At its best, art is about connection. A new Israeli-Palestinian documentary short film exploits the natural three-way relationship between artist, audience and subject to reveal an unexpected source of real-life intimacy: that between occupier and occupied.
Produced by B’Tselem and directed by Ehab Tarabieh, Yoav Gross, and the al-Haddad family, “Smile, and the World Will Smile Back,” which screened July 16 at the Jerusalem Film Festival, is a study in understatement. As the opening sequence explains, under the terms of occupation, Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to arbitrary IDF searches without a warrant, though the IDF legal advisor has ruled that residents may film such operations.
Over twenty minutes, with a hand-held camera passed from one family member to another, the viewer experiences the nighttime search of a Palestinian family’s home in Hebron by IDF soldiers. The result is a little gem of a film that tells a much larger story about power, adolescence, masculinity and nationhood.
Watch the soldiers — outfitted in combat fatigues and leading with the barrels of their guns — demand that the 19-year old son move the sofa away from the wall to inspect some electrical wires. They struggle to communicate with each other in a mix of Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Watch as the soldiers search a closet, demanding that the boy dump the contents of a jar containing coins and bits of clutter. Instead of placing them on the bed, the teen holds up a few items so the soldiers can inspect them. “He’s playing me,” one soldier says to another. Even an errant cell phone ring — cleverly set to a Middle-Eastern-sounding pop song — provokes a power game between soldier and Palestinian teen.
Watch as the soldiers — three, four, five — from the tight camera angles and the small confines of the rooms it is difficult to tell — ask the family members to move to a separate room. The soldier doesn’t want to have to use physical force. “I respect her,” one soldier asks his Arabic-speaking comrade to tell the mother, “so don’t make me do it.”
During the height of the first Intifada, human rights groups like B’Tselem stood on Israeli street corners to pass out rubber balls in a word play on rubber bullets. (The word in Hebrew is the same.) Other groups like Women in Black stood nearby on Friday afternoons holding signs demanding an end to the occupation as their fellow citizens were making their way home for Shabbat.
With the ubiquity of technology, even the occupied themselves can today more easily document the experience of being under the thumb of a foreign military. The question is whether, as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians reach a fevered pitch, and rockets and missiles fly between Israel and Gaza, anyone still cares.
Watch the soldiers stroke the thighs of the teen — who would be roughly the same age as the soldiers — as they frisk him and ask where he works.
Watch as the Palestinian father — who would have likely have come of age during the first Intifada, observes his son being frisked. And watch as the son, wearing skinny jeans and a hoody, respond to the helmeted soldiers’ questions while trying to deploy a bit of teenage snark.
When it comes to the occupied and occupier, only one side is allowed to wear combat fatigues and carry a weapon. What do you think the chances are that the next morning, armed with the memory of his Israeli peers’ fingers on his slim body, that Palestinian boy considered joining whatever Palestinian resistance he could find, if he hadn’t already?