A Slim Peace is a 58 minute cinema verite documentary from director Yael Luttwak about a diet group formed by peace activists in Israel. Fifteen to twenty women are brought together in regular meetings, about half Israeli Jews and about half Palestinians, to hear pep talks, get diet and exercise advise, weigh in, and function as a support group for each other.
Initially, you want to say that surely this is a self-selected group, that it is all people who are pro-peace, who are open to the other side, etc., or they would never have agreed to participate in this group.
But while I’m sure there’s some truth to that, actually plenty of the women don’t fit that description very well. Several of the Jews state that they’ve never even known a Palestinian personally, and some of the Palestinians say the same about the Jews.
Remember, we aren’t talking about Americans and Canadians or people in different countries like that; these are people sharing the same country. Yet the circles in which they move–for education, work, recreation, whatever–are so limited that they can go a whole lifetime without interacting in a significant way with anyone from the other group.
There are members of the group with spouses and family members who have killed or been killed in the fighting. There are Jews who admit going in that they don’t like Palestinians, and vice versa.
So maybe they aren’t all bitter enemies, but this is hardly a group of cosmopolitan intellectuals eager to reach across to the other side.
At first it appears the strategy is going to be to stick to the dieting issue at hand and enforce a “no politics” rule, so people can come together and get to know each other as human beings in a totally different way. But in fact, it’s structured so that there’s a fair amount of open-ended discussion, and they do indeed get into sensitive areas.
That made me cringe every time it happened, because their civility and their willingness to work together and help each other felt very fragile. I was sure as soon as they started talking about, say, the Palestinian elections between Fatah and Hamas, it was all going to degenerate into anger and bitterness and break up the group.
They pretty much stay on their best behavior, though. There’s no terrible blow up like that.
But then again, I don’t know that substantively they’re hearing each other very well, or altering their views at all on the “big picture.” At best it’s more like “I like so-and-so when we’re not talking politics,” or “Sure, so-and-so isn’t one of the bad ones. She as an individual doesn’t want to kill us all. But the people calling the shots on her side do.”
Insofar as they entered into the group with prejudices of “All Jews are like this” or “All Arabs are like that,” then I think the meetings help them to get over that. But I don’t see them changing their political views. The ones who are peacenik types were already that way before this group, and the rest just learn to “agree to disagree” during the meetings.
It’s a step in the right direction without a doubt, bringing people together like this. I’m just not sure if it’s a really, really, really, small step, or merely a really, really, really, really small step.
Some of them are quite likable folks. Probably my favorite is the middle-aged Palestinian television performer. She’s a pistol. She keeps everyone laughing, but she’s obviously got a sharp mind, a strong will, and plenty of depth to her. A couple of the older Jews seem like sensible, decent people as well.
The ones who seem most prejudiced, most resistant to sympathizing at all with the other side, are a couple of the younger Israelis from the occupied territories. They have the most simple-minded “Us Good; Them Evil” attitudes of the group.
At least they’re aware of it and admit it. There’s an admirable willingness in the group as a whole to try to be honest about such things.
It’s a worthwhile project of course, and it’s a worthwhile film. Both the project and the film do a nice job of humanizing the people on both sides, reminding everyone that these aren’t abstract ideologies battling it out in Israel, but flesh and blood human beings who are experiencing murder, fear, lack of freedom, etc. because of evil and stupidity.
I found the film, though, to be frustratingly thin. I would have never been able to edit all the footage they must have shot down to under an hour, because I’d know doing so results in just this problem. I mean, if you really wanted to enable the audience to get to know these people, cover the project from start to finish, ask all the relevant questions, let people speak at length and develop their thoughts, etc., there’s easily enough material for a five or ten hour film or series of films.
Instead what we get are snapshots, sound bites, quick cuts, things left implied. It’s all very impressionistic. But the subject matter warrants something meatier.
Some of the members of the group get little or no camera time. Those that do speak usually only say a sentence or two at a time before the film jumps to someone else. Though I know the diet group project itself is a pretense, for those who do take any interest in it, you really don’t find out more than the barest amount of what the procedure was, how much weight was lost, who succeeded and who failed, how they feel about it all, etc.
The follow-up is especially weak in this regard. There’s a kind of postscript from a year after the project, to let you know if any of these folks kept ties and established friendships with any of those from the “other side,” and what, if any, lasting impact it all had on them. But it’s about sixty seconds long and we hear from only a few of them. I suppose there’s enough to get the point across of whether any of this good feeling lasted beyond the final meeting (which I’ll avoid giving away here), but there’s no chance to really learn about what happened in detail and dig into why it did.
I’m not saying that it would or wouldn’t have been entertaining, or would or wouldn’t have maintained my interest or the interest of an audience to have made a documentary about this subject matter that was twice as long or ten times as long. I’m just saying that squeezing this amount of material into this amount of time made it not very informative, not very substantive, but unavoidably superficial and impressionistic.
It’s like condensing War and Peace into a 30 page short story, or even a long poem or a series of photographs. The result might be fine for what it is, but it sure leaves out a lot.