Kris Dmytrenko directs Across the Divide, Salt+Light TV’s look at Bethlehem University and its illustration of Middle Eastern politics. Photo by Michael Swan

Reaching across the Israeli-Palestinian divide with Salt+Light's new documentary

  • February 25, 2012

TORONTO - Fr. Tom Rosica knows he’s going to get letters. You don’t wade into the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis expecting bouquets of roses.

Controversy has never been a hallmark of Salt + Light TV. Since its launch in the wake of World Youth Day 2002, Rosica has consciously shaped the digital broadcaster as a voice of hope — clear, Catholic evangelism without the rancor, resentments or fear that so often mar religious television.

Despite efforts at balanced, just-the-facts reporting, Salt + Light’s next big documentary will elicit partisan passion for and against Israel, for and against the Palestinian leadership, when it airs later this year.

The hour-long documentary Across the Divide started out as a typical Salt + Light project — an informative, positive look at tiny Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution on the Palestinian West Bank run by the Christian Brothers. While there filming in 2009, director Kris Dmytrenko stumbled into a story that became an international incident and perhaps the most perfect illustration possible of the unsolvable knot of Middle Eastern politics.

In November 2009 Bethlehem University student Berlanty Azzam was two months shy of completing her degree. She was from Gaza but had been living in Bethlehem as a student. The only way to Bethlehem from Gaza is through Israeli checkpoints. Since Hamas was elected in Gaza, Israel made it next to impossible for travel between Gaza and the West Bank. When she was accepted into Bethlehem University, Azzam was denied the permit needed to allow her to live in Bethlehem.

She managed to get to her university on a temporary permit to visit Jerusalem for religious purposes. But when she went from Bethlehem to Ramallah for a job interview she had to pass through a checkpoint. Soldiers their handcuffed her, blindfolded her and left her for hours. Eventually she was put in the back of a van and driven to Israel. There followed a legal battle and international lobbying on her behalf — including a letter from Canada’s Catholic bishops.

The Israeli court reprimanded the soldiers for their treatment of Azzam, but ruled she had to be returned to Gaza and could not visit or reside in Bethlehem, denying her the last two months of her education. Soldiers then drove her across the Gaza border and left her there, in the middle of nowhere, with no way to get home.

“She just wanted her degree and the university wanted to help her do that,” said Dmytrenko.

Over the six weeks Dmytrenko spent at Bethlehem University it became clear Azzam’s story encapsulated the experience of the university, its students and the families they came from. It was the story he absolutely had to follow.

“You really want to do justice to the Christians you meet. You get a sense that they are relying on you to carry their story,” he said.

At the same time, Dmytrenko was aware there are two sides to the story. Israeli officials appear on camera to explain that the restrictions on travel, the separation wall that rises above Bethlehem neighbourhoods and the network of checkpoints are there for a reason. Rockets often rain down on Israel, suicide bombers have killed hundreds of civilians. Israelis live as a threatened people.

On the other side of the wall, Dmytrenko interviewed students who are no different from classmates he had at Queen's University — except that everything they do, every day, is conditional on the state of the conflict.

“Students here (in Canada) don’t have to walk through a wall. Students here don’t all have stories about family members going to prison because of the conflict, or being killed,” he said.

The challenge was to find ways of telling the story without giving in to the temptation to make it easy by choosing sides. Dmytrenko doesn’t want anyone to watch his documentary and conclude they know who is right, who is wrong.

“To express the history of the conflict in ways that are neutral is difficult,” he said. “Every part of the recent history is contested.”

Rosica has encouraged Dmytrenko’s venture into a contested and controversial story because there’s greater value in partial, incomplete, limited understanding than there is in the absolute certainty of settled ignorance and prejudice.

“We have to avoid the temptation or the trap of confusing Israeli government policies for love and respect for the Jewish people and Israel. Israel is called to be a light to the nations. Current policies at work in the state of Israel, acting in the name of justice and security, have brought many shadows on that land,” he said. “The wall dividing that land is a horrible sight and symbol.”

Rosica sees Dmytrenko’s documentary as one small attempt to build bridges where people have too often resorted to walls.

Eventually Azzam completed her degree, working through a custom-designed distance education course. University professors travelled to her home in Gaza to confer the degree. In 2010 she moved to the United States, where she is pursuing an MBA.

Azzam believes the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will one day be over, but she doesn’t see much goodwill on the side of the Israelis.

“I don’t think that Israel wants to end that conflict,” she told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

In the meantime, Bethlehem University represents a hope for peace, she said. Seventy per cent of its students are Muslim, 30 per cent Christian. The university creates a kind of unity among Palestinians from the two communities.

“If Bethlehem University wasn’t there, there would be no good relations between Palestinian communities and between the Palestinians themselves.”

It is the university itself and its Catholic mission that inject hope into the otherwise difficult story Dmytrenko has to tell, said Rosica.

“Bethlehem University exists for people who desire peace with security and peace with justice — a real bridge in such a sad and violent part of the world,” Rosica said.

Across the Divide is being pitched to a couple of film festivals, and won’t be scheduled for broadcast until after festival appearances. But screenings are planned for Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Windsor, Ottawa and Montreal. Dates, times and places will be announced soon.

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