Q&A: ‘Middle East’s most powerful army chasing 18 cows’

A Palestinian film with a tragically absurd story of how a herd of cows is hunted down by the Israeli army.

Filmmakers Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan use dark humour to tell this lesser-known tale of a farm gone rogue [Dalia Hatuqa/Al Jazeera]

Talking-cows-turned-security-threats. That’s the short version of The Wanted 18, a documentary set in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, where a Palestinian community starts a dairy collective to help boycott – and provide – an alternative to Israeli milk.

This was in 1988, during the first Intifada – long before the Oslo accords were signed and Palestinian Authority (PA) was established.

Palestine’s 2015 Oscar entry, the Wanted 18, tells a tragically absurd story of how a herd of cows is hunted down by Israeli authorities, who did not look fondly on the community’s attempts to be self-sufficient.

Through archival footage, re-enactments and claymation, film-makers Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan use dark humour to tell this lesser-known tale of a farm gone rogue: As the cows become fugitives from the law, the collective goes underground, heralding a “milk Intifada”.


The filmmakers encountered many equally absurd hurdles along the way: It took almost four years to get Israeli archival footage related to Beit Sahour at the time; a Canadian crew had to go to Tel Aviv to conduct interviews because Shomali, a Palestinian, couldn’t.

A day before shooting began, Israeli soldiers confiscated the jeeps that the crew had decorated to look like army vehicles, as well as plastic weapons and army fatigues that would be used in filming certain scenes.
Last month, at the opening of the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival in Washington, Al Jazeera interviewed Shomali, a visual artist-animator hailing from Beit Sahour, who was on a tour in the US to showcase the film.

Al Jazeera: You first learned about the cows in a comic book that circulated in a Syrian refugee camp. Tell us more about this. Is that how the idea of the film came up?

When you laugh, you are challenging your oppressor and challenging the image of being a victim.

Amer Shomali: I grew up in Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. And like other refugees there, I built an image of Palestine based on the things I saw – posters, art and comic books.


One of the comic books I read in the camp was about Beit Sahour, the civil disobedience [there], the cows, the tax strike [against the Israeli authorities by the community] and I was very excited.

At the time I was obsessed with reading comic books, ones with superheroes like Superman, Tintin, Batman, Asterix. And reading a comic book about my town meant a lot.

It was the first time I had read about superheroes who could be my relatives, and that meant, in one way or another, that I could be a superhero by blood.


Al Jazeera: What kind of effect did your upbringing have on the film?

Shomali : I was born in Kuwait in 1981. When I turned one, we had to move to Syria because that was the only country that would accept us as refugees. We stayed there until I was 16 or 17. I never imagined Palestine as a physical place that actually existed.

You always hear about it, but I imagined it as you would heaven: You only go there when you die, or when you are sleeping or dreaming. I never imagined that you can get on a bus and drive for five or six hours and be there.
So when I came back to Beit Sahour in 1997, after the [Oslo] peace agreement, I was shocked. Things on the ground were nothing like I had imagined.


I imagined a utopian place where the community was involved, but that wasn’t the case. I met one of the characters and he told me that whatever you had imagined about Palestine was true, but you missed it all and came at the wrong moment.

So I thought of doing this film to recreate [what I had in] my childhood imagination, so it would be a chance for me to live through that era again.

By sitting with those characters for five years, listening to their stories, animating and re-enacting these stories, I felt like I was re-living the [first] Intifada.


Al Jazeera: In Beit Sahour, what generational differences did you notice? And how did the film affect those different audiences?

Shomali: I was expecting a utopian place where the young generation is involved and aware, and solidarity existed between the whole community.

But when I got there, it was like any other place. The young generation was obsessed with cars, new mobile [phones], clothes. And it was not what I signed up for. I was expecting something that reflected the spirit of the first Intifada I had read about.


In the first Intifada, your value was determined by how your creative ideas supported your community, whether you go to prison and don’t confess, if you attend the neighbourhood committee meetings.

After the peace process, your value became determined by the amount of money you had in the bank, what kind of car you drove, what brands you wore. So the new generation started to see their parents as “losers” because, based on the new value system, their parents had nothing.

When we started to screen the film, the younger generation was [in awe]. They started realising that maybe they had better clothes, salaries, haircuts and cars, but they missed something: dignity. So they started to look at the Intifada differently.


They started to realise what was missing in their lives. Many of the younger generation who watched the movie said: “We never felt like this; that we could be proud of being Palestinian or proud of our community or think that there’s hope for a better future.”

It’s very important for the new generation to rethink the situation by invoking the spirit of the first Intifada – creative resistance that could help get a better future for Palestine.

The cows, with beautiful eyes and interesting characters, are the main voice of the film   [Courtesy of Just Vision]

Al Jazeera: How do you think being a cartoonist affected your film-making techniques?

In the West it’s often easier for audiences to sympathise with the cows than with the Palestinians, so we gave the cows a voice to represent us.


Shomali : As a cartoonist, I like the sarcasm and humour approach to [things]. It was a challenge at the beginning. People would ask: “How are you going to put a laughing or farting cow in the same film as a mother talking about her dead child?”

But when I started doing interviews, I noticed that all of the characters told stories about being arrested or having a brush with death while laughing, as if laughter was one of the weapons of the civil disobedience.


They told stories of being arrested and laughing while inside Israeli military jeeps, and how soldiers would ask them to stop. When you laugh, you are challenging your oppressor and challenging the image of being a victim.

Al Jazeera: Do you think the mixture of comedy and tragedy in this case paid off?

Shomali: I think we succeeded in making a film that told the story of Palestine under occupation, while making it light and accessible for different audiences.


It is a tricky thing, especially because of the widespread portrayal of Palestinians as victims in many films.
This doesn’t accurately reflect the reality of the first Intifada, especially because every individual at that time was a hero and the entire collective was doing amazing things.

I didn’t want to portray them as victims. Yes, we are victims of the occupation, but we don’t want to be only that. We were active people trying to change the future, and we almost did it.


When you do the research, you notice that the archival footage of the first Intifada was mainly from news agencies. They focused on the “violence” side of the Intifada…but not on showing a Palestinian teaching his kid because the schools were closed, or planting his backyard or milking a cow to help boycott Israeli products and produce his own food.

That side of the Intifada was not on camera at all. When we started doing this film, we were challenged by the image of Palestinians as portrayed in the media.

We wanted to portray the other side of the Intifada, which is the non-violent, civil disobedience movement. So the animation and re-enactment became essential to creating an alternative archive where Palestinians are human beings, trying to milk cows, and produce food, which we couldn’t find on camera.

The Middle East’s most powerful army considers 18 cows a security threat [Courtesy of Just Vision]

Al Jazeera: Do you feel that you managed to highlight the ridiculous without losing track of the serious?

Shomali: I think the absurdity of the story is what made this film interesting for people: The most powerful army in the Middle East is chasing 18 cows. By itself this reality makes people want to know more.

And it’s focusing on another side of the occupation, which is rarely talked about in cinema: The economic side of the occupation, and boycott as a means of resistance.

The boycott is becoming stronger nowadays in Palestine and all over the world, especially with the prevalence of the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement. And I think it’s interesting to screen this film to show the effect of the boycott and BDS in general, and what it can do for Palestine.

Al Jazeera: Why did you choose to have the cows speak in English? Why not in Arabic with subtitles?

Shomali : We had three versions of the film until now: The English version, where the cows and I are speaking in English, another where we speak in Arabic – it’s already in theatres in Palestine – and a French version. We are also currently working on a Japanese version.

We are trying to make the film as accessible as possible for audiences without having them read subtitles. We want to reach people easily.

We also ensured that the cows are the main voice of the film. So whatever your political views or knowledge on the subject, the cows – with beautiful eyes and interesting characters – will lead you through the journey.

By sympathising with the cows, you start to understand what it means to live under [Israeli] occupation.

In the West it’s often easier for audiences to sympathise with the cows than with the Palestinians, so we gave the cows a voice to represent us.


Source: Al Jazeera