The Wanted 18 is director Amer Shomali’s hommage to his home town of Beit Sahour. Beit Sahour is a Christian (that is to say, Palestinian) suburb of Bethlehem, best known to some as being the home of the Alternative Information Center. Although Shomali never saw the village during his childhood in a Syrian refugee camp, it was ever present in his parents’ stories and pictures.
Beit Sahour was also on the frontline of the first Intifada against Israeli occupation from 1987. It was the centre of a tax strike, where people stopped paying money which was being used to fund their occupation. There were also daily confrontations between local youth and Israeli soldiers, or with vans trying to break the ongoing boycott of Israeli goods.
The Israelis responded with curfews and random arrests, aimed at breaking the spirit of resistance. The young men who were detained in police stations for no reason learned to take backgammon sets and snacks and made a party of it. During the curfew, all homes set up speakers on their balconies and played the same record at the same time. Rather than breaking the villagers, the repression brought them together.
Perhaps most impressive there was the development of prototype workers’ and peasants’ councils which united the villagers and coordinated the work of farmers, teachers and other inhabitants. The community looked after itself, much to the bemusement of the occupying forces. A local physician explains how Israeli soldiers just could not understand why he took his turn in sweeping the streets.
All these struggles are covered in the film, but it also wants to tell us about one of the more bizarre tales of resistance. The Wanted 18 were cows. Bought from an Israeli kibbutz, the cows were an important symbol in the drive towards self-sufficiency, which was an essential part of the boycott. Because cows do not just produce meat – they also produce milk and other cows, and could be the basis for an economy based only on Palestinian produce.
Many of the developments were farcical – and the exposition – in part through stop-go animation and Wallace and Gromit type models – revels in the ridiculousness. Producing home grown milk was a noble idea, but none of the villagers had any experience with cows, so a local student had to be sent to the USA to learn basic milking.
If this sounds ridiculous, the Israeli response – told in person by army officials – was just bizarre. Originally, they thought that 18 cows could not sustain a few households, let alone a village of 10,000 people, but they became a symbol of the general resistance, so the army tried to confiscate them. When the villagers managed to hide them – for days on end – soldiers made pictures of the cows and went through the village trying to track them down.
All this is tremendous fun, but for a significant part of the film, I worried we were going to be sold a pup. There was so much talk of the indomitable spirit of Beit Sahour, that I was worried that we would end up with a trite message that all you needed to defeat overwhelming military power was a sense of fun. And yet the resistance does lose in the end – sold out by Yassir Arafat’s compromises in Oslo.
Having read some reviews of the film, which fail to comprehend just what a sell out Oslo was, maybe this could have been elaborated on, but no-one in the village needs any more explanation. The apparent peace – brokered by Bill Clinton while he was delivering massive amounts of military aid to Israel – demobilised the resistance, and allowed Israel to regain control. This had tragic consequences for one of the leaders of the resistance, Shomali’s cousin Anton.
There are many earnest accounts of the Palestinian struggle, several tense stories and a few tales which are funny. I can’t remember any film which has managed to mix all three aspects quite as adeptly as this one. The Wanted 18 is hilarious and it is righteous and it keeps us on the edge of our seats. And it manages to do all this while maintaining a visual style and playfulness that the egregious and self-serving Waltz with Bashir can only dream of. Go see. Now.