Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan’s film about how one Palestinian town hid eighteen cows from Israeli authorities during the first intifada won the Abu Dhabi film festival’s “Best Documentary in the Arab World” in late 2014. The film, after five years in production, is generating a buzz for its light-hearted, feel-good take on this critical period in Palestinian history. But a closer look reveals a missed opportunity in telling an important piece of the history of the intifada.
The 75-minute documentary combines Shomali’s illustrations with interviews and re-enactments. The story begins with Shomali hiking in the desert. He tells us how, growing up in exile in Syria, he came across a comic strip about eighteen cows sold to the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour.
The story of the cows begins with their sale from a kibbutz outside Haifa to the residents of Beit Sahour. We follow their perilous journey by truck, their difficult birthing ordeals, their trials with the novice Palestinian dairy farmers who don’t know how to milk them, their pursuit by the Israeli authorities who deemed them a threat, and finally their second and final sale to the butcher, soon after the Oslo Accords.
The intifada in Beit Sahour, or this recounting of its history, thus begins with the sale of the bovines and their forced departure from the land of their birth, the kibbutz. Significantly, we understand this inciting moment through the fears and anxieties of the cows: Goldie, Ruth, Lola, and Rivka. Humanized via voice-over in Shomali’s illustrations, the cows internalize this selling off as a great trauma.
Before we meet the residents of Beit Sahour in any substantive way, we identify with these four female cows as the real victims of the story, sold off against their will to this strange and scary place called Palestine, under the tutelage of the equally scary Palestinians. That the real subjects of the film are the cows and not the Palestinians is indeed a peculiar take on this piece of Palestinian history, especially considering their anthropomorphization as Israeli cows.
“We deserve to have cows!”
Practically, Shomali and Cowan’s story is about a town’s struggle for self-sufficiency in the face of considerable military, economic and socio-cultural oppression. But the weight of this reality is never fully communicated — or at least, it is not sustained. The very real (and still very current) political question about how to counter Israeli repression with Palestinian self-sufficiency is replaced by a comicality induced by the use of cows as the story’s protagonists, their funny sounds, and the absurdity of dealing with one when you have no training to do so.
The music score contributes to this, the editing of the interviews contributes to this, and the animation itself contributes to this. At one point, the town physician is edited into a sound bite saying, “We are Palestinians. We deserve a home, we deserve our land, we deserve our freedom — and we deserve to have cows!” The subtext here is “We have the right to be self-sufficient. We deserve not to pay taxes to an occupying power. We deserve to be able to feed our own children.” But the framing put forth in the initial sequences of the film trivializes all of this into a rather absurd declaration of the right to a cow.
Which is to say that the film is seriously lacking a proper contextualization of the situation in which residents of Beit Sahour found themselves that led them to buy the cows in the first place. This history is summed up in a few minutes which point to the existence at the time (1988) of popular “neighborhood committees.” This historical reality is then inexplicably sidelined throughout the rest of the film. Instead, we are encouraged to identify with the cows and their fears and aspirations. After an initial tempted escape on the way to Beit Sahour, the cows rally themselves and submit to the oppression they face at the hands of the Palestinians. The oddity of this opening framework needs to be emphasized.
Turning names into things
One could forgive the filmmakers if it were simply that: an easy opening into Palestinian history. Indeed, one could almost write it off as necessary, given the dehumanizing and demonizing depictions of Palestinians in the mass media over the past several decades. We need the cows in order to approach the Palestinians: a necessary detour. But it is through the cows that we continue to see their new Palestinian shepherds. And absurdly enough, one of them is even outwardly racist, delivering a steady stream of jabs like “tiny terrorist,” “towel head,” etc., at her human overlords, declaring they are “lazy” and that they “don’t want to work.”
Besides needlessly embedding and normalizing racism against Palestinians (as cute), this imaginative mindset of the cows also essentializes Israelis and Palestinians. The viewer is to understand that even cows can feel a difference between Palestinians and Israelis, between the scary West Bank and the calm and peaceful kibbutz. This sense of irreconcilable difference is finally summed up in an exasperated wish. During a raid in which Israelis are looking for the cows, one cow asks tiredly, “Can’t you all just get along?” The cows never learn, as we might hope an audience might, that the story of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is political, not cultural or ethnic.
Essentialized difference is enforced in other aesthetic choices. For example, all Palestinians in the film are interviewed, at one point or another, against a black background, usually with two sources of offset light. This gives the impression of shadow around the Palestinian interlocutors. In contrast, the Israelis interviewed in the film, all of them military or ex-military personnel, are interviewed against a bright white background, in very tight close-up.
Without pretending to know the production reasons behind these choices, the stark contrast between the two is striking. The most immediate effect is that it is the Israeli speaker that seems to carry with him truth. We meet Palestinian after Palestinian who explains why it is that they were refusing to pay taxes to Israel. But the point is finally hit home when an Israeli interlocutor, enshrined in white, laughs and concurs, ‘If I were them, I wouldn’t want to pay either!’
Cultural essentialism continues further still. Viewers of the film in Ramallah during its premiere as part of the Qalandia International Festival found the reenactment episode where three Beit Sahouri men turned a kind of daily administrative detention at the hands of the Israelis into a barbecue, funny. They also laughed heartily at a gaggle of older men, each wearing a kaffiyeh, sitting in a sidewalk café and watching calmly as some action or other played out in the street.
It is not that we cannot or should not recognize cultural features and celebrate them when appropriate (here the observation that Arabs seemingly fix everything with food; or that older men sit in sidewalk cafes). It is that the representation of cultural artifacts, or cultural behavior, in the absence of a recounting or contextualization of political activities, reduces the agents involved to stereotypes, and the resistance involved to cultural essence.
Leftist politics and Arab identities
This is a debilitating way to recount the history of a period of intensely collaborative, imaginatively furtive, and actually effective community organizing. This was a political organizing, moreover, that had at least as much to do with overtly leftist political strategizing as it did with the Arab identity of its agents. And it is after all this leftist political activity which is the primary thing we are talking about when we talk about these cows in Beit Sahour.
It is true that without a consideration of how this town deliberated its political strategies and its powerful political stance, the directors show us a united community. They succeed in completely overstepping the difficult and painful history of friction, faction, divide, and ultimately fatigue that beset not only the denizens of Beit Sahour but much of Palestine, and which in fact readied it to accept what would be the debilitating framework of the Oslo Accords.
It is to the film’s credit that, even without carefully exploring the political buildup to Oslo, it does give voice to disappointment with it. Here, in fact, the recollections of the Palestinians in the film resonate powerfully. “Oslo fucked us,” one man remembers. His testimony about how he and his friends ran away to the desert caves outside of Beit Sahour in the days after the announcement of the Oslo Accords, in order to avoid the celebratory car honking of a political resolution they felt even then would not serve them, is perhaps the most revealing moment in the film.
Similarly Shomali’s recounting of the funeral of his cousin Anton, a prominent youth organizer, after being shot by Israeli soldiers, is an equally powerful and necessary part of the story. This latter chapter rescues a film largely celebrating “non-violence” from the trap of failing to consider the human costs of the violence of the Occupation.
Abstracted, diluted, and de-toothed
In the end of the film, the Palestinians sign the Oslo Accords and residents of Beit Sahour sell off the remaining four cows, the smallest of which is a calf named Yara. In the truck on the way to their imminent slaughter, Yara’s mother pushes the youngest off the truck and tells her to run. The young cow escapes into the desert. The depoliticization of violence and of political strategy culminates in these closing sequences of the film. Shomali’s narration tells us nobody knows what happened to the calf, though rumor has it, she lives in a cave nearby.
In a return to the opening sequences of the film, we again see Shomali hiking in the desert. His voiceover tries to sum up the dreams and aspirations of the struggling Palestinians post-Oslo. Some people believe in this; some people believe in that; for his part, he says, “I believe in a white cow.” And with this, he stumbles upon a cave that looks inhabited. Any possible metaphorical tie between the cows of Beit Sahour and Palestinian self-sufficiency or “resilience” is by this point so abstracted, diluted, and de-toothed as to lose any political significance.
It is worth being clear. It is not that a film about the intifada has to be serious. It is not that Palestinian political history needs to be dry. It is not that we have to see Palestinians always in a posture of heart-broken romantic longing, trying to reach across the impossible, inhuman, separation wall. On the contrary, we need stories to shake these orthodoxies, as human histories are not as trite, melancholy, or even as militant as representations of Palestinians in films and in the media would have us believe.
But a film about the intifada, in fact, about one of the most interesting and radical parts of Palestinian history — that is, about how a town came to collectively sustain itself for years via collaborative community organization and the establishment and participation in agricultural, educational, and other committees; via the deliberations and disagreements over divisions of labor, of shared space, and of collective safety, and the difficulties that ultimately led to its unraveling — this should not be reduced to a joke, to a cute but unfortunate ordeal of four scared cows.
“Intifada” in this light loses its very real political history. The phrase “third intifada” has been repeated with sporadic frequency over the past year. What can we hope this intifada will look like? One would have hoped a documentary on this significant period of historical activity would have provided more threads to tug on, as we deliberate its contours, moving forward.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/palestina-intifada-wanted-18/