Julia Bacha’s two documentaries, Budrus (2009) and Naila and the Uprising (2017), represent important contributions to the cultural struggle against Israeli apartheid—though watching them at this historical juncture feels somewhat bittersweet. Celebrating the power of non-violent Palestinian resistance, Bacha chronicles the ways that grassroots engagement has produced creative movements of social solidarity and enduring personal self-transformations. Yet even as the films underscore the power of local organizing and struggle, it’s difficult to watch them now without sadly pondering the relative absence in today’s Palestine of the kinds of popular resistance that they so movingly dramatize.
In Budrus Bacha narrates the popular resistance waged in 2003-04 by a tiny West Bank village (population 1,500) against the Israeli separation wall, which was intended to run directly through the local cemetery and cut off inhabitants from hundreds of acres of their farmland and thousands of their olive trees. Organized by Ayad Morrar, a one-time Fatah combatant who had served six years in Israeli prisons, the villagers initiated a campaign of non-violent opposition to the Israeli bulldozers and their heavily-armed Border Patrol protectors. After ten months of demonstrations, the Israeli government agreed to reroute the wall and allow the beleaguered village to retain 95% of its land and olive trees.
The Budrus example served as an inspiration for local actions in other West Bank villages, including Bil’in (whose struggle was recounted in the film 5 Broken Cameras), Bidu, Ni’ilin, Nabi Saleh and Beit Ommar.
Whereas Budrus concerns itself with one struggle in one place, Naila and the Uprising widens the geographic and temporal focus. Artfully deploying powerful archive footage, recent interviews, and evocative animation, the film recalls the Palestinian resistance in the Occupied Territories from the eve of the first Intifada to the beginning of the ill-fated “Oslo process,” building its narrative around the experience of a determined activist, Naila Ayesh.
Early on, Naila and husband Jamal Zakout choose “the same destiny: to resist the occupation.” Their activism leads to Naila’s harrowing imprisonment in Jerusalem’s Maskubiya prison, where she is tortured and miscarries; the couple’s early involvement with the epochal 1987 Intifada (Jamal produces the inaugural proclamation of the United National Leadership); Jamal’s subsequent arrest and deportation; and later, Naila’s second jailing. After a press campaign by sympathetic Jewish Israelis, she is eventually permitted to have her one-year old child live with her … but only within the confines of the prison.
Budrus and Naila each foreground the political militancy of Palestinian women. In Budrus, Ayad Morrar’s dynamic 15-year-old daughter, Iltezam, challenges her father to encourage greater participation by women in the village demonstrations. Convinced she has “a duty to perform,” Iitezam becomes a stalwart participant in the resistance; in one dramatic instance, she jumps into the ditch produced by an encroaching Israeli bulldozer to prevent it from proceeding with its destructive mission.
In Naila, the role of women in the Intifada is the preeminent subject and Naila’s personal story unfolds within this larger political-cultural context. The creation of Women’s Action Committees by various Palestinian political groupings and their mass mobilization of women (including bringing them into the streets in unprecedented numbers) is presented not only as a crucially important element of the resistance movement but as a powerful blow to Palestinian patriarchy. As the activist Sama Awidah says in the film:
We can’t be free as women unless we’re in a free country. And even if we’re free of the occupation, we can’t know freedom as long as we’re subjugated in our own society.
Both of Bacha’s films present big-tent coalition-building as essential to effective movement-building. In Budrus, Ayad reaches out to Hamas and allies himself with a local member, Ahmed Awwad. Although he regards himself as an “ardent critic” of Hamas, Ayad acknowledges that its members “are an authentic part of Palestinian society” and that it therefore possesses the ability “to sabotage … the movement if [if] reject[s] it.” For his part, Awwad pragmatically endorses non-violent resistance, because it garners “international support” and makes it difficult for the Israelis to call the protesters “terrorists.”
Budrus likewise treats the arrival of Jewish Israeli activists and their active participation in the confrontations with the Israeli military as an important turning-point in the village’s resistance, both psychological (“Now I know all the Israelis are not the same,” says Iltezam) and tactical (the Border Patrol forces are initially at a loss as to how to deal with fellow Jews).
Naila and the Uprising also ignores party-political factional differences and presents the first Intifada as a unified effort of the Palestinian population of the Occupied Territories. Accurately representing the uprising as a spontaneous and indigenous eruption–which took the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), sequestered in far-off Tunisia, entirely by surprise—the film consistently presents local people as the most knowledgeable, trustworthy and democratic actors.
The film presents the Oslo Agreement and the subsequent return of Arafat and his entourage (known locally as “the Tunisians”) as a more-or-less unmitigated disaster, both for Palestinians in general (“Ending the Intifada was a victory for Israel. We shouldn’t have ended the Intifada,” says one interviewee) and for Palestinian women in particular (“The expectation was,” says Zahira Kamal, currently the General Secretary of the Palestinian Democratic Union, “that men would slot straight back into their position and women would have to step aside. . . If fifty percent of the population isn’t participating in decisions, that means society is half-paralyzed.”).
The same suspicion and criticism of a self-appointed and unrepresentative “leadership” are already apparent in Budrus. Reflecting afterwards on a whirlwind visit to the village that he has arranged for Salaam Fayaad, Finance (and later Prime) Minister of the Palestinian Authority, an uncomfortable Ayad notes that his
relationship with these officials is necessary but very touchy. . . . [T]hey don’t feel your importance or value. They think the whole world is a tent and they control the tent. And everyone must play by their rules. We are living under an Occupation. You can’t lead society sitting in our office. You have to be among the people in order to lead them.
Both Budrus and Naila focus on grassroots resistance to the post-1967 occupation. They embrace bottom-up popular action and are keenly attuned to the value of women’s political agency and coalition-building. Although Bacha never interrogates the Zionist project in Palestine as a whole, the two films remain stirring documents of Palestinian courage and principled commitment.
Budrus ends with Ayad and a Jewish member of Anarchists Against the Wall, Kobi Snitz, walking off to join the nonviolent struggle emerging in other West Bank villages, leaving viewers with an optimistic sense of popular resistance on the rise. Naila ends on a less reassuring note. Although the activist women interviewed in the film continue their political work within Palestinian civil society, it’s impossible to ignore the decline of self-confident democratic mass mobilization in the Occupied Territories—in no small measure a consequence of the accommodationist Palestinian Authority.
Writing in 2002, at the height of the destructive and nihilistic second Intifada, the great Palestinian lawyer-essayist Raja Shehadeh noted:
Throughout the first Intifada I had felt a sense of togetherness: we were working together for a common cause, the end of the Israeli Occupation. It mattered little who was the employer, who the employee; before the oppressor we were all equal. But . . .the false peace of Oslo . . shattered us like the pieces of [an] old pot.
Both Budrus and Naila and the Uprising vividly recall this “togetherness” and sustain a vision of—and hope for—its reemergence.
Joel Doerfler is a long-time independent school teacher of history. He lives in New York.