by Cameron Hunter
Can You Hear Me? Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace. Lilly Rivlin, producer, writer and director. Debra Winger, narrator. 50 minutes, 2006.
If the answer to the question in the film’s title is indeed negative, it is not for lack of passion, dedication and desire of the women involved in its making. The 50-minute film succeeds in penetrating the surface of gender subdivision within Israeli-Palestinian society. By portraying the lives of both Israeli and Palestinian women involved in the conflict through multiple interviews and glimpses into their lives, the film begins to allow the audience a small renewal of hope that, in time, the seemingly interminable struggle will see a conclusion. It follows individuals from both sides in their daily lives as well as their encounters as all strive to be included in, and subsequently assist in, ending the current conflict.
The place of women within the peace process has been little explored to date, but as the film points out, it is a growing factor that could play a significant role. Lilly Rivlin begins her film by presenting the myriad difficulties facing female peace activists. Narrator Debra Winger solemnly describes how, prior to the Oslo period, women were viewed as “traitors and whores” for wanting to negotiate with the other side. One scene documents an elderly Palestinian woman climbing awkwardly over a section of the separation wall, struggling modestly to keep her skirts from catching on the jagged edges of the barrier. Such images and commentary elucidate the fact that, even in this respect — desiring peace and an end to violence within their society — sexuality and discrimination persist as obstacles in the path of determined women.
Yet Rivlin’s characters are undaunted by such factors aligned against them in their advocacy work. Declaring adamantly that “if women ruled the world, we wouldn’t have wars,” the film presents another question preceding that of the title: What if women did have a larger part in forming the policies that affect their populations? Thus begins a showcase of mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, grandmothers and individuals that have dedicated much of their lives to bringing about an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict. At one point, two of the participants, Leah Shakdiel and Maha Abu-Dayyeh-Shammas, are shown in a bitter and emotional argument. Their inability to reach a consensus and evoke intense reactions from each other is jarring for the audience, yet this is later put in perspective by the narrator’s comment that “one sees through the right eye and the other the left but they don’t pick up guns.”
The film spans the ages, starting with the stories of Sarah and Hagar, and literally extends well beyond the 50 minutes of screen time. Following the screening of Can You Hear Me? at the Jerusalem Film Festival, Rivlin and many of the women interviewed throughout the film made their way to a packed room for a panel discussion. The intensity seen on screen, carefully crafted through editing and production, was equally evident within the close quarters of the discussion room. The passion was suddenly transformed into the flesh as the issues and obstacles discussed in the film continued to be addressed in the forum.
Preaching to the Converted
The women’s frustration resulting from their exclusion from politics is augmented by the frustration of “preaching to the converted,” in that all members of the audience, not surprisingly largely female, already believed in the necessity for peace. The dominant aggravation was in the inability to voice the film’s message to politicians. MK Colette Avital encouraged the audience to build solidarity between the Israeli and Palestinian women’s factions and to present an example of conciliation, lest all hope be lost for the rest of society.
Abu-Dayyeh-Shammas insisted that the conflict did not lie between her and Shakdiel as in the argument portrayed so starkly in the film; rather, it was about the struggle to understand her own context and the position of the other. She emphasized that the struggle is a difficult one to reconcile, but giving up is to die. The rest of the panel continued to insist upon the inclusion of all religious sects and fundamentalists in discussions, rather than excluding those that perhaps bear the most influence over the most radical development in the conflict; the importance of freedom of movement; and the importance of not allowing the political agenda to be driven by extremists.
If Women Ruled the World
Yet it was Professor Alice Shalvi, commenting on the possible successful implementation of UN Resolution 1325, which calls for the inclusion of women in the negotiation process, who perhaps made the most striking point that brought silence to the small room: “Do we succeed at dialogue because we don’t really have power? If and when we do have power, will we behave differently than the men?” This point drew a paradoxical reaction from the audience who share the passion of Rivlin’s inquiry: “Can you hear me?” It silenced them. Yet these were not the last words spoken by this panel of women. These were not the last words heard.
Former MK Professor Naomi Chazan concluded the discussion by reaffirming her commitment to dialogue and negotiation. She encompassed the message of the film by elucidating the innate difference between female and male peace action. She asserted that we, as women, are different; we are persistent, we don’t give up and we are always one step ahead of the political agenda. She equated occupation to “obscenity and a blemish on all of our moral fiber,” and declared that if peace is not achieved soon, “there will be no Israel, no Palestine; there will only be anarchy.”
The panel discussion ended in the same display of passion that the work itself portrays throughout the introduction and observation of the women involved. Although the talk concluded with Rivlin — in an explosion of energy — calling for a commitment to finding lasting peace, Shalvi’s words hung ominously over the boisterous women like a deafening silence. Would women form different policies if we were afforded the necessary power for the implementation of our solution to the conflict, or would such power corrupt absolutely? While this question is unanswerable in nature before the opportunity arises for women to have their day at the negotiating table, the fact remains that the time must come. The passion of the women in the film and those in the panel discussion assure that this occasion will arise.