February 4, 2023

Human Rights Watch Film Festival and The Wanted 18 (or Find those terrorist cows…)

The Wanted 18 is one of many Israel-Palestine documentaries. But it’s probably the only one featuring talking cows.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is on in London until 27th March. With the taglineTyranny has a Witness, it focuses on human rights violations and spreads knowledge and information about oppressed peoples around the world. Subjects this year include journalism in Iran, a girl’s school in Afghanistan and armed conflict in Columbia. There’s also politics in Zimbabwe and a homeless shelter in Switzerland. You can read about all the films here.

A film festival about human rights abuses could hardly exist without mentioning the Israel-Palestine situation. Documentaries about Israel-Palestine aren’t usually much fun – it was unexpected to see people taking big boxes of popcorn into the UK premiere of The Wanted 18 at the Curzon Soho. But actually artist Amer Shomali and co-director Paul Cowan have created a very rare beast – an Israeli-Palestine documentary with a dash of humour.

The movie features the heavy-handed Israeli military and rock-throwing Palestinians from countless other films about the region. It has the talking heads and recreations of documentaries in general. But it also has talking cows, animated in jerky stop-motion with plasticine mouths and ditzy voices.

The Wanted 18 tells the true story of Shomali’s Palestinian village Beit Sahour. During the First Intifada the villagers set up a collective farm and started producing milk from 18 cows, to avoid having to buy their milk from Israel.  Palestinians aren’t natural cowherds – they had to send someone to America to learn how to milk – but the project was successful. The farm became a landmark and the cows became celebrities – until the Israeli army declared that the farm was an illegal security threat. With flashbacks, interviews and animated interludes we see the consequences. The dairy is forced to go underground, the cows hidden around the village – though the images of one cow hanging from a chandelier is almost certainly artistic licence.

The film details very clearly the difficulty and absurdity of life under occupation for the Palestinians. But its structure makes the story hazy. The cows make a light-hearted focus, but after a while it appears that the Israeli interest is as much to do with the fact that the whole village is refusing to pay taxes. But the cows did affect Israel deeply, to the extent that the Oslo Peace Accord has written into it the disgraceful requirement that Palestinians can only import animals that have been neutered.

The Wanted 18 brings attention to an ongoing outrage, telling the story of Beit Sahour like an Ealing Comedy of the Fifties. These used to pit a group of plucky locals against the authorities, and a tale of villagers hiding cows and illegally delivering milk by ambulance could come straight from one of their scripts. But to realise that this actually happened, whilst the consequences of such civil disobedience could be imprisonment or worse is shocking.

The Wanted 18 tells an (unfortunately) broadly familiar tale of oppression, but uses more wit than the subject usually receives. This demonstrates that humour has a place even in the worst situations and will hopefully help the film get a wider audience.

Four Stars ****

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