In history classes, we follow the path of society from one war to the next, from one tragedy to another. Slavery and a civil war bleed into the Holocaust and the assassination of JFK, and so on. Eventually we come to rest on a current climate of terrorism, an intractable cluster of wars in the Middle East, and the old ghosts of failed nuclear disarmament. For better or worse, these moments define humanity more than any mythos of exploration and industry, in part because we attempt to own these failings in order to learn from them. The conflict in the West Bank offers one such opportunity, if we can allow ourselves to take an optimistic view point. However, in Aaron Denis’ first feature, The People and the Olive, the filmmaker aspires to take matters one step further. Denis not only wants learn from this ageless feud but to enact change. While he has his heart in the right place, the documentary focuses on an oft insufferable group of twenty something protestors whose actions feel as though they have thrown a pebble at a concrete wall expecting the thing to crumble. Then again, who can say how change really takes place? Indeed, many viewers will walk away from this film feeling that good intentions outweigh the film’s naivety. For my part, I see only a worthy but incomplete discourse buried in sentiment.
The People and the Olive wisely centers on an individual plight, one of the disenfranchised Palestinian olive tree farmers in the West Bank. As we learn in the film, olive oil accounts for forty percent of the Palestinian agriculture economy, with trees that pass from one generation to another. Unfortunately, military occupation and expanding Israeli settlements have separated the farmers from their land. In one of the more baffling gestures, much of the land outside the Israeli settlements remains cordoned off. If the Palestinians attempt to grow a tree on land that still legally belongs to them, but lies too close to the land they have lost, the Israeli army promptly uproots that tree. Additionally, many of the farms appropriated by the Israelis simply remain unattended, gathering waste. Through this microcosm, viewers gain a tangible if incomplete understanding of a complicated contention between Israelis and Palestinians. Meanwhile, one of the film’s expert interviews draws parallels to the near eradication of the Native American, consciously suggesting a link between the territory Palestinians hold and Native American reservations.
While far from welcoming a complete view of history, these early moments in the film are easily its most compelling. A connection between the near destruction of the Jewish people somehow leading to a settlement that could now threaten the fate of the Palestinian people, while perhaps not entirely fleshed out, is a powerful argument to make. Also, by focusing on how olive trees represent a Palestinian’s bond both to land and ancestry, seeing as past generations have tended to the same trees in their life time, the film somehow skirts the political correctness of the issue and shows an honest injustice taking place. With all that momentum behind it, The People and the Olive could have attempted to construct a sophisticated argument about the destructive nature of modern colonialism, seen through this relatable issue. To do so, they would have also had to analyze how the Israeli’s understandable culture of fear lends itself to an environment of tension and mistrust, but the foundation for a provocative film was in place. Instead, The People and the Olive squanders this opportunity, favoring a group of foreign protestors who throw themselves into the fray of a dispute they cannot really be a part of in any significant way.
The basic concept of the film’s following run-time is well meaning enough. Several protestors run across the West Bank, followed by cars filled with infant olive trees. At strategic stops, these protestors plant the trees in the ground and take part in a series of peaceful sit-in protests, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, et al. However, seeing a small group of twenty-something white people briskly jogging down a dirt road in the West Bank feels like the epitome of an empty gesture. Furthermore, the sit-ins are almost exclusively held in areas not under dispute, which ignores the actual intent of a sit-in protest. Still, the self-induced marathon does begin to resonate on an emotional level, if only because the Israeli army responds to the anemic protest in a completely overblown and paranoid fashion. They arrest one of the group’s Palestinian ring leaders only to release him a day later, they fire tear gas at protestors trying to plant trees, and they literally force the group to walk instead of run down the dirt road.
These instances of coercion almost justify the film’s undivided attention, but they are not given enough context. At this point, the film’s proffered history of the region is too one-sided, too incomplete, and the army’s actions feel too removed from the actual Palestinian people. All the film can truly accomplish is to say “if the Israeli army does this to us, imagine what they do to the Palestinians,” and that is not nearly enough. Still, this oversight alone is forgivable. What I find unforgivable is the way the film ends. As the run reaches its conclusion, music swells and tears of joy are shed in a moment that feels unearned. Nothing has changed for the Palestinian farmers, save for acquiring some well-deserved exposure, but the protestors go on as if they have attained some great victory. The trouble with trying to enact change, it seems, is in admitting that you have little to no power. Of course, this is no reason not to try, and I honor the effort regardless of how annoying I find some of these protestors (the guy trying to use the experience to write world changing muzak is a particular standout). In this particular case though, the film’s overwrought if well-meaning intentions drown out the finer points of a significant discussion.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.