Cows and Non-Violent Resistance in the Larger Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


The Wanted 18 is a documentary that chronicles a strange incident in Palestinian-Israeli relations when a Kibbutz near Haifa sells 18 cows to a Palestinian group in Beit Sahour, a small town near the ancient city of Bethlehem, in the West Bank. The year is 1987 and the first Intifada is in full-swing. While many of the clashes between Israeli military and the Palestinian people had well-documented violence, the people of Beit Sahour prided themselves on their non-violent means to fight back against the Israeli forces.

The cows were a new phenomenon to the Palestinians. No one in the village had any experience with this type of animal, as many in the desert region were only familiar with goats. The film seeks to document this awkward transition through stop-motion animation and voice talent giving the cows in the film a voice as well as the Palestinians who have bought them.

The director, Paul Cowan (who even has a somewhat unintentionally clever pun for a last name) breaks up the narratives with the animation, as well as with drawings and illustrations by Palestinian artist Amer Shomali. The rest of the film is populated with interviews of the main Palestinian individuals from the village of Beit Sahour as they recount their role in this story.

The film, while documenting a small story amongst the larger Middle East conflict, tends to serve as too much of a propaganda piece for the Palestinian argument. Only one Israeli is interviewed throughout the film and is edited to simply agree with the main facts the Palestinian people are arguing. Namely, that the cows were in Palestinian control and that the Israeli army engaged in looking for the cows that were being hidden as a means to keep the Palestinians from organizing their community into one that no longer needed Israel as a means to support themselves.

Not much is explained to the uninformed of how things functioned in the 1980’s verses today, where Palestinians run local municipalities and governments throughout the West Bank. Much is assumed regarding Yassir Arafat’s “statesmen” credentials as a representative of the Palestinians as a whole, but not explained. Since this predates the Oslo Accords and it is prior to Israel allowing Arafat back into the region with his promise to set up ruling municipalities in exchange for peace. Without this knowledge, some of the moments in the film of this small community defying the Israelis does not have as much of an impact unless you are predisposed to view the events “then” through the lens of the more modern “divest from Israel movements” that are championed by many companies and recording artists “now”.

While many documentaries are blatantly biased (think An Inconvenient Truth, or 2016: Obama’s America), they usually tend to try to address the opposing viewpoint’s argument that they obviously disagree with so as to change the mind of those who may not believe as the documentarians want them to. Here, The Wanted 18 creates sympathetic people whose stories the audience might be open to, but they never engage the opposing arguments. This film simply throws around incendiary words like “occupation” without saying what that means to them and why they think that, much less offering Israel’s counter argument. They don’t have to agree with the Israeli position, but by offering it and then countering it, it would at least provide some intellectual honesty to persuade the viewer on the issues being dealt with.

So I’m not upset that this is biased propaganda, but that it doesn’t allow for the audience to weigh it against the opposing arguments so as to intelligently adopt the view of the documentary as their own, if they choose. Much of the tactics of this film are strikingly too similar to the ones Muslim peace activist Malala Yousafzai describes in He Named Me Malala as having taken place in her Pakistani village to speak to those who are uninformed of the situations at hand. This is purely a rallying film for those who already see Israel as the enemy in the larger Middle Eastern problem over the ownership of this disputed land.

For example, the Israeli soldiers looking for the cows are given dramatic re-enactments where they are more like bumbling keystone cops always getting fooled by the clever townspeople, with cuts to the stop-motion animation where the search for the cows is depicted with the cows hiding on chandeliers in the homes of the townspeople. Nevermind that in this culture and especially in the time period it is depicting would you see such extravagance.  This is merely included in the film for its intended Western audience to make this situation more relatable in the details. One scene even reenacts the flag at Iwo Jima. The illustrations offered in the film also try to connect with the Western audience as it depicts the townspeople as literal superheroes with capes while the Israelis are depicted as uneducated buffoons.

This film is edited well enough and may appeal to some as a feel-good story of defiance in a situation that has usually known violence. And on that end, they have done well. But the belittlement of the other side and the lack of intelligent discourse keeps the larger point the film is trying to make from being felt. Instead of being a reverse David vs. Goliath story where the tiny town of Beit Sahour assumes the normal Israeli hero, David’s, role, it simply becomes a “look at what we did” navel gazing exercise meant to rally the faithful to the cause without making any new recruits. Unfortunately, this just mirrors the political landscape of cable television news and talk radio where each side panders to their respective base and no one seeks to gain understanding and persuade. Being a Canadian, this might be director Cowan’s intention….connect with his own Western audience from his home country.

A cute story of inspiring, yet comical non-violent resistance involving people and their disputed cows is really, in the end, just a bunch of noise being played to those who already know the tune. And as much as the film casts itself and its unique story as a part of a larger mythos of Palestinian defiance against the Israeli’s forces, The Wanted 18 will largely be forgotten.

This film will be playing in St. Louis at the Webster University Film Series the weekend of October 10-11, 2015, and other select venues as announced.