Listening to voices from the other side

Filmgoers at the documentary film festival. “We need to learn about each other’s sorrows and joys,” Sharon Ben Aryeh.Sharon Ben Aryeh wants people in the Middle East to be seen getting along together – literally. Ben Aryeh is the brains …

Filmgoers at the documentary film festival. “We need to learn about each other’s sorrows and joys,” Sharon Ben Aryeh.Sharon Ben Aryeh wants people in the Middle East to be seen getting along together – literally. Ben Aryeh is the brains and driving force behind the Other Voices peripatetic documentary film festival which did the rounds of Israel in June. The event featured screenings in Jerusalem, Sderot, Lod and the Arab town of Kfar Kara in the Galilee, and was supported by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

“The idea behind the festival was to show one side how the other side lives,” Ben Aryeh explains. “For example, the Sderot screenings included a documentary about how Gazans are suffering in the current situation here.”

Logic might dictate that Sderot residents, who are paying a heavy toll for their proximity to their neighbors on the other side of the border, might be somewhat less than empathetic and open to the possibility that Gazans are also having a hard time. But this is not the case, Aryeh tells ISRAEL21c.

“There were some people who watched that documentary who had tears in their eyes. I was amazed at how they reacted. We hoped the festival would help each side to accommodate the other, and that seems to have happened,” he explains.

In fact, the roaming film festival is just one of many similar activities run by the non-profit Other Voices, which aims to use the film media to achieve social change.

The festival was preceded by regular documentary screenings at community centers around Israel, for Jewish and Arab audiences, between January and May. The films were followed by discussions which allowed members of the groups – the pre-festival screenings were normally attended by around 15 local residents in each location – to discuss what they had just seen, and to talk through their feelings about their own situation and the way people on the other side live.

Ben Aryeh conceived the idea for Other Voices while studying for a master’s degree in communications in Norway between 2002 and 2003.

“Sometimes you have to move away to get a different perspective,” he says. “And, of course, there was the ‘romanticism’ of the Oslo Accords which drew me there. I wanted to combine my passion for film and my desire to do something in Israel in order to generate a different space here. I am not a politician and I am not going to sign any treaties, but I wanted to do something at the grassroots level.”

While applauding the efforts of various organizations that have tried, and continue trying, to create a more peaceful regional environment Ben Aryeh feels one of the most important things is to generate empathy and acceptance. “I know I’m not going to change the whole world overnight, but I want to help to nurture respect and fairness behind Israelis and Palestinians. We need to learn about each other’s sorrows and joys.”

Other Voices, says Ben Aryeh, is first about getting the other to listen to our voice, then listening to the other side, and arriving at an inclusive first person plural.

“What do we mean when we say ‘we’?” he asks. “There are so many different ethnic, cultural and social groups – and that goes for Israeli society, and for Palestinian society, and relations between the two sides of the conflict. We all have our story to tell, and we all want others to listen to that story. I believe that’s the way to go, to engender a healthy and more tolerant spirit in this part of the world.”