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The Bovine Intifada: How 18 Cows Came to Represent Civil Disobedience for One Palestinian Village

The second intifada brings to mind bus bombings and terror acts. The first intifada was somewhat more peaceful, and it involved cows.

by Batya Ungar-Sargon
Jun 27 2015, 2:00pm

Non-violent resistance can take many forms, from sit-ins to boycotts to the withholding of taxes. And sometimes, civil disobedience comes in the unlikely form of 18 cows on the lam.

During the first intifada—the Palestinian protest movement of the late 1980s—members of the mostly-Christian West Bank village Beit Sahour decided to boycott Israeli milk products as a form of nonviolent resistance. They managed to procure 18 cows from an Israeli Kibbutznik and cheerfully set about learning the art of milking cows, eventually supplying milk to the entire village. But according to a new film, when the Israeli army caught wind of the operation, the cows were deemed a "threat to the security of the State of Israel" and Beit Sahour's villagers were forced to move the operation underground.

The Wanted 18 is a new film that incorporates interviews, dramatic re-enactments, archival footage, and stop-motion animation of some very charismatic talking cows to tell the tale of Beit Sahour and the first intifada's resistance movement.

The film is at turns playful and moving. It's a detailed and often heart-wrenching account of life under occupation, but one which never loses sight of the absurdity of the situation. VICE spoke to the film's director Amer Shomali about political cartoons, growing up in Syria, and the future of Palestine and Israel.

VICE: Where did you first hear about Beit Sahour and its 18 cows?
Amer Shomali: When I was a little kid in a refugee camp in Syria, I was obsessed with comic books—Tintin, Asterix, all of those superheroes. One day I came across a comic book about Beit Sahour, and for the first time, I'm reading a story where the superheroes could be my family, my cousins. It was a very strange feeling.

The only thing that makes it into the media is bombs.

Later on, we got a chance to come back to Palestine, but everything was totally different from what I was imagining Palestine would look like. I was thinking it would be a red community where everybody would take care of everybody and share food, and I find it's like every other place on Earth where everybody is obsessed with consumerism and materialist stuff. One day I met one of the characters of the film, and he told me that whatever I imagined about Palestine and Beit Sahour was true but I came at the wrong time, because I missed the whole action, and people changed after Oslo.

I made this film for a selfish reason, to have a chance to live those moments again. I made it for me and for my generation, to have an idea of how the Palestinians lived at that time. This need was also there for all my characters. They wanted to come to film shootings, they wanted to talk, they wanted to make this film and to let the new generation know about it, and they wanted to live those moments again, even if only during a film production.

When Americans hear the word intifada, they think of suicide bombers blowing up buses full of civilians. What does intifada mean in Palestinian society?
The literal translation of the word intifada means shaking up things, as if you are covered in dust and you are shaking to get rid of the dust. I think the image they have in the States about the intifada comes from the Second intifada, the suicide bombings. During the first intifada there were no suicide bombers. It was mainly a civil disobedience movement, but it wasn't covered by the media so there's no image of it. The only thing that makes it into the media is bombs. But this kind of thing—having cows, planting backyards, not paying taxes—it's not going to be covered.

A nation who can't make fun of its own wounds will never be able to heal.

What were the biggest challenges you faced making this film?
Most of the footage about Palestine from that period was shot by international news agencies. They had their agendas: either they showed the Palestinians as victims, as heroes, or as terrorists. None of those agencies will provide you with footage of a Palestinian milking a cow. We intended to make the film specially to portray the Palestinians in a different way, which is the everyday Palestinian, and we had to recreate those parts in drama and animation. That was the main technical challenge.

The main concern for me was to make an honest and authentic film, because I didn't live in Palestine at that time and I didn't want to be an Orientalist making a film about Palestinians. It took a lot of energy and questioning to make the film I wanted, where those people represented in the film had a kind of ownership of this discourse. It's beyond loving those characters. You have to be one of them.

The film is so optimistic, even though the events portrayed are difficult. Where does that optimism come from?
The comedy came from my background—I draw political cartoons. A nation who can't make fun of its own wounds will never be able to heal.

Actually, the first draft of the film's script was quite pessimistic. But when we started shooting, something interesting happened. People would approach and tell us stories that weren't in the script. We would ask if they have someone in their family, maybe a son or a cousin, who looks like they did 20 years ago. Then we would shoot the scene. Once we needed 50 people for a demonstration scene, but we could only afford ten. We put out a call on the radio, and 200 people came. They asked us to put the shooting schedule on Facebook. They started to call, "We see you are planning to shoot in this location, but the [Israeli] army is very close, we advise you to change the shooting schedule and shoot the next scene," and when the army started to move, they would call and say, "OK, you can come."

This is becoming a strategy for the Palestinians in our generation: to see that you can stop being a victim and reject being a radical and claim back your future.

So they took over the whole film, and for me, that was an indication that the spirit of the intifada was in the film—the minute they saw that they can believe in this film, they jumped back on. I saw I couldn't represent the situation as a hopeless situation. We still have hope.

What do you want people to take away from the film?
I want them to see a different face of Palestinians and a different face of Israel. I want them to have a better understanding of what does it mean to live under occupation. Usually, the maximum Palestinian films ask for is entertainment and sympathy. I want them to have empathy. I want the audience to think, What would I do if I were Palestinian, if I wanted to have a cow and someone prevented me from that? And I want Palestinians to have hope.

Nowadays, Palestinians are stuck between two positions: one is to be an absolute victim—of the occupation, of capitalism, of poverty—and to act based on that. The other is to say, "I reject that and I want to be a radical, a bomber." But there is a third option which was the option of the first intifada, where people rejected both those options. They wanted to reclaim their life, their future, and to build their own community away from those two proposed options. This is becoming a strategy for the Palestinians in our generation: to see that you can stop being a victim and reject being a radical and claim back your future.

To bring a screening of The Wanted 18 to your local theater, visit the film's website.

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Documentary
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Israeli–Palestinian conflict
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