Interview: Stephen Apkon and Marcina Hales on “Disturbing the Peace,” a Moving and Inspiring Documentary about Israelis and Palestinians Working Together

Posted on November 17, 2016 at 3:28 pm

The song from “South Pacific” gets it right. Fear, bigotry, don’t come naturally. “You have to be carefully taught.” The moving and inspiring new documentary, “Disturbing the Peace,” tells the story of people who were “carefully taught” to hate each other, Israelis and Palestinians, but have learned that they share more than they could imagine, especially when it comes to to devastating grief and a deep sense of responsibility for causing grief to others. I first saw the film at Ebertfest last spring and have not stopped thinking about it. So I was especially grateful to get a chance to speak with the filmmakers, Stephen Apkon and Marcina Hales.

The title of the film refers to the irony that the activists portrayed in the film are often arrested at their non-violent demonstrations for “disturbing the peace” when what they are trying to do is send a message of peace to stop the killing that has been going on for decades. And it is a reference to the charges filed against Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and others who have protested to make a more just world. “The really good question,” Apkon said, “is ‘Whose peace are they disturbing?’ That was a really profound one for us. And it also speaks to the idea that the first peace we need to disturb is our own and to really challenge the stories and the narratives that we accept as reality. One of the things one of the characters in the film told us that is not in the movie but he often talks about how if you want to grow up in a society with the mythology of the hero you have to create the villain. Hollywood films don’t exist without the hero and the villain and so we constantly do that within our own minds.” Hales added, “One of the narratives that we have to really pay attention to, to begin with, is the narrative of there being a hero and then a villain. I think that that is one of the ones that is predominant. You’ll see it in a narrative right here in America and all across the world.” Apkon said If you ask how those narratives get conveyed, it strikes me that it’s less in what we’re taught didactically than the soup that we swim in. I remember I was living in the region and my daughter was five years old at the time and she went off to kindergarten knowing not a word of Hebrew and some girl followed her all around the schoolyard and became her friend. And a few months into it my daughter was fluent in Hebrew. Her friend was sitting at dinner with her one night and she looks at her and said in Hebrew, ‘Who taught you to speak Hebrew?’ So my daughter, she looks at her and she said, ‘You did.’ She had no awareness of learning. She just absorbed it. So we pick up these narratives in the air that we breathe. It’s how memes are perpetuated and communicated throughout our society. ‘You can’t trust them.’ You do not know who taught you. It is all around you so it feels like the truth. It is not just in a book. It’s in our songs, it’s in our culture, it’s in what we say at the dinner table, it’s in our media.”

Hales said that one of the things they most wanted the film to do was “to actually get below the stories, the content and actually look at how it functions because it functions on a lot of levels. It functions on the individual level, just take a look at our own lives, and it functions at different levels having to do with our cities and our towns and in our political systems everywhere. So if we can see and show how it works, once you know you cannot not know, and it becomes apparent and we can look for them and actually create a different story.”

The film had its premiere at Ebertfest and was given the festival’s first-ever Ebertfest Humanitarian Award. Apkon said, “She was actually one of our first disturbers of the peace in a sense that, we were over in Israel finishing the edit and had an experience over there that we both wrote about in social media. Chaz immediately picked up on it and wrote us a letter saying, ‘When can I see this film?’ We literally finished the film around a window where Chaz could see the it. And so having her turn around and having at Ebertfest, having the courage to do that before it had been in any other festival was huge and she has really been an amazing.”

One especially affecting scene in the film is an argument, thoughtful, not heated, but reflecting real pain felt by both of them. I asked how they were able to film that very intimate conversation, which feels as though the couple is unaware of any cameras. Hales said that kind of honesty was their goal. “The idea was to get people comfortable enough to actually feel that vulnerability, that authenticity, that real conversation, and it is being able to hold that space of confidence and trust and admiration that Steve does.” The wife in that conversation was the last of the people in that film to see it, and Hales and Apkon were apprehensive about how she would respond to it. “When the film ended she was very emotional and she was really thankful that the film had been made. There was a sense of a tremendous relief in her ability to express where her angers came from, where her hurt came from. And as she talked about how her mother raised her with this hope that her children wouldn’t know an occupation and now here she is, her children are growing up that way. She wishes the same for them but understands the realities are different that they have never known a day not under occupation. And I think that’s a reality that very few can even imagine.”

Apkon said, “Two questions that come up quite often. First, ‘Is it Pro-Israeli or is it Pro-Palestinian?’ Our answer is yes. It’s pro humanity. As one person says at the end of the film, ‘Each person’s freedom and dignity is based on the other person’s.’ So we want for the other what we want for ourselves. The second thing is this question that comes up around balance people would often watch the film and they would be asking themselves especially in the first half of the film, ‘Is it balanced?’ We always look at that from our own cultural framework. For us it’s not a question of balance; it’s really the question of integration. The question is, can we integrate? Can we not look at the balance and the extreme but can we recognize our capacity for both extreme? Can we recognize as says in the film, “When we first find each other we found we have something in common, our willingness to kill people we don’t know” and she thought in essence we find that we both share the desire for peace?”

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