Commentary: Al-Nakba screening inspires fiery political exchange

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

At the North American premiere of "Al-Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948" at the Castro Theatre, it seemed the audience wanted to skip the documentary altogether and get right into the free-for-all discussion to follow.

People got an early start crowding the front of the San Francisco theater Wednesday evening of last week to hand out leaflets from numerous political viewpoints.

Some of the tiniest fringe coalitions were eager to stuff the audience full of fliers. A few senior citizens would lay a sweet smile on passers-by and then slip them a brochure on extreme solutions to the Middle East's problems.

A police officer stood in front of the theater, looking less like a figure of authority than just confused, perhaps unsure how to distinguish extremists from pacifists.

Fortunately, he was there to monitor a battle of words, whereas his Israeli counterpart would be more concerned about rocks and suicide-bombers that threaten not just one life but a whole society's existence.

"Al-Nakba" is the most controversial film in this year's festival, partly because the timing coincides with Israel's 50th anniversary. In a year during which the organized Jewish community has celebrated the birth of the Jewish state, festival organizers chose to include a film that refers to the event as a nightmare.

"Al-Nakba" means "catastrophe" in Arabic and is how many Palestinians refer to Israel's birth. That sets up a haunting resonance with the term "Shoah," which is Hebrew for "catastrophe," and which some say was responsible for the creation of Israel.

After the first segments of the 60-minute film had passed, it became clear that "Al-Nakba" would not ruin the festival for anyone not already bothered by its inclusion.

The film stayed close to what can be asserted as fact, either by archival evidence or first-person accounts.

The directors apparently tried hard not to let the film degenerate into propaganda.

Focusing primarily on the situation of Haifa and Jaffa, the film lays out how Jews took control of the towns, scared or even killed Palestinians, and then moved into their homes.

The film describes how wealthy Palestinians had no difficulties entering other lands, but the urban lower-class became unwanted peasantry.

"Al-Nakba" lets us see, through eye-witness testimony by all four sides — left-wing and right-wing Israelis and Palestinians — that everyone was scared and no one appeared to have full knowledge of the situation when it occurred.

Of course, that does not prevent anyone interviewed from making self-righteous or contradictory claims.

The filmmakers used no archival footage, claiming that only a few minutes of actual film exist and that they could not access Arabic archives.

Interspersed between the interviews are scenes of the ruins of former Palestinian dwellings and poetry readings by a Palestinian.

"We wanted to have lots of information in the film and not to make an emotional film," co-director Alexandra Jansse said later in an interview.

"But the movie was brought to a higher level by adding the Palestinian poetry. We wanted to add that emotional level of the Palestinians who are broken up in their hearts and you can see it in their eyes."

Presenting a neutral, factual documentary will never happen on a topic as explosive as Palestine. Even before the film spoke, the audience attached an ideology to it.

So after the film, the two directors, Jansse from Amsterdam and Benny Brunner, a Jew raised in Israel, along with David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at the Graduate Theological Union, answered questions for 45 minutes.

They appeared as three figures dwarfed by the backdrop of huge yellow curtains, and by an audience that filled two-thirds of the 1,450 seats in the theater.

The first question came from a Palestinian woman originally from Haifa who lived through '48 and wanted to know why she was not interviewed.

Ensuing questions, for the most part, also clearly stayed on the topic of the film and not a personal agenda. Each question simultaneously received applause and hisses.

The filmmakers would not be baited by the audience into taking sides.

"People call this film a Palestinian film, but it is not a Palestinian film. It is neutral, made by someone who is Jewish," Jansse said in an interview. "Many historians like it because it has a balance of views. When people see it, they don't really get so upset."

Added Brunner, "It showed political maturity of the audience" that the question session went well.

The audience seemed to number about 2-to-1 Jews to Arabs and 2-to-1 leftists to rightists.

The film has been shown in Tel Aviv as well as across Europe, and possibly, via an illegal copy, on a Palestinian-operated TV channel in the Middle East.

Brunner hopes the film will have the greatest impact on those who have the most distorted views of the situation.

"My ideal audience for the film would be all the Israelis who believe the old story that the Palestinians want to kill all the Jews and throw them in the sea," Brunner said. "And also all the Palestinians who really believe there was a grand political master plan to kick them out."

By bringing the film to the Bay Area, the Jewish Film Festival sent out a message that striving for peace is not propaganda and a dialogue about it is not ideology.

"When you fill gaps, that means you can cross borders," Jansse said.