Activists have been lining up to see some extraordinary documentaries of late. The Corporation by Canadians Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan is packing them in across the country. At campuses around the country in the coming weeks you can view a rare glimpse into the world of campus activism in the NFB film Discordia. Directed by two recent Concordia film graduates, Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal, Discordia examines the lives of three of the activists centrally involved in the recent battles at Concordia over the Middle East.
The film begins in the fall of 2002 at the fierce protests dubbed a riot by the media against the speech of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on campus and continues over the year ending with the defeat of the activist student council which had supported the Palestinian side in the dispute.
The three activists in the centre of the action are:
- Samer Elatrash, the Canadian born son of Palestinians who lost their ancestral lands in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank;
- Noah Sarna, who grew up in the protection of all-Jewish schools and arrives at Concordia faced with the fierce opposition of Palestinian activists to the country he considers a symbol of his people's survival;
- Aaron MatÃ©, the Vice-President of the Concordia Students' Union, who is from a left-wing Zionist tradition. His family are holocaust survivors and he passionately opposes the policies of the Israeli government but is often conflicted by the attacks against him as a self-hating Jew.
Because the film takes a personal approach to the struggle, we see both the joy and pain of activism. The families of all three activists are incredibly supportive and some of the best scenes in the film are with the families. All three young men experience a spectrum of contradictory feelings through the struggle. Even Samer, the most militant of the three, experiences deep feelings of self-doubt after a Canwest Global documentary savagely trashes him. Noah, who is new to activism, is a soft-spoken and sympathetic character who seems genuinely perplexed at times by the intense passion of the opposition to Israel. Aaron is filled with angst but courageously continues to play a key role in the fighting for the rights of Palestinians and the rights of students to debate the issues on the Middle East despite occasional differences with the Palestinian students.
It is rare that we see the impact of a struggle like the one at Concordia on the individuals involved. The intensity of a battle like that, the courage of the participants, the energy that helps them push themselves beyond their limits, all this is portrayed with sympathy and honesty in the film. Unfortunately, in their choice of characters, the filmmakers focus entirely on men even though the President of the CSU at the time was Sabine Friesinger at least as interesting a figure as the three men. The difference in gender reactions to the struggle would have added a great deal to the film. As it stands, Sabine is a minor character and the other female characters are primarily mothers and friends of the activist males.
Another remarkable thing about the film that may drive some to distraction is the sympathetic treatment of the Hillel leadership. Even though it is clear that the film makers are more on the side of the Palestinians in the Middle East, Noah is fairly and sympathetically portrayed.
Despite the weakness on gender issues which is exceedingly annoying in this day and age it is a film well worth seeing and discussing. Catch it in person if you can when the filmmakers are there. There should be an excellent discussion as no doubt both sides of the ongoing battle will attend.
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