his village, through nonviolent means.

And at first, they didn’t succeed. And then his 15-year-old daughter came about and said, “Where are all the women?” (And frankly, I’d like to see more women whistleblowers in the future, so this is to all the women in the audience. We need more women up here in the future.) [applause] She said, “Where are all the women?” And he, in true community organizing fashion said, “If you want women, go ahead and organize them.” And she did. And she brought women to the frontlines. And the Israeli activists started to join. And very soon, you had something incredibly unusual: you had members of Hamas, and Fatah, men and women, Israeli and Palestinian, standing together protecting each other in this village.

And I’ll say that there’s one moment in the film, we can’t actually translate it because the words are moving so quickly, but at one point, there’s an Israeli activist in the village who the Israeli army is about to arrest for being there illegally. And [the army] is asking her for paperwork. And one of the Palestinian older women from the village says, “We don’t need papers here. We don’t need papers, that’s my daughter,” referring to the Israeli activist. I choke up every time I think about it.

These relationships we are not seeing on the nightly news. And not to make ourselves feel better, but because we need these individuals to be supported and encouraged. People did not take seriously the April 6th movement in Egypt several years ago. Forgive me, I’m not a scholar of Egypt, and Mona, you know far more, but we were not taking seriously the nonviolence efforts and the civil society efforts on the ground until they erupted en masse. We need to pay attention.

Now, what happened in Budrus is happening all over the West Bank and East Jerusalem today. And what is still invisible, even though every major news outlet since the film came out has covered this story, it was the first time from Al Jazeera to the New York Times, from Al Arabiya to the BBC, the first time that this story was reported in its entirety, which happened several years after the fact, when the film came out. But what isn’t being reported today is what’s happening to these leaders on the ground. Many of them are in prison, many of them are facing crackdown, both Israeli and Palestinian, although, of course, the majority of these movements are Palestinian.

As an Israeli, I can say that I want to see more Ayeds and more Iltezams in the world. I am by no means existentially threatened by their existence. In fact, I’m heartened. And I see the power of groups coming together. In fact, when I went to Dubai for the International Film Festival there where we opened the film, and as an aside, the red carpet gala the first night was Avatar. And the red carpet gala the second night was Budrus. [applause] Thank you. And as another aside, when we showed the film in Dubai, there was a journalist, an Egyptian journalist, who at the time, December 2009, simply could not believe that nonviolence could achieve political results. And he accused us of making up the story and of Ayed Mrar, the main protagonist, he accused of being a collaborator and fabricated a story about Ayed. And I’m just amazed at how history has changed and what he would think today if he had seen this film in 2011 instead of in 2009.

But when we were in Dubai, I sat down with Iltezam, this leader of the women’s movement. She’s now studying medicine in Sarajevo. And we talked, and she talked about how she’s challenging anti-Semitism in Sarajevo because of the impression that the Israeli activists made upon her in Budrus. These connections are lasting, they are deep, they are long and they bode incredibly well for the future of the region. And that’s why I think we need to cover them, support them and protect these individuals.

So it’s been an incredible ride with Budrus so far. We’re still opening in theaters across the country. We’ve been opening across the U.K. and Germany. We’ve shown in every art house cinema in Israel. But there’s a lot more work to do. We are a nonprofit organization; our team in the coming year, and in the last year, have been taking the film to refugee camps, to audiences in Gaza, all across the West Bank to women’s groups, bringing them to meet with the women of Budrus, to pre-military programs in Israel and universities in Israel. And to faith leaders and others who have the potential to both think through what it means to engage in a nonviolent struggle, what constitutes a nonviolent struggle, and also what is the appropriate ethical response to a nonviolent struggle.

So, I’m very grateful to this award, but I hope that we take this in the spirit of wanting to encourage and protect and promote the voices like Ayed’s, like Kobi’s, like Iltezam’s that you see in Budrus so that we can see more nonviolent movements flourish; better and stronger relations; more of a sense that the existential needs of one community in the region have everything to do with the well-being of the other community in that region. So I hope that you’ll join me.

Our film, by the way, comes out on DVD on May 10. Please help us to get this story, but also the subsequent stories, into the headlines. And thank you so much for this honor. [applause]