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Israeli voices tell a Palestinian story

See a clip from the new Israeli film 'Testimony,' which tells the stories of Palestinian humiliation through Israeli actors.

TEL AVIV, Israel – For decades, Israelis have heard so many tales of the daily humiliations suffered by Palestinians – from being hassled at checkpoints to house demolitions to curfews – that many of them have grown numb.

But Israeli director Shlomi Elkabetz has deployed an unusual storytelling device to draw attention to Palestinian grievances and catch the attention of his Israeli audience: In his new film, the stories of Palestinian suffering come out of the mouths of Israelis, speaking in Hebrew. 

“For three years I have been reading these Palestinian testimonies, which were given to human rights groups, and didn’t really know what to do with them,” said Elkabetz. “At first I was shocked, then I wanted to reject it all, then I wanted to shout and finally I wanted to do something.”

He did. His film “Testimony” uses a combination of dramatic and documentary devices while top Israeli actors stare straight into the viewer’s eyes and act out the Palestinian testimonies. 

“By using Israeli actors I turn the viewer into a firsthand witness. By looking at a famous actor’s face, who’s speaking in Hebrew, the Israeli viewer becomes the witness himself.”

For many here, the army roadblocks, which dot the West Bank, represent the cruel face of the occupation. Palestinians on their way to work, hospitals and schools are forced to wait for hours in extreme weather just to show their I.D. cards at the checkpoints.

In one scene, Ronit Elkabetz, a famous Israeli actress who is also the director’s sister, explains how she was stopped by soldiers near the town of Jaljulia trying to cross into Israel. “The soldier stopped me and cursed me, I cursed him back. The soldier kicked me in the chest and I fell. He hit me for fifteen minutes,” she says in the film.

I asked the director if it was difficult to recruit Israeli actors for the project. “I can’t say it was a difficult mission; some actors really wanted to take part in this project, but of course there were some who rejected my request.”

Palestinians aren’t alone in feeling the effects of the occupation. Some Israeli soldiers come back from their obligatory service in the IDF in places like the West Bank traumatized by events they witnessed and took part in.

So the film also presents their experience as an occupying force. “For us, they are all terrorists,” one actor portraying a soldier dryly says about the Palestinians. “They ordered us to take him down, I shot him. I killed him.”

The film, which premiered last spring at an Israeli film festival and was subsequently screened at the Venice Film Festival, was released at select theaters in Israel last week.

To critics who say that the film only tells the story from the Palestinian perspective, Elkabetz said in an interview that “the purpose of the film is not to create a balance between the two peoples but to share an experience.”  

Many of the people who attended a recent screening of the film were interested in the director’s purpose in making such a controversial film.

“I will be happy if only two Israelis meet in the street and talk about the film,” said Elkabetz. “I’m of course also hoping my film will be one more step in the changing of the Israeli awareness to the reality out there.”

Watch a clip from the film above.