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The Arab American News - February 24, 2007

Film bridges gap between Arabs and Jews

By: Delia Habhab / The Arab American News
2007-02-24

A moving documentary captures the fear, resentment, and anger associated with the Palestine-Israeli conflict and takes an important step toward peace and understanding.


ANN ARBOR — "Refusing To Be Enemies: The Zeitouna Story" features six Arab and six Jewish women who together form a dialogue group called "Zeitouna." In the film, the women defy cultural expectations by attempting to understand each other through constructive dialogue. The film follows the women over a four year period that concludes with a two-week journey to Palestine and Israel, where preconceptions vanish and unbreakable bonds are formed.

The film is produced and directed by Laurie White, whose previous film credits include the 1989 Michael Moore documentary "Roger and Me." White, a native of Flint, Michigan, has dedicated her life to social and community activism. Her inspiration for this film stemmed from recognizing the apparent gap between the Arab and Jewish communities here in the U.S. White acknowledged the difficulty of tackling such a sensitive matter, and saw filmmaking as the perfect opportunity to approach the topic.

"My belief is that film is a very powerful medium," stated White. "It is a collaborative medium by nature. This particular topic was so complicated and challenging that it called for a creative approach."

The film takes an in-depth look at the lives of women from different backgrounds, including a woman who was forced to flee Palestine as a young child, and another who spent eight months in a German concentration camp. Among the group was Benita Kaimowitz, a secular Jew and retired English teacher who grew up in Mississippi and Tennessee.

"With Zeitouna, I feel safe saying what I feel and listening for what I need to learn," said Kaimowitz. "We’re all profoundly sick of fear, anger, hurt and slinging our own version of history at each other without hearing the other's experience. We're convinced there must be a better way and (we) try to find it together."

That sentiment resonates throughout the film, as the women abandon all preconceived notions and begin to get to know each other as individuals. The strong bond between the women is felt within minutes of viewing the film. The film shows the women as they participate in dialogue sessions, where they tackle specific issues and are given the opportunity to share their personal experiences with each other. This was a way for them to become better acquainted with one another and open up the lines of communication. It is the honesty and sincerity that takes place in these sessions that help establish the true bonds of sisterhood between the women. White puts an emphasis on the idea of listening with an open mind and open heart.

"The women involved in this project were really yearning to connect," she said. "The approach I took was, 'let's learn to really listen to each other, as opposed to talking on a geo-political level. Let's learn from one another rather than try to sell each other on our own personal points of view.' "

This method proves to be beneficial, as commonalities are soon discovered after the women engage in thoughtful, meaningful discussion. Wadad Abed, a Palestinian-American who grew up in Nablus, recalls the deep transformation she felt throughout the process.

"It is only through Zeitouna that I am now able to hear the voice of the 'other' — her pain and her joy, realizing that it mirrors my own," says Abed. "Zeitouna has profoundly transformed me."

During the initial filming process, White was cautious in her approach, not wanting anything to appear forced or contrived. The project spanned from 2002 to 2007, during which the women traveled around the country to take part in various dialogue sessions and public speaking events. Among these events was a "Women in Black" march, a statewide march advocating peace that took place in the Fall of 2004.

"I wanted to give the group a chance to gel before the filming started," stated White. "This documentary was a way of sharing this process we were a part of on a large scale, so that people would be inspired by it."

It is clear that the friendships formed throughout this process will be long-lasting. The rare sisterhood shared by the group members emanates onto the screen and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. The empathy and compassion expressed by the women complement the film's overall message of peace and acceptance.

"Refusing to be Enemies: The Zeitouna Story" will premiere on Sunday, March 18 at Ann Arbor's historic Michigan Theater. White and the other Zeitouna members will be available to speak to viewers after the screening..


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