The story of a people’s resistance told in “Budrus”

Women march against the Israeli wall in a scene from Budrus.

Event-based storytelling is an infamous form most prominent in the science fiction sub-genre of the Space Opera. The main failing of the style is the general inability of event progression to effectively substitute for character development. Budrus is an event-based story without all but the most minimal character development, yet it still succeeds by compellingly capturing a moment. Director Julia Bacha combines conventional point-and-shoot with in situ interviews, beautiful and sometimes chaotic footage of protests, maps, graphics and a bit of expository text to piece together a lovely film exploring the evolution of the West Bank village of Budrus’ resistance to Israel’s wall, and its reclaiming of its destiny.

The film opens with Palestinian community organizer Ayed Morrar laying out strategies of “popular resistance and nonviolence.” He puts together the basic tenets of the struggle: Palestinian demands for the right to self-determination and dignity. The West, Israel included, has long embraced such views; the difference being in Budrus, Palestinians take them much more seriously than the West. They evidently believe they are equally human and hold such rights to be literally universal. How dare they!

Israel’s privileged enjoyment of rights is captured in the film in an interview with Israeli army captain Doron Spielman who states that “Ultimately speaking a nonviolent protest is not going to stop the ultimate way of the fence. It’s not going to happen. Because Israeli men, women and children need to go sleep at night.” It’s as authentic a representation of Israel’s rationalization of its 43-year occupation as one could find and it also represents the greatly circumscribed ideals all too common in Israeli society: with true peace thought unattainable, the replacement ideal becomes “peace and quiet.” Bacha allows Spielman and others the room to say their peace and let it sink or swim in the film based on the context alone, only once offering an explicitly contradictory voice in succession.

The film’s three main characters are the village of Budrus, Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank, and “The Struggle.” The interplay between these characters speaks to the intimacy of the environment to culture and culture to life. A local farmer explains that in agricultural villages like Budrus, “Death, stealing the land, and uprooting the trees are one and the same.” This context adds weight to scenes of the Israeli army uprooting parts of an olive grove. The land-culture-life connection is never clearer than a scene where a middle-aged farmer says to a border policeman: “You uprooted my olive trees? I have nowhere else to move them.” The pain and dislocation are written in his expressions and mannerisms.

The struggle in Budrus is not limited to Palestinian liberation. There is factionalism, interference by the Palestinian Authority, fatalism, gender concerns, media difficulties — Al-Jazeera will only come if there is a spectacle — and other problems. Herein is one of the film’s greatest accomplishments. Budrus documents how the struggle against Israel’s wall brought about broader community liberation. Ayed demands his community respect its own potential and become agents for change: “Either we call it fate and give up like we usually do, saying: ‘This is the will of God.’ Or we consider it an injustice that must be faced and challenged.”

Meanwhile, Ayed’s daughter Iltizam expresses skepticism about the lack of women’s participation. “We saw the men trying to push the soldiers and none of them could do that,” she says with a conspiratorial grin. “But I think the girls could do that.” And so it went. And so they did.

The film threatens to fall into all kinds of traps of schmaltz and slogans but never does. It seems like it’s going towards political partisanship then doesn’t. It feels like it’s going towards Palestinian epiphanies of, “Oh, there are nice Israelis too,” then avoids the easy answer. It’s not because Budrus is an exceptionally accomplished film. There is almost a complete lack of character development and the lack of temporal context (When did all this happen? How long did it take?). The film is often very predictable all of this points to a flawed film. The camerawork is unremarkable if unobtrusive. Although the film doesn’t feel like it should be as good as it is, with Ayed, Iltizam, teacher and organizer Ahmed Awwad, Israeli border police, military spokesmen, activists and anarchists combining with footage of protests, organizing, brutal policing and debates, Budrus captures truthfully a remarkable moment. And “The Struggle” makes for a very moving character even though the individuals shaping it remain largely props.

The film does have one notable misstep for which the filmmakers can only be held partially responsible, it occasionally dips into facile versions of “can’t-we-all-just-get-along-ness.” Nicolas Kristof’s recent New York Times editorial invokes both the film and the village as part of a horribly paternalistic suggestion that Palestinians need only have “their own Gandhi” to deserve the right of self-determination. The reality of solidarity and joint struggle between Israeli leftists and Palestinians is very complex due to the occupier-occupied and colonizer-colonized dynamic. The people of Budrus and their comrades standing in solidarity struggled hard and not always successfully to navigate the colonial relationship and recognize the tension between real solidarity and paternalism. There is much to cover in the film and it does not get into this aspect of the struggle, understandably as the film is about Budrus, its people and their struggle, not about Israeli leftists and others. For this reason Western liberals like Kristof will likely love the film, marveling at Arabs who shockingly choose not to blow themselves up and wondering out loud how one says “Gandhi” in Arabic. Their own misunderstanding of the events of Budrus (and Gandhi!) are more to blame than Bacha but a fuller development of the characters of the film would likely have better revealed the complex dynamics in play.

The victory of a small West Bank village to move the wall a few kilometers and reclaim the vast majority of the land confiscated by Israel is an impressive enough achievement outside the context of the occupation. For those well-versed in Palestinian grassroots organizing it’s a level of achievement that is scarcely believable as the immense economic, military and political force differential between Israelis and Palestinians normally resolves local struggles to Israel’s favor. But not in Budrus. And Julia Bacha’s film truly captures this revolutionary moment and shares it with the audience.

An associate of Eugene Debs once related, “That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around I believe it myself.” Budrus is like that.

Jimmy Johnson is a mechanic based in Detroit. He can be reached at johnson [dot] jimmy [at] gmail [dot] com.