This is one of two documentaries that promote nonviolence as the only solution to the seemingly hopeless cycle of hatred and violence gripping the Middle East. See our review of Disturbing the Peace.
Not rated: documentary. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence ; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
This documentary is a fascinating film that straddles two interests or topics—no, not “straddle,” rather, that brings the interests together: Dr. King’s leadership of the American Civil Rights movement and the current enmity between Jews and Palestinians. I should point out right now that this film leans more toward the Palestinian side of the debate because the members of the Gospel choir visiting the West Bank in the film stayed with Palestinians and encountered Israelis only at a distance. Nevertheless, I hope that those on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide will find much of interest in this unusual story, because the Americans’ hosts believe that nonviolence is the way to resist the Israelis. It is very important to know that not all Palestinians believe that terrorism is the way to deal with what they perceive as Israeli oppression, that some believe in the power of nonviolence, which is why the Black Americans were invited to come and share their musical drama of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Director/producer Connie Field and her camera crew follow an American Gospel choir as they come to the West Bank to present a play about Dr. King written by Stanford Professor and King scholar Clayborne Carson, but to be directed by a Palestinian. (The full title of the film is Al Helm [The Dream]; Martin Luther King in Palestine.) There is an immediate clash of cultures and personalities early in the film. The Americans apparently did not realize beforehand that Palestinian director Kamel El Basha has his own ideas and agenda on how the play is to be presented in order to be understandable by an Arabic speaking Palestinian audience. When he makes script changes, author Clayborn Carson objects, commenting that in America there can be no changes unless the author agrees. El Basha counters that in Palestine the director is king, not the author. Thus, there is considerable debate requiring patience before the two groups can learn to work together in mutual trust and respect.
The Palestinian/American group travel all over the West Bank presenting the play to enthusiastic audiences. Palestinian actors play Martin, Coretta, Malcolm X, and others while the choir sings Spirituals and Freedom Songs. As they travel about, the eyes of the Americans are opened wide to what they perceive are harsh parallels between the segregated South of the mid-20t century and the current segregation of Palestinians by Israelis. There is no escape from it with the huge ugly wall built by fearful Israelis to protect themselves from terrorists, but which also make it extremely difficult for peaceful Palestinians to make a living. It takes but a few minutes for the Americans to clear the Israeli checkpoints, but far longer for the Palestinians to make it through. The group stops at one house that once got its water from a well, but now the well has been confiscated for use by Jewish settlers. Everywhere the Americans turn they see armed Israeli soldiers and guards, and on the rooftops of Jewish settlements that have been built on designated Palestinian land they see frowning onlookers.
Just before the play is to be presented for the last time at the Palestinian run Freedom Theater, its dynamic director Juliano Mer-Khmais is murdered. The cast, especially the Palestinian members who knew and loved him so well, must go on, their performance becoming even more powerful than usual. Ironically, this was on April 4, the 43rd anniversary of Dr. King’s own death. Despite this tragedy, the Palestinian leader’s friends and colleagues continue to believe in their use of nonviolence. For some Americans, it will be a welcome revelation that there is such a movement in this troubled land, a movement very much akin to that which rocked the US in the 50s and 60s.
In an Epilogue we see Palestinians using nonviolence to protest a segregated Israeli bus. The scene of police trundling the demonstrators off the bus and into a van is almost a duplicate of those of blacks being arrested in Birmingham and dozens of other cities in the 50s and 60s! With terrorists garnering the attention of the press so that many Americans think that all Palestinians are shooting off rockets and plotting suicide bomb attacks, this film takes on more importance than the usual documentary.
Issues of legitimate concern raised by Israelis— the refusal of many Palestinian leaders to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as a state; the frequent rocket attacks on cities in Israel by Muslim resistance fighters; the hatred that leads some Palestinians to become suicide bombers (see my review of The Attack) who kill more children and women than soldiers—none of these are addressed because they are outside the scope of the story centered on the experience of the African American choir. Thus, when using the film with a group, the leader will have to keep these concerns in mind and mention them in order to maintain a balanced discussion. There are some humorous moments, but the issues raised in the film are serious, which perhaps makes the Spirituals and CR songs seem even more inspiring.
The film is available on DVD at various prices, depending on how it will be used, home use, of course, being the least expensive. see http://www.clarityfilms.org/. Vimeo rents it at $4.99 for a 72-hour period: go to https://vimeo.com/ondemand/alhelm.
Or you can write: Clarity Films, 2600 Tenth Street, Suite 412, and Berkeley, CA 94710. Tel: 510-841-3469. Email: [email protected]