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Resolving Israeli Arab Conflict: A Nigerian-American Filmmaker’s Approach

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The Jewish Arab conflict in the Middle East has defied resolution for decades since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Political actors and senior citizens on both sides of the divide have taken sides correspondingly: Arabs want their occupied homelands back but the Israelis are unyielding. Diplomats from across the world wring their hands in frustration, making it seem as if there’s no end to the mutual suspicion and belligerence of the warring parties in the region. But after ten years of filming and talking to people in two border towns – Gaza and Sderot prime zones of the conflict – Nigerian-American filmmaker, writer and director, Ose Oyamendan, seems to be chalking up unimagined successes where politicians and diplomats have failed. Screened last October, “Aswat Acherim Other Voices,” the result of his documentary, has got the rest of the world listening and applauding, as THEWILL found out. Michael Jimoh reports…

As a 10-year-old living in Ibadan in the seventies, Ose Oyamendan romped on the football field with some Israeli Jewish and Lebanese Arab kids who were slightly older than him. Like most pre-teens in the same neighbourhood, life was carefree. They related as friends with a common interest: soccer.

At the time, the conflict between Israel and the Arabs had been raging for decades. Far from the ever combustible region in the Middle East and safely ensconced in their homes in the ancient city in South west Nigeria, the kids seemed unmindful of the never-ending conflict back in their natal countries. But once they returned from vacation in Israel or Palestine to Nigeria, the formerly comradely youngsters kept to themselves: Not only did they stop playing football together, they stopped talking to one another possibly mirroring the mutually suspicious and belligerent adults in their respective countries.

According to Ose in a recent podcast interview with The Times of Israel, he was “struck by it.” His mother explained to him that the “kids where coming off age. But I didn’t understand why something on the other side of the world would affect us here.”

Of course, this strange behaviour of his formerly friendly Jewish and Arab playmates in Nigeria naturally piqued his interest as a journalist. What to do? Write a story about two kids who became friends playing football in Jerusalem – one from the East and the other from the West. Ose had never been to Jerusalem when he wrote his story “Other Voices” nor did he ever think he would visit anytime soon.

In the same podcast interview, the anchor, Jessica Steinberg, summarises “Other Voices” as a “documentary about very unlikely friends in Gaza and Sderot with several protagonists in this story. Obviously, it is a documentary but it also has a very strong storyline…the Israeli activists who persevered in their friendships and their desires to find a way through this conflict that is certainly far from over.”

In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the premiere last October, and now on Amazon Prime, Ose told Jessica how his coming to Israel years ago was simply coincidental. His journey to the Middle East began from the most unlikely place and under the most unlikely circumstance. For some reason, the Nigerian-American found himself in Haiti soon after the earthquake of 2010.

Ever in search of man-made tragedies or natural calamities which the Caribbean country is in abundant supply of, international cable news media outfits such as ABC and CNN nosed it to Haiti for coverage of the earthquake that convulsed the island nation. Ose particularly recalls meeting Anderson Cooper of CNN in the hotel he was staying in Haiti, about the only facility with electricity supply for five or six hours daily. So, some of the newshounds asked to use Ose’s computer to dispatch their news to their headquarters in good time. “I didn’t think I was approachable,” Ose told the interviewer. But then, he obliged newsmen.

Among those in Haiti not for news coverage but on a rescue mission was an Israeli NGO that never wanted to be identified as such. It was not hard to see why: now cast as aggressors in occupied territories in the Middle East, very much like Hitler’s genocidal action against the Jews in late 30s to mid-forties Europe, the Israeli NGO feared they might lose their funding. Even so, Ose showed the newsmen and the NGO crew the story he’d written. He wanted them to help with the geographical accuracy of the setting in his story since he’d never been to Israel.

They loved it. Thus began his journey to the Middle East, specifically the border towns of Gaza and Sderot.

Of course, there were bureaucratic bottlenecks from both the Israelis and Gazans, the filmmaker got his pass nonetheless. For one, he didn’t even know he needed a pass to enter both territories. What has a black person from Nigeria got do with the age-old confrontations in the benighted region? In the end, Ose got his way and began meeting and speaking with activists from both sides, using soccer and not politics as a unifying factor. They fell for it and, so, opened up to the filmmaker, with neighbours gleefully recalling the glorious times they had with one another before the crisis. There was one caveat from Ose though: No talk about politics, just the story of their lives without the divisive politics.

Possibly taking a cue from two great documentarians Akira Kurosawa and Sergei Eisenstein who gave an indelible stamp of originality to their works by filming characters in their true nature, Ose met, spoke with and filmed the subjects of his documentary in the same manner. Nothing was contrived. It was hearing and filming the characters in their own natural state without the meddlesome politics.

The filmmaker himself admitted as much to Jessica: “People on different sides of a story find a way not to talk to each other.” But “when you take the politics out of it, it’s a very strong human story.”

In Jessica’s intro during the interview with Ose, she mused that the film “brings viewers to the unexpected and unusual peace efforts and unwavering friendship between residents of Sderot, Israel and Gaza as the two bordering nations endure ongoing war, animosity and conflict.” Continuing, she insists that Ose has “gotten to know his protagonists well, learning how they cope with living in the region and experiencing some of their life as well.”

If the filmmaker had sourced for funds from individuals or organisations, he may or may not have gotten some financial assistance. He did not! From conception to funding and shooting, the story idea remained basically his. “It’s very tough to get financing for something like this,” he told The Times of Israel. “I did what a poor filmmaker would do. I have these other jobs that I do, so when I have enough money, I put enough money together to get the crew to come and film, because I wanted to have my very independent, my own observation. And I also decided that I want to know how true these people are.”

Of course, filming for that long in the volatile region would have presented some difficulties to Ose and his crew: hostile and reluctant interviewees, for instance, or rockets fired from either side of the combatants roaring overhead and falling on those below. True, the filmmaker claimed he actually “busted a knee” on one occasion. There was also the problem of language. He didn’t speak Arabic and most of the characters he interviewed and filmed didn’t speak English.

But one of the initial obstacles he had to overcome started right from the airport in Israel. “Where are you going?” “I am going to Sderot,” Ose told the airport officials. “Are you crazy?” Of course, the interpretation was not lost on the filmmaker, considering the volatility of the region. But like most committed creative types ever pushing the envelope, Ose replied that “I just feel like we had to get the story of these people trying in their own little way, to live a normal life in a place like this right now.”

Ose also had to contend with some who felt uncomfortable with his project. By his own admission, “I came against a lot of opposition, but I try not to look at the opposition as opposition. I look at it as people expressing their opinion. And one of the things that we do take for granted in the free parts of the world is the fact that we are able to have an opinion. And it’s a great thing. A lot of people die so we can have opinions, we can speak, that we can vote and do all sorts of things. So if you come to me and say, I don’t agree with this, and I say, yes, it’s fine not to agree with it, but do listen, watch the film, listen to the other side.”

Instead of the acrimonious shout downs, finger pointing resulting in murderous confrontations now and then between settlers and occupiers – depending on who you deem to be one or the other, people in and beyond the region are now listening, thanks to Ose’s unusual documentary. Even politicians in the region and diplomats from around the world, so the story goes, have been irresistibly drawn to the filmmaker’s approach to solving an intractable and protracted problem between otherwise previously friendly neighbours in that corridor of the Middle East. Reports insist there was a record audience at both premieres in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in mid-October, not to mention the massive subscription on Amazon Prime since then.

Though not from the Middle East, Edi Lawani, a Nigerian producer and high-profile events planner, has followed the Arab Israeli conflict for quite some time. More important is Lawani’s relationship with Ose when the former was a post-graduate student at the University of Lagos where Ose also studied.

In response to THEWIL concerning Ose’s documentary, Edi began by telling the newspaper that “Ose has really blown me with his tenacity in seeing his work through. In an age where politics defines our view of truth and falsehood, right or wrong, love and hate, “Other Voices” is a candid camera view of the objective truth that humanity is, indeed, absolutely flawless in the real essence. Ose takes his viewers on a journey of discovery, delving into the recesses of the fundamental human being who is naturally guided by love and equity until extraneous factors of politics and economics gets in the way to reshape human thoughts and actions.”

Continuing, Edi says that “Ose’s is an ode to the spirit and a nod to what cultural diplomacy should be built upon. Take out selfishness and ignorance, in that order, this body of work lends credence to the disposition that, indeed, life needs to imitate art, sometimes. What years of turbulent, disruptive and topsy-turvy international relations has failed to achieve, Ose has succeeded in shining a light on what the true nature of diplomacy can be built upon. Ose, in telling an ordinary story about the lives of friends who are neighbours across a deep dividing line but in the context of many aggregated socio-political complexities, an extraordinary story emerges in the end. I commend Ose highly for his accomplishments.”

As with most creative people either in film, writing or even art, a first publicly acknowledged success is sometimes a prod, a goad to embarking on future projects. Ose has one in the works. “I’m actually going back to what I came to do originally, like developing a TV series about two kids that brought Jerusalem together. I just like this,” the filmmaker let on to Jessica of The Times of Israel. “There’s something about Jerusalem that I find…It’s such a rich place. It’s so rich, it’s so historical, and everything is there. So I’m working on this TV series, I’m developing this TV series about two kids who brought Jerusalem together for one day with soccer. I like the inner sense of kids. I like the global nature of soccer. And I think it’s another avenue to say, just take a look at what can happen.”