Documentaries give voice to Palestinian moderates

If the moderates are indeed being edged out of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute by the extremists, as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman frets, “Ford Transit” and “Behind Enemy Lines” may represent our last chance to hear from them.

As if there’s much likelihood of the torrent of documentaries about the Mideast subsiding anytime soon. Only peace and prosperity on both sides will bring that about.

Until that happy day, it is assuredly more comforting to hear the frustrated yet reasoned opinions of educated Palestinians than the angry threats of Hamas members.

The first-rate “Ford Transit” hitches a ride with Rajai, a resourceful Palestinian who drives one of a slew of former Israeli police cars now employed as taxis between East Jerusalem and Ramallah. In another life, Rajai would have led wagon trains across the plains, or run hooch during Prohibition.

Passengers board and exit, some sharing their articulate views en route. These people are generally better off than the average Palestinian. After all, they aren’t riding the bus.

“Ford Transit” never ceases to be entertaining, partly because director Hany Abu-Assad flaunts one of the cardinal rules of documentary: Some bits are scripted and staged, and not all the passengers are random.

Occasionally, it’s obvious; other times, less so. For example, the elegant Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi (a familiar face to local festivalgoers by now) turns up in Rajai’s van. This, we conclude, as she addresses the camera while he speeds down the highway, isn’t a coincidence.

While it’s possible that Abu-Assad (who has resided in the Netherlands for many years) wrote some of the passengers’ “lines,” I chose to accept every bit of commentary as an authentic point of view.

That includes the man who asserts, “[The Israelis] should no longer see themselves as victims. They were once victims; no one denies that. But not today.” And the woman who declares, “It’s all a mess. We’re all bunglers.”

Many of the speakers weigh in on suicide bombing, with the majority clearly opposed. But they are more vehemently opposed to Israeli restrictions and policies.

“Ford Transit” includes just one non-Palestinian speaker, “Promises” director B.Z. Goldberg. In contrast, “Behind Enemy Lines” pairs a gregarious Israeli police officer — who is also a settler, we find out — with a smart Palestinian journalist. The two had become friends four years earlier at a confab in Japan, so they have a presumed basis of trust upon which to build.

Israeli director Dov Gil-Har sets them up with a vehicle, and they embark on a weeklong tour of key places in Israel and the territories. The kicker: Benny and Adnan pick the spots, trying to convey their experience to the other.

Benny’s stops include Yad Vashem and the Wailing Wall, while Adnan’s choices include the plaza outside al-Aksa mosque (which Benny also claims, as the Temple Mount) and a nervous drive through Jenin.

Although very well made, and full of heart and good intentions, “Behind Enemy Lines” is a bit of a downer. What Gil-Har ultimately discovers is how deep the gulf is, even between two people who like and respect each other.

“Behind Enemy Lines” plays with “Daughters of Abraham,” a thesis film by Southern Illinois University grad student (and Tel Aviv native) Hilla Medalia. Composed of interviews with the mothers of two dead teenage girls — suicide bomber Ayat al-Akhras and one of her victims, Rachel Levy — it would have made a powerful 15-minute piece.

“Ford Transit” screens at 11 a.m. Sunday, July 25, at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.; and 2 p.m. Saturday, July 31, at Wheeler Auditorium, U.C. Berkeley campus. “Behind Enemy Lines” plays at 12:45 a.m. Sunday, July 25, at the Castro; 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, at Wheeler and 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 5, at the Century Cinema, 1500 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View. Tickets: $7-$11. (925) 275-9490, or


Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.