In 1999, twenty young Israelis and Palestinians were invited to Japan for ten days by the Japanese Foreign Ministry as part of a joint peace mission. The group attended conferences together, ate together, sang karaoke together, even slept in the same rooms -- and left embracing what they had come to call the "Tokyo spirit," a sense of understanding and trust instead of suspicion.
"Peace was around the corner," Palestinian attendee Adnan Joulani says. "Peace was actually in our hands."
One year after that conference, the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, erupted, shattering any hope of a lasting peace accord and plunging both Israelis and Palestinians into a new era of bloodshed and bitter conflict.
The 9th Denver Jewish Film Festival, running through February 17 at the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, explores this and other issues relevant to Jewish life. Included in the fourteen films to be screened is the documentary Behind Enemy Lines, which catches up with two of the Japanese summit attendees four years down the road.
The men returned from Tokyo as friends, vowing to bring with them a new sense of brotherhood. But director Dov Gil-Har discovers that Joulani, now a journalist, and Benny Herness, now an Israeli police officer training special forces to combat Palestinian militants, have each become more firmly entrenched in the ideals of their respective sides. Each possesses a seemingly unwavering belief that his cause is for the greater good.
Nevertheless, the two agree to meet and spend four days together, traveling to locations chosen to represent their differing realities. During this time, each man attempts to convince the other of the legitimacy of his viewpoint.
"The fact that there is any dialogue, the fact that the two men are trying to understand both sides of the struggle, is the heart of the ultimate resolution," says Steven E. Wilson, executive artistic director of the Mizel Center.
In one scene, Joulani abandons his destination for the day and drives to Herness's home. The contrast between Herness's posh house and the fenced-in, dilapidated hovel of his Palestinian neighbors is overwhelming. Herness explains how before the second intifada, his neighbors were very friendly, but afterward, they would no longer speak to him. Those same neighbors then claimed that the entire settlement was their property and tried to have all Israelis removed, but they were overruled by the Supreme Court.
Joulani and Herness then argue the semantics of religion and property entitlement that are at the very heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict until both are at the point of exploding.
Lines is full of such moments. But rather than ending on a defeatist note, the film's final impression is positive. As the two friends sit together on the beach, it's clear that even though they will probably never see eye to eye, they remain willing to consider solutions.
The screening of Behind Enemy Lines, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, February 15, will be followed by a discussion with the filmmaker and the two protagonists.
Festival organizers initially considered choosing films that centered around a principal theme but abandoned the idea in favor of including the best movies they could find that addressed topics of concern to the Jewish community. "In that respect," Wilson says, "there's something for everyone." Selections run the gamut from Charlie Chaplin's brilliant The Great Dictator, from 1943, to the more modern Nina's Tragedies, a coming-of-age story that won eleven Israeli Academy Awards.
"This is a rare opportunity to indulge in an incredibly rich genre," Wilson concludes.
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