Budrus is an inside look into something I think it’s easy to wonder about: what would happen if the Palestinians completely adopted non-violent resistance techniques as a way to pressure Israel to grant them sovereignty? We don’t 100% get an answer in this story about a border village (Budrus) that gave it a shot – but it’s both fascinating to watch them try, and a compelling story in its own right. If you have any interest in this topic I’d really suggest checking out this documentary while it’s in town. For the best experience I’d also counsel readers to skip the rest of the review once they’ve made that decision, as watching things unfold has real world drama to it that’s aided by going in fresh.
But if you insist on a more formal summary I will oblige….(spoiler alert!)
As we join the story, Israeli’s government is building a security wall to keep the Palestinian and Israeli populations separated. For reasons never explained on film they’re not building it on Israeli land, and instead are encroaching on what they freely admit is Palestinian territory. The winding nature of the wall’s plan would cut of villages from other villages, and in the case of Budrus, cause the destruction of their prized olive trees – upon which the lives of multiple generations of farmers has been based. They see the trees as important as life itself, a fact argued by no one, even the soldiers sent to keep them out of the way as their fields are bulldozed.
The town’s efforts to save their way of life (and their livelihood) are led by Ayed Morrar: the community organizer/hero of this story. Having struggled against the Israelis for much of his life, presumably sometimes by less than pacifict means, Ayed has come to believe that non-violence is the best way to keep the wall from being built. He rallies the town (including both normally competing Fatah and Hamas members) around the concept of protesting nonviolently. As one of the residents of Budrus explains, their rationale is simple: “We’re not doing this because we’re the most polite people, we’re doing it because it’s more likely to work.”
Things get off to a slow start until Ayed’s fifteen-year-old daughter convinces him that women should be part of the protests. One rapidly gets the sense that Ayed’s approach may actually work, especially once it becomes clear the Israeli Defense Forces haven’t rented Gandhi in awhile, as they beat back (restrained perhaps, but still with some force) protesters with batons and use what appears to be tear gas to disperse them. Eventually international protestors arrive as well as Israeli activists, which to me led to some of the most touching parts of the film as the young residents of Budrus who’d never met an Israeli that wasn’t in a position they hated realize that there are people who disagree with their government’s policy and support them (AKA: not all Jews are evil).
There’s also some insight into the politics of how Ayed walks a fine line to keep various factions within Palestinian politics united, including those he’s opposed to (specifically Hamas), to ensure that the village stays united in their action. The larger politics of the region are somewhat glossed over, or at least largely simplified at times. Though to me knowing that didn’t dilute the power of the story told by director Julia Bacha.
While the protests are mostly effective they’re also a bit ad hoc as far as these things go. The villagers also perhaps haven’t seen Gandhi either nor kept up on all the latest techniques for this sort of protest. I was about to suggest they rent Battle in Seattle – but then realized that just wouldn’t help anyone. By trial and error the town fine-tunes their approach. The first big step is realizing that they’re better off putting the women in front. Later, they stumble upon other effective approaches – such as sitting down in the ditch in front of some key pieces of earth-moving equipment. Both sides have some trouble keeping things under control with rock throwing followed up by some live ammunition. Still, it’s a far cry from the sort of conflict one generally associates with the region.
Mixed in are interviews with Israeli soldiers, which range from boilerplate ridiculousness (from the part of an army PR officer) to the more interesting role of a young female border officer Yasmine (or Yasmina as the Arab villagers call her). This is the one area where I think more depth would have helped. There’s a sense that Yasmine and some of the other soliders may have shifted their views in response to the protesters, but it’s never really made too clear. I would really like to have understood how their experiences may have changed their perceptions of the issues involved.
That said, there was more than enough emotion involved to really pull me in. It’s hard not to be moved by the Israeli activists working with the villagers. The movie ends on a ray of hope – though given the reality of the region I’m sure non-violence isn’t likely to sprout up as the default approach anytime soon. Sad in that sense, but Budrus is both interesting and enjoyable for showing an almost alternate universe struggling to make it into the one we all live in.