Film Review: Disturbing the Peace

A moving documentary about a group of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants who renounced violence and together use peaceful activism to push toward the ever-receding goal of peace.
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The stubborn, hope-killing, intransigent nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the sort of geopolitical puzzle that kills optimism in even the most diligent dreamer. That reality of occupiers and occupied, varieties of prisoners in the same war, is reflected in a dire manner by most nonfiction films emanating from that part of the world these days. But, as directors Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young show in their potent and earnest documentary Disturbing the Peace, there’s always a different way to look at a puzzle.

The film starts as a bifurcated narrative. Footage reveals two different worlds—the modern high-rises and freeways of Israel and the crowded ramshackle villages of the West Bank—divided by an ominous and graffiti-covered wall. As the filmmakers provide an impressionistic overview of the last couple of decades of back-and-forth bloodletting, each world’s combatants explain how they came to fight for their side and why.

The Israeli soldiers discuss their service in terms of defense, keeping their families and nation safe in a world that left their people nowhere else to go. They range from the kibbutznik just proud to be an Israeli soldier to the grandchild of a Polish Zionist, whose entire family was slaughtered in the Holocaust, who makes the equation simple: “If we don’t keep [the Palestinians] quiet... they will be in Tel Aviv slaughtering us.”

On the Palestinian side of the wall, the roads to violence sound constructed more of a suffocatingly powerless sense of rage and hopelessness. One man describes his brother being shot dead simply for running away from an Israeli soldier. A mother who was arrested just before she could carry out a suicide attack says that the Israelis “didn’t leave us a chance... our world was a cemetery of the living.”

Seemingly independent of each other, at some point around the second intifada of 2005, members of both the established Israeli military and individual Palestinian combatants (who, after the collapse of the PLO as a cohesive entity, appear to operate more frequently as one-off terrorists and killers of opportunity) came to realize that enough was enough. For some of the Palestinians, that realization appeared to come in prison, where they began to empathize with the other side’s perspective, even when it resulted in the bombing, occupation and demolition of their neighborhoods. For the Israelis, it was the morally oppressive price they paid in being an occupier that seems to have turned their conscience around. The soldiers publicly announced that they would no longer take part in the occupation. They were then invited into the West Bank for a nerve-rattling meeting with like-minded Palestinian activists, after which both groups discovered that they had enough in common to be able to work together for a single goal. As one soldier sardonically notes, they shared “a willingness to kill people we don’t know.” Their group, Combatants for Peace, has spent the last ten or so years advocating in a highly unique way for an end to the fighting and a constructive path toward a two-state solution.

Disturbing the Peace isn’t lacking for moral drama or large goals. The spokespeople it has gathered make for genuinely compelling witnesses to one of the world’s most grueling cycles of recrimination and death. The filmmakers intelligently don’t try to turn the film into a tick-tock for the entire struggle, splicing together enough documentary footage, personal reminiscences and dramatic recreations to provide a solid overview of the calcifying conflict both peoples find themselves in today.

Where the film proves less agile is when, having spent so much time on how the activists came to their moment of realization, it tries to show how the activists function in the current climate. Some attention is paid to the present stalemate and the last failed round of negotiations. It then jumps to 2015 and a unique kind of protest, where activists whistle and shout to one another across the no-man’s-land of the security wall. When they are violently (and rather pointlessly, it seems) confronted by Israeli security forces, the image of those troops being entrapped in a narrow corridor of barbed-wire fencing makes for sharp irony.

Perhaps because the filmmakers are so engaged in these former fighters’ heart-stirring pursuit of a non-violent end to the struggle, their doc doesn’t adequately show how they fit into the current state of play. Brief moments provide some insight into how each side is seen by their countrymen. One of the Palestinians has his wife essentially try to shame him for not wanting to kill Israelis anymore, while the Israeli are called “whores” and “traitors” by screaming counter-protestors.

A broader presentation of the activists’ day-to-day fight against their friends and families’ desire for vengeance would have resulted in a more impactful story. As it stands, Disturbing the Peace is a striking but imperfect vehicle for a transcendent message.

Click here for cast and crew information.