I usually avoid engaging in conversation about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Talking about it tends to involve taking sides, and while I know I’m supposed to be “Team Israel” because I’m Jewish, the issue is slightly more complex than that. While Paul Cowan and Amer Shomali’s The Wanted 18 is firmly a pro-Palestine picture, it has a light touch that encourages amusement rather than anger unless you’re completely humorless about the whole issue (and that’s not an unreasonable emotional reaction). But for those who are willing to take the film on its own merits and see things from the Palestinian point of view, the directors have created a film that doesn’t delve particularly deep, but it’s still amusing, informative, and uniquely told.
During the Intifada in 1988, a group of Palestinians tried to break the Israeli stranglehold on supplying goods to Beit Sahour by purchasing eighteen cows from Israel in order to produce an independent supply of milk. However, once they had the cows, the Israeli government became concerned it could set off widespread civil disobedience, so the conspirators make a strong effort to the hide their bovine property amongst the town people.
Because Shomali is a comic book artist telling a story that’s taken on a bit of a folktale status, the documentary is comprised of talking head interviews, dramatic reenactments, and most interestingly, stop-motion animation where four of the cows are allowed to speak for themselves, observe the strange goings-on, and develop a kinship with their new Palestinian owners. The way the filmmakers divide up the narrative devices feels somewhat random partially because there’s a lot of excitement to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. The directors also make an odd choice by shooting their interviews at various angles regardless of the speaker’s behavior. One participant is shot from a low angle so that he seems more imposing even though his input doesn’t seem more or less commanding than anyone else.
Cowan and Shomali want the participants to explain the story and their positions as clearly as possible, and also want to draw us into the absurdity and thrills of the event. The film also clearly sides with the noble Palestinians who were making a peaceful stand that might have struck an economic blow to their Israeli occupiers. The Israelis are also depicted as buffoons saying lines like “These cows are dangerous for the security of the state of Israel,” and “Release the cows and you will be safe.” There’s nothing quite like making your overseers seem ridiculous.
I don’t mind that the movie has a point of view clearly supporting the Palestinians. I also think that the way they tell their story is energetic, passionate, and frankly, endearing. But there is a breaking point where the film becomes too saccharine and preachy. What’s admirable about these people are that they’re regular folks—students, teachers, pharmacists, butchers—not saints or martyrs. To build up this one act as something that could have changed the course of history is also incongruous with a small story about secret cows. I understand why the participants want to elevate this act of rebellion into something grandiose, but it’s at the cost of the movie’s humanity, which is far more compelling.
The fight between Israel and Palestine is not absurd. Too many innocent people have died, and I doubt there will ever be a peaceful resolution. But if the fight will continue, it’s good to know there were stories outside of stones and tanks and the other imagery we see on the news. The Wanted 18 doesn’t belittle the conflict; it makes it feel more real, and it does so with the help of animated, talking cows.
Click here for all of our TIFF 2014 coverage. Click on the links below for our other TIFF 2014 reviews:
- The Drop
- Force Majeure
- The Humbling
- It Follows
- The Look of Silence
- Men, Women & Children
- Mr. Turner
- Pawn Sacrifice
- The Riot Club
- The Tale of Princess Kaguya
- This Is Where I Leave You
- Welcome to Me
- What We Do in the Shadows