When protesting students successfully block a proposed visit by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Montreal’s Concordia University, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict seems to take over the campus. “Discordia” helmers Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal, themselves recent graduates of Concordia, wisely concentrate on the experiences of three student leaders involved, successfully capturing the passions, frustrations and uncertainties of adolescent activism. Stronger on immediacy than analysis, docu about a minor incident at an obscure Canadian university would seem of limited interest were it not for the media blitzkreig, from CNN to Al Jazeera, that hyped this small campus skirmish as violent confrontation. Fests and current affairs-oriented venues beckon pic’s natural home on the tube and in homevid.
Filmmakers intercut among their three main subjects, who divide up neatly on extreme sides of the issue, with one conflicted character in the dead center. The principals all know and interact with one another well (either amicably or otherwise) as the fallout surrounding the college protest impacts their respective lives.
Noah Sarna, student head of Hillel, is a soft-spoken, clean-cut kid who has never before attended a non-Jewish school, has led a very sheltered life and is baffled at the hatred he encounters as a defender of Israel. Unlike most other Israelophiles, Noah seldom throws around simplistic “self-hating Jew” or “anti-Semitic” epithets to explain away critiques of Israeli governmental policies.
Human rights activist Samar Eletrash seems like your typical bearded firebrand Palestinian, except that his girlfriend is Jewish and his major is women’s studies. Stylistically, Samar comes across as Noah’s opposite number — brilliant, impassioned and impatient where Noah is laid-back, deliberate and calm. Confident in his ability to control all situations, Samar willingly participates in a right-wing pro-Israeli documentary, only to be astounded when he is picked apart and hung out to dry, as the shattering of a single plate-glass window at Concordia is likened to Kristallnacht.
But the star of the show is definitely the man in the middle: Aaron Mate, vice president of the pro-Palestinian student union, is a Jew who completely espouses the Palestinian cause. Always seeing both sides, his views on the inviolability of free speech frequently alienate him both from the student union and from Palestinian friends, while his political leanings generate virulent emailed death-threats from fellow Jews.
The irony, of course, is that all three are Canadian born and raised, yet so immersed in their ancestors’ controversy that they faithfully replicate it thousands of miles away. Students of other ethnic minorities begin to get sick and tired of this debate. At the same time, the continual media attention paid to this relatively minor fracas implies that universities are hardly hotbeds of political activism these days.
Tech credits maintain the feel of newsreel-style urgency.