Only the tragically absurd Israeli-Palestinian situation could transform the simple act of milking cows into a perceived threat to national security, yet that’s the amazing story of Paul Cowan and Amer Shomali’s ingenious documentary, “The Wanted 18.” Mixing talking heads, a smattering of archival footage, and smile-inducing claymation, the helmers bring to life a time during the First Intifada when the residents of Beit Sahour, in the Occupied Territories, started a dairy collective. Highlighting the ridiculous without losing track of the seriousness of all acts of resistance, the film should open minds thanks in part to Abu Dhabi’s best Arab docu prize, spurring fest and targeted arthouse exposure.
The story holds special resonance for co-helmer/narrator Shomali, a Palestinian visual artist-animator whose family was intimately tied to the events. In 1988, during the early days of the First Intifada, a group of citizens from Beit Sahour decided they were tired of being forced to purchase all dairy supplies from Israel, so they bought 18 cows from a sympathetic kibbutznik. It was an anomaly on multiple levels: Palestinians have a sheep-raising (not bovine) culture, and beyond that, this was a community of academics and professionals, so they sent student Salim Jaber to the U.S. to learn the finer points of milking and animal husbandry.
Such a cleverly subversive act deserves a cleverly subversive mode of cinematic expression, and Cowan and Shomali deliver the goods via delightful animated segments in which the cows themselves tell their story. There’s Rivka the peacenik, Lola the Madonna fan, and Ruth the leader, among others, all chattering in California upspeak and all indoctrinated with negative notions of Palestinians: The sale has them majorly pissed off.
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They weren’t the only ones: The Israeli government was furious that the town was becoming self-sufficient. That they weren’t paying taxes was also a major source of contention, prompting Yitzhak Rabin to threaten that he would bring Beit Sahour to its knees. The dairy collective had become a symbol of nonviolent civil disobedience, and the Israelis understood that self-reliance was a far greater threat to their propaganda war than the rock throwing seen daily on TV. So they declared the cows to be a security risk, sending soldiers and helicopters to Beit Sahour, intent on killing the animals. But the residents hid the beasts, leading to a surreal eight-day cow hunt.
The intelligence as well as the charm of “The Wanted 18” lies in how it balances the farcical nature of labeling cows a national menace with the seriousness of purpose behind the community’s bid for dignity and autonomy under occupation. The filmmakers are also extremely clever in having most of the talking heads speak English: While most non-American docus choosing Anglophone dialogue do so to expand their distribution possibilities, the effect here is to counter the usual news-channel depictions of Palestinians as nameless hysterics with articulate, distinctly middle-class men and women. Just as the anthropomorphized cows change their ideas about Palestinians once they’re there, so audiences with a blinkered view of the region should come away with an expanded, alternate narrative.
Towards the end, the chronology gets compacted, and more information is wanted on Shomali’s cousin Anton, a young resistance leader killed by Israeli soldiers in 1992. Like the intifada itself, the cow episode came to a melancholy end: Beit Sahour residents reflect on the burnout from years of resistance, as well as their sense of betrayal following Yasser Arafat’s signing of the Oslo Accord. Yet like the 18 ruminants, the docu itself proves the lasting power of nonviolent struggle, offering a needed feel-good factor even as hope for a peaceful solution becomes increasingly unsustainable.
The cows’ over-strident American voices may feel too pushed for some viewers, but otherwise the black-and-white claymation, reminiscent of “Wallace and Gromit,” is a joy, made more so by the surprise of seeing frolicsome animation in a docu about such a weighty subject. Editing and sound are flawless.