Filmmaker and social entrepreneur Stephen Apkon made his directorial debut with “Disturbing the Peace,” which played here last week. The film chronicles the creation of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former enemy combatants — Israeli soldiers, many from elite units, and Palestinian fighters, many of whom have been jailed — who are now working together to promote peace. Apkon, founder and former executive director of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester, spoke to The Jewish Week via email.
Q: What drew you to this subject?
A: I wasn’t sure there was anything new to say about the conflict until we met these men and women in Combatants for Peace. What I saw in this group of former enemy combatants was the ability to transform from violence to nonviolence, to take responsibility for their own actions and the desire to create a new vision of freedom, dignity and security for all.
What were the challenges in making the film?
The greatest challenge was not in the filming, but rather in how to construct a film that would share a historical perspective while not getting caught up in the “who did what to who first,” which only spirals into blaming and victimization rather than understanding the cycle of violence and everyone’s participation in perpetuating it.
Do you find that some audience members have difficulty feeling empathy for “the other?”
To the contrary. What we have found is that by honoring and respecting each side’s narrative, depending on who someone in the audience identifies with when they come in, they are also able to feel real empathy for the “other side.”
As you know, serving in the IDF is so sacred to Israeli society. Do the Israeli members of Combatants for Peace continue to face challenges from Israeli friends, even those on the left?
Yes, they do. In fact, just two days ago, [Combatants for Peace
Co-founder] Chen Alon’s daughter Tamar chose to refuse to serve based on her belief that her participation in the IDF would continue to preserve an occupation that ultimately hurts the country she loves and is part of. She’s currently in prison for her decision.
Are you drawing equivalencies between the two narratives?
We are not drawing equivalencies in the sense of negating specific actions and responsibilities on both sides. What we are saying, however, is that both sides are stuck in a cycle of violence that needs to be broken. We are also not drawing equivalencies in regards to power dynamics as they exist.
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What’s the story behind the title?
The characters are deeply involved in nonviolent resistance, in an effort to end the occupation and achieve a two-state solution, with Israelis and Palestinians living peacefully alongside each other. In this work, they have utilized creative processes, including Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed and the work of Bread and Puppet [Theatre] to deliver their message.
One of the protests we filmed included families, puppets, a small marching band and scores of individuals — Palestinian and Israeli — who had gathered to protest. During the event, the Israeli military showed up. They singled out two of the leaders, and as the protest wound down and everyone headed home, they arrested two of our subjects, Mohammed and Chen for “disturbing the peace.” It made us think about the irony of being arrested in a completely nonviolent event, and it raised the questions, what is “the peace?” and who is “disturbing” it?
When an arrest is made for “disturbing the peace,” not as a way of protecting the peacefulness of the environment but rather as a form of social control, then what is referred to as “peace” is actually the status quo.