Working around the wall

Side by Side Film Fair encourages better Israeli-Palestinian relations
Wednesday, November 30, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:41 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]

Two years ago, Iman Labadia, a practicing Muslim for 16 years, was surprised by an FBI visit to her home. A few months later, a co-worker at Labadia’s office approached her with a fearful confession: Because Labadia wore a hijab, the traditional facial scarf worn by Muslim women, the co-worker was afraid that one day Labadia might come into work to “blow herself up.”

After deciding to stop wearing the hijab, Labadia’s neighbor approached her, saying she had previously suspected that Labadia’s family was constructing bombs in their home.

“It was absurd. I mean, what did she think I was trying to do when I baked her banana bread when I moved in, poison her?” Labadia said. “I believe that there’s a lack of education and understanding about Islam. You need to be able to separate the culture, religion and politics involved.”

These incidents motivated Labadia to organize a communitywide initiative to educate others about Islam and the issues the Muslim community faces at home and abroad. The result is the Side By Side Film Fair, which will culminate today at the Missouri Theatre.

The event highlights creative interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Columbia residents through several media, including writing, art and film. A poetry contest was open to students at 33 Columbia-area public schools, Stephens College, Columbia College and MU. Judges represented 11 different religious backgrounds, including Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.

“The fact that these young people took the time go sit down and write about peace was amazing,” said Terri Folsom, a judge. “I tried to look at creativity and that each piece presented two sides. Mostly, I went from my heart.”

The Side by Side fair’s main event is a 7 p.m. screening of “Wall,” a documentary about the 400-mile security barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank. Director Simone Bitton will be in town for the screening, visiting Columbia before her next appearance, at Harvard. She will give a lecture at Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union at MU at 1 p.m. today.

The pre-screening entertainment will feature music from the group Yidn, which means “Jews.” A variety of Arabic and Jewish food will be provided by International Cafe and, following the film, discussion circles will be open to the public at Cherry Street Artisan.

“The key thing for me is bringing the Jewish and Muslim communities together in a very powerful and unique way and (to) examine the concept of what peace looks and sounds like,” Labadia said. “All my life, I’ve wanted to bring these people together. It pains me.”

Labadia has rallied broad community support for the fair, including Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, the Interfaith Council and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The program received a grant from the Jane Addams Peace Association, the first peace organization in the world. In addition, there have been multiple sponsorships from MU.

“It’s much better to come forward, to be open, ask questions and foster understanding, because it will only open up more discussion about Islam,” said Maaz Maqbool, the public relations officer for MU’s Muslim Students Association and one of the event’s sponsors. “These events are happening far away, but they have a local impact because we have so many different cultures in one community.”

Originally, two alternate films were planned for the event: “Paradise Now,” by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Massad, and “Another Road Home,” by Israeli director Danae Elon. Abu-Massad’s film follows two men on a journey to Tel Aviv to carry out a suicide bombing, while the Elon’s film follows her journey to find her longtime Palestinian caretaker.

Because neither director could appear at the event, the organizers chose to screen Bitton’s film, which looks at the land dispute from the perspective of citizens on both sides of the barrier.

“We’re very happy with the selection, because we think it very neatly illustrates the division between the Palestinian and Israeli people while, at the same time, (it) talks about the present-day relationship and the hope for reconciliation,” said Paul Sturtz, program director for Ragtag Cinemacafe.

Born in Morocco, Bitton has what she describes as a “dual cultural identity.” Her family immigrated to Israel when she was 11, and she later studied film in France. She maintains citizenship in all three countries and speaks English, French, Hebrew and Arabic.

“I feel as close to the Israelis as the Palestinians,” Bitton said. “I stand in the middle emotionally and, sometimes, I have a double suffering, because people die on both sides. The wall became the essence of our lives. It’s the idea and the materialization of separation and segregation.”

Backed by the Sundance Institute and the Ford Foundation, the film has received widespread critical acclaim, including a screening at the Cannes Film Festival, nomination for a major award at the 2006 Amnesty International Film Festival, jury prizes at documentary film festivals in Jerusalem, Pezzaro and Marseilles in 2004 and a special jury prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

Bitton thinks Americans in general are ill-informed about the Middle East, thus increasing the need to view events in the region from as many different perspectives as possible.

“I think it’s important when I can meet directly with people, especially in the United States,” Bitton said. “It’s an opportunity to talk to someone who comes from the Middle East about the issues and conflict people there deal with everyday.

“I try to make films as if I was taking you by the hand and leading you there, but be a very sincere and discreet guide,” she said. “I don’t necessarily attempt to achieve balance, because life isn’t balanced.”

In the attempt to bring together two communities and cultures that have been in conflict for decades, some dissent has arisen concerning the event’s content. The event was set to receive $900 from the city’s Human Rights Enhancement Program for the screening, but a dispute over the funding came to a head before the Columbia City Council on Nov. 7. Supporters and critics of the film stayed late into the evening to discuss the city funding. In the end, council members decided not to give the money.

Opposition to the public subsidy was led by Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom, who said the documentary presents a one-sided view of the barrier. He said the film borders on anti-Semitism by singling out Israel’s barrier and showing the wrongs it inflicts on the Palestinians, while disparaging the security benefits of the wall for the Israelis.

“If you tell one half of the truth, then you come up with a whole lie,” Feintuch said. “I don’t believe an event like this fully captures the issue at hand. You can tell by the title that it has a political agenda from the get-go.”

Although he has not seen the film, Feintuch said it ignores the hundreds of Israeli citizens who have been victims of suicide bombings in the past five years. He lauds the event organizers’ intent but said he thinks the event should be postponed in order to schedule a film presenting an equal Israeli view.

“It’s an intrinsic flaw in the film to not show the suffering on both sides and how that pain brings people together,” Feintuch said. “Ultimately, I don’t have a problem with the film, but I do have a problem with public money being allocated to this event in the name of human rights in Columbia.”

Labadia called the loss of city funding a setback and was disappointed that concerns about the film were not resolved privately between herself, Feintuch and other critics.

“I was hurt and sad, because I love the rabbi,” Labadia said. “It’s not like this is something foreign to them. My goal is dialogue. Once you stop communicating, you lose people.”

Many supporters from Columbia’s Jewish community do not share Feintuch’s views on the event, which was able to proceed with funding from sponsors.

“I think it’s important to distinguish between criticizing Israel’s policies and being anti-Semitic,” said Amy Damashek of Boone Tikkun, a Side by Side sponsor. Meaning repair in Hebrew, the group focuses on “progressive politics with a spiritual underpinning,” Damashek said.

Ultimately, Labadia hopes that the her efforts, and those of her supporters, are not in vain.

“We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors,” she said. “I’m just honored that we have a chance to do something like this in the community, because we live in such a great one.”

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