Almost Friends. Directed by Nitzan Ofir. Tel Aviv: Heymann Brothers Films, 2014. 60 minutes.
My So-Called Enemy. Directed by Lisa Gossels. Blooming Grove, NY: New Day Films, 2010. 89 minutes.
Over the past few decades, there have been numerous attempts to improve Israeli-Arab relations in Israel and Palestine through various forms of planned, reconciliation-aimed encounters.1 These two films focus on two such attempts, closely following participants in a women's leadership program run by the international nonprofit organization Building Bridges for Peace from 2002 to 2009 (in My So-Called Enemy) and an Israeli initiative bringing together young girls from two sites in Israel: the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod and the small religious Jewish town of Tlamim in the south (in Almost Friends).
Of the two films, My So-Called Enemy is both more expansive in scope and more traditional in its making—probably rendering it easier to use pedagogically. The first half of the film closely follows the girls—still in high school—as they meet in a rigidly administered summer camp in New Jersey, in which they partake in a variety of symbolic, cooperative group tasks (building bridges, rowing) and engage in heated ideological debates regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations and women's role in promoting peace. The quest for fruitful dialogue, however, often devolves into moments of stunned silence and hopeless despair as explosive issues such as the legitimacy of suicide bombings are raised and as some girls explicitly deny the others' right to inhabit their land.
The second half of the film expands both geographically and emotionally to explore some of the girls' lives post-camp as they return to their homes in Israel and Palestine, the Israelis joining the military and the Palestinians navigating the often merciless reality of the occupation. As wars, targeted killings, and terrorist attacks persist in the background, the question of how to negotiate real-world experiences with idealistic worldviews—and how these worldviews themselves transform as they clash with everyday life—becomes central, even as some of these young women attempt to maintain the personal friendships they have formed across sometimes insurmountable physical borders.
In comparison, the self-contained world of Almost Friends seems nearly hermetic. Limiting herself to a fly-on-the-wall, observational cinema approach, director Nitzan Ofir follows her much younger participants—11-to-12-year-old elementary school girls—as they begin interacting online and then meet in person. If My So-Called Enemy moves centrifugally from the world of the summer camp to the protagonists' increasingly divergent individual lives, Almost Friends builds centripetally from an initial focus on the girls and their families toward the girls’ first joint encounter. And, due to the girls' young age—reflected both in their tendency to openly express sentiments their older counterparts might not voice and in the way their parents and grandparents attempt to explain things in simple form—explicit statements of racism and prejudice abound: the Jewish girls are warned not to intermingle with Arab girls; Jews are described as compassionate, Arabs as immoral. If My So-Called Enemy is itself often depressing in its acknowledgment of the ways in which its protagonists' lives are shaped by their unforgiving environment, Almost Friends seems almost hopeless in its bleak outlook. At its heart stands the relationship between Samar, a 12-year-old Arab from Lod whose hybrid identity as both Israeli and Palestinian is often discussed, and Linor, an 11-year-old religious Jew from Tlamim who attempts to resist the intolerant stereotypes propagated by her friends and family. But this relationship seems doomed almost from the start.
Taken together, and despite their differences in content, tone, and style, the two films offer many opportunities for pedagogical reflection. Their focus on young girls and women, and the ways in which gender identities are simultaneously exacerbated in situations of national conflict and inundated under the sheer weight of national and religious identities, lends itself to discussion of intersectionality and interwoven forms of social stratification. Teachers might also wish to discuss how the characteristics of different encounter initiatives may lead to different results (consider, for example, whether attempts to follow up on the initial encounter are productive and how the use of technology to overcome physical barriers is significant in both films). The work of Ifat Maoz on reconciliation-aimed encounters between Israelis and Palestinians would be extremely helpful for background in this regard.2 The role of religion in the conflict, and particularly the diverse ways in which it influences girls’ and women's life choices, is also worthy of discussion. Finally, comparisons with other documentary films focusing on the lives of Israeli schoolchildren, such as Netta Loevy's excellent World Class Kids, might help students familiarize themselves with the contemporary Israeli context.3
1 For a summary, see Ifat Maoz, "Does Contact Work in Protracted Asymmetrical Conflict? Appraising 20 Years of Reconciliation-Aimed Encounters between Israeli Jews and Palestinians," Journal of Peace Research 48, no. 1 (2011): 115-25.
2 Maoz, "Does Contact Work."
3 World Class Kids, directed by Netta Loevy (Amsterdam: IDFA, 2010), 54 minutes.