The DVD of the powerful and ever more timely Encounter Point (TFF ’06) landed on shelves this week, and to mark the occasion, we spoke to co-directors Julia Bacha and Ronit Avni about its highly successful global theatrical run and the astounding effects of its message. This widely lauded documentary takes us beyond the daily news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the grassroots group efforts of an Israeli settler, a convicted Palestinian fighter, a bereaved Israeli mother, and a wounded Palestinian ex-prisoner devoted to solving conflict through dialogue.
Tribeca: What‘s been happening to you and Encounter Point since its world premier at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival?
Ronit Avni: We have shown the film to about 10,000 people in 50 cities around the world -- primarily in the Middle East and North America and some in Brazil. It has been an incredible journey. We have been very intentional about reaching out to audiences who care about this issue from different communities and faiths and different “sides” of the conflict. It’s led to some amazing conversations, challenging debates and a lot of learning. It’s also been shown to people who are involved in this issue on an immediate influential level, from former generals from the Israeli military, to members of the Fatah leadership in the Palestinian authorities, to the head of the house sub-committee to the Middle East in the United States.
Julia Bacha: And in terms of the festival circuit, right after our world premier at Tribeca, we went to, among others, the San Francisco Film Festival, where we won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. And in Toronto, we were ranked as one of the top five audience-favorites among 101 documentaries. We also participated in the Dubai International Film Festival, which is becoming a center for Middle Eastern debate and the bridging of cultures through film without the notion of clashing civilizations getting in the way.
Ronit Avni: On the DVD we have a ten-minute video called “On the Road” which includes audience responses to Encounter Point from around the world.
Tribeca: In this documentary you work so hard to represent both sides of the conflict. Do you think that kind of fair and equal representation could happen in a fictional story?
Ronit Avni: I definitely think it can be done, but I think it would be much harder to defend. In the case of Encounter Point, these are real people, and whether you like them or not, they exist. They are not naïve to the consequences of the conflict, and they have all experienced some form of loss as a result of it. In that way, you cannot question their existence. With fictional narrative, it may be easier to reach the public because it’s not challenging or threatening when the people aren’t real. On the other hand, in this environment, truth is stranger than fiction. If you were to portray what’s actually going in a dramatic piece, people may not believe it.
Julia Bacha: There is also this tendency to portray each side as a monolith, and the real complexities that exist in each society don’t get enough attention. It is too hard; you would have to work your audience’s brain too much to really portray all of the complexities that exist, not only within each society, but within each person. Certain documentaries are so good at chewing the information up and delivering it as a simple, straightforward truth without allowing people to analyze and discover the truth on their own.
Tribeca: Do you find it difficult to be hopeful while being so straightforward?
Julia Bacha: The film is not hopeful in the sense that the conflict is near its end. The film is hopeful because we are showing that people have the ability to change. Human beings are not static; they move depending on what they’ve been exposed to in life.
Ronit Avni: People’s sense of possibility is tied to whether they think other people can change or not. Even in the research leading up to Encounter Point, we interviewed 475 people before narrowing down to our film subjects. So many of them started in one place and ended up in a different one -- ideologically, socially, politically. That was a real source of optimism for me.
Tribeca: In light of the continued as escalating conflict, would you make a different film today?
Ronit Avni: We made a conscious decision not to include political figures in Encounter Point, and in light of the current situation, that decision was really affirmed. We knew that any political voice that we included ran the risk of becoming obsolete within six months to a year. In fact, when we started filming, Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon were still in power. Now Arafat has died, Sharon is in a coma and there have been countless political changes.
We made a conscious decision not to include political figures in Encounter Point, and in light of the current situation, that decision was really affirmed. We knew that any political voice that we included ran the risk of becoming obsolete within six months to a year. In fact, when we started filming, Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon were still in power. Now Arafat has died, Sharon is in a coma and there have been countless political changes.
We started in a place that opened many doors, and now I’m interested in pushing the envelope a little bit. But is has to be at a level that cuts through the noise. There is a lot of noise.