BY JOEL GREENBERG | Looking squarely into the camera, Amer Kamal, a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem, delivers a message to his Israeli friend, Yaron Avni, who will soon be drafted into the Israeli Army.
“I hope that you will be a good soldier who helps his society, who helps his people and who works for the peace process,” Mr. Kamal says. “I don’t want to see you in the West Bank or in Jerusalem or in the Gaza Strip running after Palestinians and killing them. I hope you’re going to stay the Yaron I know, not to change your opinions but go for peace and help us to work for peace.”
The scene is from “Peace of Mind,” the first documentary film shot jointly by Israeli and Palestinian youths, chronicling a year in their lives after returning home from an Israeli-Arab summer camp in the Maine woods. The camp is run by Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings young Israelis together with Palestinians and other Arab teenagers to build friendships and discuss ways to resolve the conflict between their peoples.
“Peace of Mind,” which will be shown a few times around New York in the coming months, had its Israeli premiere in November after being shown at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October. The producers say that showings are being considered by PBS and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival this summer. Israel Educational Television and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation are also planning to show the movie, which the producers hope will become a teaching tool in schools.
The documentary was conceived by Susan Siegel, co-executive director of Global Action Project, an educational group that has produced youth documentaries on social issues in the United States as well as on conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Balkans. She said she wanted the cameras to follow the campers when they left their idyllic surroundings in Maine and returned to the Middle East. “What happens when they go back home: that’s the real story,” she said.
Producers chose four Israelis and three Palestinians, trained them to use video cameras and to work as a team, and then sent them back to document their lives after the 1997 camp session. The film, produced and directed by Mark Landsman, took two years to complete, and the process produced fast friendships and heated debates.
A major challenge was how the history of the conflict should be presented. The two sides have opposing narratives of the same events, and the young filmmakers struggled to meld them. They argued over terminology and historical perceptions: Were the Palestinians expelled from their land? Or did they flee a war started by Arab states bent on destroying Israel?
“It wasn’t possible to come up with a unified history,” Mr. Landsman said. “It doesn’t exist. The Palestinian youths produced their version of history, and the Israelis produced theirs.”
So the film shows two separate archival sequences: the Palestinians show the displacement of their people in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and the Israelis depict the return of Jews to an ancient homeland after the Holocaust.
An emotional argument about terrorism almost broke up the group. The Palestinians grew defensive when Yossi Zilberman, an Israeli participant, called bombers from the militant Islamic group Hamas animals. Mr. Kamal, the Palestinian, argued that although the militants were wrong, they had sacrificed their lives for their country.
“It boiled my blood that someone from Seeds of Peace was defending them,” said Mr. Zilberman, 18. A heated argument ended in tears, threatening the project’s future. Sivan Ranon, 17, an Israeli, said of the Palestinian arguments: “It was scary to hear your friend talking like that. Suddenly you felt that you don’t know this person.”
In the end a sense of common purpose kept the group together. The movie includes a scene in which Bushra Jawabri, 18, a Palestinian, calls her Israeli friends from her home in a West Bank refugee camp to express sympathy after a deadly suicide bombing in Jerusalem.
“It meant a lot to me that she called,” Mr. Zilberman says in the film. “I think that this is the first step.”
Hazem Zaanoun, 17, a Palestinian from Gaza, said, “We had strong unity between us that really served us.”
There were also concerns about the Israelis’ impending army service, which is compulsory in Israel after high school. “What if they ask me to go and be in a base in the West Bank or East Jerusalem?” Reut Elkobi, 17, an Israeli, asks in the film. “I have friends over there. God, Amer lives in East Jerusalem. Maybe one time I will have to stop him from throwing stones at me. Is this ever going to happen? I don’t know what I’m going to do if they put me over there.”
Ms. Jawabri, who formed a close friendship with Ms. Ranon, exchanging home visits they documented in the film, said she was concerned about what her Israeli friend might do when she puts on a uniform. “Although I trust her that she really wants coexistence, what if her government asks her to do something against the other side?” Ms. Jawabri asked. “I don’t want to see Sivan carrying a gun in front of me, and me carrying a stone against her.”
Ms. Ranon, for her part, said that no matter how close she was to Ms. Jawabri, her friend’s dream of returning to her refugee family’s native village inside Israel remained a barrier. “She represents a whole population that wants to come back and live in our place, and that’s scary,” Ms. Ranon said. “Her dream is my nightmare.”
That contradiction is powerfully portrayed in the film’s climactic scene, in which Ms. Jawabri visits Mr. Zilberman at his home in Kiryat Gat, a town of immigrants built next to the ruins of her family’s village, which was destroyed in the aftermath of the 1948 war.
The camera lingers on their faces as he leads her to an abandoned grave of a Muslim holy man, points out trees planted over the ruins of Arab homes, and offers her shards of pottery that were left behind. Ms. Jawabri kneels in silent prayer near the grave and later fills a glass jar with soil to take back to the refugee camp.
For Ms. Jawabri the visit was a jolt. The arid landscape and sandy soil were nothing like the fertile green village fields described to her by elders in her camp. The village homes had vanished, giving way to the apartment buildings and industries of Kiryat Gat.
“I was really sad, and I felt bad for those people who still have their memories and still have hope of going back,” she said. “I now have less hope of returning. I don’t want to say it’s impossible. That’s too hard to say.”
Mr. Zilberman said: “I tell friends that we’re strong enough to acknowledge that there was a community here, that there were people here, with the emphasis on was. There was a war. We didn’t start it, and this is the history of the place. I was quite proud to show Bushra my town. Now it’s my place.”
In retrospect, he said, thrashing out painful issues with his Palestinian friends had made him more hard-headed about the odds of a peaceful resolution of the conflict. It will take a long time for true reconciliation, he said.
On both sides there are reservations about the finished film. Mr. Zilberman and Mr. Avni, 18, wrote a letter to Mr. Landsman criticizing portrayals that they thought were unfair to the Israelis and too sympathetic to the Palestinians. Mr. Kamal, 17, said the Palestinian views on Jerusalem were lacking, and Mr. Zaanoun said a broader range of Palestinian voices should have been heard, including the militant opinions of some people he interviewed.
All in all, Mr. Zilberman said the project proved to be a reality check.
“We got to know each other, for better and for worse,” he said. “I’m still for peace, but I’m much more realistic. I know what I’m up against. I’m more sober. We’re all more sober.”