The annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is underway here in New York City, but one of its featured directors won’t be able to attend his film’s US premiere this weekend. That’s because Israel recently deemed Palestinian filmmaker Amer Shomali a “security threat” and prevented him from traveling to Jerusalem to obtain a US visa. Then he went to Amman, Jordan, where the US approved a visa but said their visa machine was broken. Shomali had previously attended half a dozen European festivals without incident, and his film has drawn international acclaim. Interestingly, the film, “The Wanted 18,” shows how Israel has historically tried to undermine any form of Palestinian nonviolent resistance by branding such resistance as dangerous and threatening, and recreates an astonishing true story from the First Palestinian Intifada when the Israeli army pursued 18 cows, whose independent milk production on a Palestinian collective farm was declared “a threat to the national security of the state of Israel.” We speak to Amer Shomali in Ramallah.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is underway here in New York City, but one of its featured directors will not be in attendance at his film’s U.S. premiere on Saturday night. That’s because Israel recently deemed Palestinian filmmaker Amer Shomali a “security threat,” preventing him from traveling to Jerusalem to obtain a U.S. visa. Then he went to Amman, Jordan, where the U.S. did approve his visa but said their visa machine was broken, so couldn’t issue it. Amer Shomali had previously attended half a dozen European film festivals without incident.
His film has drawn international acclaim. Interestingly, the film shows how Israel has historically tried to undermine any form of Palestinian nonviolent resistance by branding such resistance as dangerous and threatening. The film is called The Wanted 18. It recreates an astonishing true story from the First Palestinian Intifada when the Israeli army pursued 18 cows—that’s right, cows—whose independent milk production on a Palestinian collective farm was declared “a threat to the national security of the state of Israel.” This is the film’s trailer.
NARRATOR: Early 1988, a Beit Sahour cow truck drove to an Israeli kibbutz. An Israeli peacenik there agreed to sell my town the cows. There was Rivka, Ruth, Lola, and then there was Goldie.
MAJED NASSAR: We are Palestinians. We deserve to have a home. We deserve to have our land. We deserve to have our freedom. And we deserve to have cows.
UNIDENTIFIED: For me as a teenager at that time, it was about the fun and about, you know, proving that we can stop Israeli cars and vans and products coming into our city.
JALAL OUMSIEH: The military governor came one day with his soldiers. He said—and I quote the exact words—”These cows are dangerous for the security of the state of Israel.” I can’t understand. How can 18 cows be dangerous for the security of the state of Israel?
MAJED NASSAR: We were kings. We were mastering our own destiny, actually. We had a full life. Complete, I would say.
AMY GOODMAN: That is an excerpt of The Wanted 18, which will premiere Saturday night at Lincoln Center, the Walter Reade Theater, at 6:30. The guest who we are now being joined with from Ramallah was supposed to be there to speak about his film after it premieres, Amer Shomali, the director of The Wanted 18. He’s a Palestinian filmmaker, visual artist. Here in New York, we’re joined by Julia Bacha, a longtime documentary filmmaker who’s worked in Israel and Palestine for the last decade. She’s creative director of Just Vision and impact producer of The Wanted 18.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Amer Shomali, why aren’t you here in New York? Can you explain what happened?
AMER SHOMALI: Hi. Thanks for having me today. Basically, I applied for an American visa at the American Consulate in Jerusalem. And in order to get to Jerusalem, you need to cross a main checkpoint blocking the road between Ramallah, where I live, and Jerusalem, where the American Consulate is. And to get that permit, you need to apply for the Israeli army. And my permit was rejected for security reasons. And it’s not a special case, like there’s tens of thousands of Palestinians, young Palestinians, who are labeled as a security threat to the state of Israel. And it’s quite frustrating. Jerusalem is just 25 minutes away from here. From this studio, it’s like 10 minutes. But you still can’t reach there. The American Embassy in Jerusalem does not offer any facilities for Palestinians who can’t get there. And they even ask you, even if you thought of sneaking to Jerusalem illegally, without a permit, to attend your interview, they will ask you, “Where is the Israeli permit?” as if there’s a kind of coordination. Anyway, I missed my appointment—
AMY GOODMAN: But you went to many different film festivals. Isn’t that—
AMER SHOMALI: —and we tried to go to Amman. I believe that in Amman—yeah, yeah, I toured the whole world. Not New York yet, but hopefully soon. Hopefully soon, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Continue with what you were saying.
AMER SHOMALI: And I crossed the main borders to Jordan many times, so I’m not really a security threat, yeah. Come again?
AMY GOODMAN: So you went to—sorry, we have a four-second delay here between New York and Ramallah, making the conversation more difficult than it would have been if, Amer, you were right here with us. But so you didn’t go to Jerusalem, you went to Amman. Explain what happened there at the U.S. Embassy.
AMER SHOMALI: I believe that the U.S. Embassy in Amman had good intentions, but something went wrong with the system, so I didn’t get the visa yet. So, I’m waiting for their call to go back to Amman to stamp my visa. Obviously I’m going to miss the first screening, but I still have other screenings in New York and L.A. Hopefully I’m going to catch those.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another clip, Amer, of the film, The Wanted 18.
JALAL OUMSIEH: We have decided in Beit Sahour that we need to boycott Israeli products.
JAD ISHAD: Most of all, milk comes from Tnuva, which is an Israeli company. We wanted to produce a project that would produce the milk that is needed by our children and population.
ELIAS RISHMAWI: A group of people in Beit Sahour thought, “Why wouldn’t we have cows to make milk available from local source, instead of buying milk from Israel?”
NARRATOR: This is Beit Sahour—or, as it used to be during the intifada in 1987. This is my town, and those are my people, 10,000 people who gave Israel a headache.
AMY GOODMAN: And let’s go to another clip from the film. Again, this is about the First Intifada in Beit Sahour. The film, The Wanted 18.
JALAL OUMSIEH: The military governor came one day with his soldiers to the farm. First thing they did there is to take a photo for each cow with its number on its body. And he told us en prive that we have to remove the cows and get rid of them. When I asked him why, he said—and I quote the exact words—”These cows are dangerous for the security of the state of Israel.” I told him, “I can’t understand. How can 18 cows be dangerous for the security of the state of Israel? That’s very strange.”
AMY GOODMAN: From The Wanted 18. Again, these are 18 cows. Amer Shomali, you directed this film with Paul Cowan, who also wrote it. You lived in Beit Sahour. You lived in a refugee camp in Syria, but learned of this story in Beit Sahour. Why did you feel it was important to tell this story today?
AMER SHOMALI: I feel that young Palestinians, and young Arab, in general, nowadays are faced with two options. One of them is to accept to be the absolute victim for the occupation, the Israeli occupation, for capitalism, or to go lunatic and join ISIS, for example. I tried in this film to show an example happened in the First Intifada, late ’80s, where a young generation could manage to take action and decide what they want to do with their lives. So it’s kind of highlighting a moment where we, as Palestinians, knew what we wanted to do. And we had our third option: to choose a better future. And I think this is an important film especially for young Palestinians to see and respect themselves again.
AMY GOODMAN: You said that the U.S. Embassy had good intentions, but they had technical difficulties giving you your visa to come here for the premiere. What were the technical difficulties?
AMER SHOMALI: I have no idea. Something with the system, system collapse. I don’t know. I have no idea. But they were smiling when they said that, so I have—I believe they have good intention.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any thought that you might be able to make it in the next few days, although you won’t be here for the premiere?
AMER SHOMALI: No. No, no, I won’t be in the premiere, but I’ll be in the next screening maybe, hopefully, on the 19th.
AMY GOODMAN: Julia Bacha, you’re the impact producer of this film. The significance of, especially for our radio audience who can’t see the claymation, the illustrations of the cows? It is painful to talk about this as a hilarious film, but there are parts where you’re holding your sides.
JULIA BACHA: Yeah, we believe that the film has the possibility of opening the conversation, for people who might be feeling fatigued and hopeless about this issue. And the humor opens that way. We really want communities, particularly here in the United States, to start thinking about what are the stories that we are hearing from the region and what are the stories about resistance that arrive to us. I think historically we have been told that Palestinians only used violence to achieve their aims, when in fact there’s a very long history of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance, which this film is one example of. And for Amer to be able to tell this story with some humor, we hope we’ll be able to attract more people to join.
AMY GOODMAN: Amer, since you can’t be here to address the audience directly at Lincoln Center at Walter Reade Theater on Saturday night, what message do you have for those who watch, or are weighing whether to watch, The Wanted 18?
AMER SHOMALI: I think in The Wanted 18 you will see a different face of Palestinians and a different face of Israelis, a new take, a new point of view, which is the cows’ point of view. And it’s crazy, but ’til today, all of those insane things happening in Palestine under the label of security, security threat—for example, nowadays as Palestinians we don’t have—we’re not allowed to have 3G network on our mobiles. The Israelis have 4G; we are not allowed to have 3G. We don’t have Internet on our mobiles, because they said having frequency for the Palestinians is security threat. So everything can be a security threat, like digging a well to water natural reserve in the Palestinian cities is security threat. Everything can be labeled as a security threat, and which is a valid excuse.
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
AMER SHOMALI: And we became, as Palestinians, like traumatized people living under a paranoid army, controlled by a paranoid army. And this film is just an example of—
AMY GOODMAN: Amer Shomali, we have to say thank you so much, look forward to seeing you in New York if you get here.