The period of 1987-1991 marked one of the most explosive and unsettling times for Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation. Known ubiquitously as the First Intifada, or “uprising”, these four years bore witness to unprecedented waves of protest and grassroots activism by Palestinians against Israeli occupying forces, and led to the deaths of over 1,000 Palestinians – many of them children – and 100 Israelis, mostly IDF soldiers. But alongside the violence and aggression, the Intifada also represented a time of hope and solidarity; a time in which the dream of an independent Palestine still seemed to be an attainable reality.
“There was more to the Intifada than throwing stones and burning tyres,” says Salim Jabr, an elderly Palestinian who took part in many of the activities of the time.
“One of the main aims of the occupation [was] to put into your head that you are sub-human… that you are not equal… But the Israelis knew they couldn’t intimidate us.”
Speaking as part of a new award-winning documentary, Salim and other residents of Beit Sahour, a predominantly Christian Palestinian town on the outskirts of Bethlehem, speak of the resilience and creativity of Palestinians during this period, and of the continued cruelty and absurdity of the occupation. The Wanted 18, an enthralling mixture of stop-motion animation and documentary, chronicles one particular event of the Intifada years that, in its banality, serves to capture the almost farcical nature of Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians – both then and now.
Co-directed by Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan and screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the film tells the story of 18 cows bought by a group of enterprising Palestinian activists in Beit Sahour in the late 1980s to form a milk collective, and that were later declared a “threat to the national security of the state of Israel”. The ensuing cat-and-mouse (or rather cop-and cow) operation pursued by the Israeli military to find and impound the cows – “the wanted 18” of the film’s title – forming the core of the cinematographic narrative. Ultimately, the cows – arguably just as the Palestinians themselves – meet with a bitter, though not wholly unexpected, end.
As the film progresses, splicing Wallace and Gromit-esque scenes of clay animated cows with archive footage and talking-head interviews, we glimpse an intimate picture of life during the Intifada, a time in which the residents of Beit Sahour announced a boycott of all Israeli goods and products – including milk – as well as refusing to pay taxes to the occupying administration. We hear how villagers worked together to cultivate the land and raise chickens and other livestock, as well as organising peaceful demonstrations and protests; of how they supported each other throughout four years of gruelling Israeli-imposed curfews and witch-hunts – in which “nearly everyone in the village was arrested” – and shared the responsibilities of maintaining the streets and neighbourhoods of their town.
This sense of communal solidarity and enterprise was nowhere more evident than in the case of the milk farm. A radical scheme in every sense of the word – Palestinians traditionally have kept sheep and goats, not cows, and “no one in the village had a clue of what to do” (indeed, one of the young men was actually sent to the US to learn about the practices of cow milking and animal husbandry) – the purchase of the 18 cows from a sympathetic kibbutznik represented an important step in the journey of Beit Sahour residents for self-sufficiency and freedom from the Israeli occupation. In one particularly amusing scene, we witness an unlikely group of well-dressed, middle class Palestinian men wading through knee-deep mud in driving rain at the dead of night in an attempt to herd the cows into their makeshift barn. Equally absurd is the sequence in which Israeli soldiers swarm the town in search of the missing cows following their declaration as “a threat to the national security of the state of Israel”.
“They had photos of the cows, and they were coming up to people saying, ‘Have you seen this cow?’; ‘Have you seen this cow?’ It was bizarre,” says one interviewee, whose face is obscured in shadow.
“I don’t understand,” another man muses. “How can 18 cows be dangerous for the security of the state of Israel? It’s very strange…Now, the 18 terrorists – I mean the cows – are [missing], so that’s more dangerous for the security of the state of Israel!”
Despite such humour, however, the underlying message of the film is serious. Not only did the residents of Beit Sahour engage in sustained civil protest and activism throughout the Intifada, they paid a heavy price for such action. The film briefly recounts the details of the fatal shooting of Amer Shomali’s young cousin, Anton, by Israeli soldiers during a nonviolent protest; and there are veiled references to detention and torture in Israeli prisons, but unfortunately very little detail.
Indeed, the film as a whole can often seem disjointed and incoherent, its focus on the story of the cows, although compelling, somewhat obscuring some of the more concrete factual details of a truly significant juncture in Palestinian history. The animation, too, while injecting some much-needed light relief into what otherwise would be a rather dry and sombre tale, seems a little out of place; especially since the four main cow protagonists bizarrely speak in brash American accents and espouse blatantly racist and politically incorrect opinions about Arabs and Palestinians. In one instance, asked what is meant by “intifada”, one of the cows replies that: “It means the ragheads are pissed off again.”
Such glib belittling of the Palestinian situation may have been calculated to expose the nonchalance with which the international community (and especially the US) has generally treated the Palestinian cause, but results instead in an aesthetic jarring that leaves the viewer a little unsure of what is going on.
The Wanted 18 should be commended for its attempts to highlight an often overlooked and deeply personal narrative of the Intifada – one that exposes the hypocrisy and absurdity of the Israeli occupation – but this same story could have been better told in a manner that sought less to attract Western critical attention through the use of “alternative” animation and styles and instead to simply and honestly document the stories of the extraordinary individuals who gave so much of their lives for the Palestinian cause.