TEL AVIV — Which came first, the film festival or the social justice protest?

Ask Erez Barenholtz and Elad Goldman, directors of this year’s Tel Aviv Student Film Festival, and they will tell you they honestly don’t know.

The fest, one of the world’s largest showcases of student filmmaking, has been staged biannually for the past 20 years. Last summer, however, just as Barenholtz and Goldman were planning this year’s events, Tel Aviv was swept up in a massive, student-run social justice movement, with young people camping out along the city’s boulevards, and hundreds of thousands marching in weekly protests to demand higher salaries and more affordable housing options.

Goldman, 28 and Barenholtz, 30, both film students at Tel Aviv U., were caught up in the movement. “We realized that we had to do something in the festival that relates to (the protests), not specifically to those tents or those people, but to the social aspect of film,” Goldman says.

The social justice movement of 2011 touched all of Israel, with some of the deepest grievances against the high cost of living coming from the towns outside of Israel’s periphery, where communities tend to be immigrant, Arab and/or low income. These communities also don’t have arthouse or multiplex cinemas, and Goldman and Barenholtz decided that as part of their festival, they would exercise their own form of social justice by bringing avant-garde film to the masses.

Thus, the Film Bus Project preview tour was born.

The fest launched officially June 2, at the sleek Tel Aviv Cinematheque complex in the heart of urban Tel Aviv. Two weeks earlier, however, a bus packed with film students from Israel, the United States and across Europe began traversing the country, stopping in its most far-flung towns to set up a makeshift screening room for untested, student-made films.

“The whole idea was to create meetings between the film students and the rest of Israel, the wider community,” says Ori Aharon, 25, the project’s director. On the itinerary were stops in Degania, a sleepy northern kibbutz; Umm al-Fahm, an Israeli Arab city near Haifa; Lod, a hard-knock town near Israel’s main airport; and Dimona, the southern desert town known as the suspected site of Israel’s alleged nuclear reactor as well as the regular target of rocket fire from Gaza. All are a far cry from splashy Tel Aviv, and at many of the stops, viewers were taken aback by the films they saw.

“Here, everyone will applaud when your film is over and be very polite about it,” Aharon says. “But we went to some places where people got up in the middle of the movie, laughed, talked, didn’t really care what was up on the screen.”

At several screenings, viewers walked out.

That’s OK, Goldman says. “That’s exactly what this project is supposed to do,” he says. “It’s supposed to awaken people, and make them even angry sometimes.”

Just as the bus project wrapped, the weeklong fest opened, with 120 films on the docket. At least 100 of those, the directors say, center in some way around the issue of social justice.

Many of those movies’ young filmmakers were on the bus, and for several of them, it was their first-ever visit to Israel. Politics was unavoidable.

“We had people from France and Germany and the United States, from Poland and Sweden and the Czech Republic, and they were all traveling with Israeli students on the bus for the entire week,” Goldman says. “Sure, there were(arguments), but also, there was talking.”

It remains to be seen if the Film Bus project had a permanent effect on the residents of the cities it visited, but one thing is certain: it will linger in the memories of the student filmmakers.

“I don’t know if we made a social change in Israel by this bus project, but the people who were in this group really went through something,” Aharon says.

On the whole, the project directors say, the screenings were a resounding success, with several cities asking for a repeat performance, and Goldman, Barenholtz and Aharon believing the films opened the eyes of some of Israel’s most insular citizens.

“If you take into account all of the screenings around Israel, people really loved it,” Barenholtz says. “We’ve always been told that the people in the periphery, they just want to see watch ‘Big Brother.’ But suddenly we came with our bus, and we saw that that isn’t true.”