Intifada Milk: We Are Palestinians - We Deserve to Have A Home, We Deserve to Have Our Land, We Deserve to Have Our Freedom, and We Deserve to Have Cows
Lest we forget, the daily indignities and absurdities of the Israeli occupation go on, as do Palestinians' often-ingenious forms of non-violent resistance to it. Thus, The Wanted 18, a new film - mixing Claymation, live action, interviews and talking cows - that recreates the astonishing story of the Israeli pursuit of 18 cows bought by the residents of the small West Bank village of Beit Sahour during the First Intifada to resist Israeli milk hegemony and create their own dairy co-op. An unlikely tribute to the power of grassroots, manure-fed activism at a time when "the people were in the mood for civil disobedience," the film begins with a narrator: "This is Beit Sahour—or, as it used to be during the intifada in 1987. This is my town, and those are my people, 10,000 people who gave Israel a headache."
In interviews, residents explain that, rather than buy milk from the Israeli company Tnuva, "we wanted to produce the milk that is needed by our children and population." A few townspeople, led by high school teacher Jalal Oumsieh, managed to buy 18 cows from a nearby, friendly Kibbutznik and cheerfully set about learning the art of milking cows. But Palestinians know more about goats and sheep than cows; eventually, they sent one of their own to the States to learn how to milk cows. The resulting dairy co-op was so successful it quickly began supplying milk to the entire village, and the beloved cows, each with names and sometimes fussy personalities, became local celebrities. Enter Israel, quick to detect even modest gestures of independence - like cows - from what was supposed to be a subjugated people. Baker Nassim Hilal: "They represented a challenge to Israeli control."
When the military governor came one day with soldiers, they took photos of each subversive cow, declared them “dangerous for the security of the state of Israel,” and gave Beit Sahour 24 hours to shut down the farm. The dairy went underground, where the cows, now fugitives from the law, continued producing "Intifada milk." Things just got stranger from there, as they deserved to. The town's galvanized youth began creating graffiti urging "Boycott Israeli Products." Hundreds of Israeli soldiers arrived to do house-to-house searches as helicopters circled overhead. A small, sweet, sensible economic experiment in independence, notes the film's Palestinian director Amer Shomali, came to signify what the Occupation is: "Traumatized people living under a paranoid army."
A Canada/Palestine/France production, Shomali made "The Wanted 18" with veteran Canadian director Paul Cowan, telling the story from the perspective of Israeli military officials, the townspeople and the cows, who speak in gentle, goofy tones. A 33-year-old political artist and cartoonist, Shomali first heard about Beit Sahour and its cows as a kid growing up in a Syrian refugee camp. He was obsessed with comic books and superheroes; when he came across a comic book about Beit Sahour, "and for the first time I'm reading a story where the superheroes could be me, my family, my cousins." While "terrified" by the notion of making a funny film about a distinctly unfunny Occupation, he says that humor is part of the way he sees things as a cartoonist. More importantly, "I believe a nation that can't make fun of its own wounds will never be able to heal from them."
The film, widely promoted by Arab arts groups and the international grassroots NGO Just Vision, hasdrawn acclaim as it tours international art and human rights film festivals; one reviewer called it, "beautiful and important and very strange." Shomali argues its lessons continue to resonate for today's generation of Palestinians, who are too often "stuck between two positions: one is to be an absolute victim - of the Occupation, of capitalism, of poverty - the other is to say, 'I want to be a radical, a bomber.'" He offers the third option of the First Intifada, "where (people) wanted to reclaim their life, their future, and build their own community." He wants audiences watching the film "to see a different face of Palestinians...I want them to have a better understanding of what does it mean to live under occupation. 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."
"The Wanted 18" opened theatrically last month in New York and Los Angeles, after having its U.S. premiere at New York's annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Shomali was not present. Denied entry to Jerusalem to get a U.S. visa, he was deemed a "security threat."