Features

Where’s the Beef: The Wanted 18

The documentary-animation mash-up “The Wanted 18” tells the absurd story of how Palestinian cattle became a threat to Israel

Stop motion animation sequences from The Wanted 18 (dirs. Paul Cowan and Amer Shomali, 2014) / courtesy Intuitive Pictures Inc.

Watching The Wanted 18 made for one of those moments when timing becomes downright eerie. I got the assignment to write this story in early July and watched the film just as the current war in Gaza began. As of press time the war continues, with casualties climbing on both sides. The losses are much higher on the Palestinian side, as it is far outmatched by Israel’s military might. There is of course a ferocious debate about who is to blame.

But while the filmmakers behind The Wanted 18 argue their film is more about a specific story and the people involved in it, it’s impossible not to read the documentary as a microcosmic reflection of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and why peace appears to be so distant. It’s a film that’s profound and simple simultaneously, and one that leaves a lingering after-effect. The Wanted 18 will make you laugh, but it will also haunt you.

The Wanted 18, which will premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, takes us back to the first Intifada of 1988. This initial uprising was more about a set of Palestinians’ demands for greater self-governance than it was about violence. In Beit Sahour, a Palestinian suburb of Bethlehem, several Palestinians decided it would be a good idea to have some cattle, as then they could provide their own milk and dairy products, making their community more self-sufficient. They found some lefty Israelis who sold them 18 cows from their kibbutz and had them trucked over to the West Bank.

And this is where things got strange. The Palestinians knew next to nothing about farming or how to deal with cattle, but they learned. And soon enough, they were providing milk and cheese to the local population. But when the Israeli government learned of the operation, they balked, suggesting the Palestinians should continue to buy Israeli dairy products and give up the cattle.

The Israel Defense Force (IDF) arrived at the stable, took photos of the cows and then declared them a threat to Israel’s national security. The Palestinians refused to give up the cattle. When IDF officers arrived to confiscate the cows, they found they were gone. The Palestinians were hiding them in various homes and garages throughout the suburb. The IDF arrested several of the Palestinian novice farmers, demanding to know the whereabouts of the “Wanted 18.” They organised a military operation, which included two helicopters, to track down the cattle and confiscate them.

It’s as crazy as it sounds. But the story has come to life via a stylistic fusion brought about by Montreal-based producer Ina Fichman. She came across the story when she met Palestinian artist Amer Shomali at a pitch session in Ramallah some six years ago.

Shomali, a Palestinian filmmaker, animator and artist, had long been struck by the story of these cows, who were wanted criminals. “Amazingly, the story of the cows had not been documented anywhere,” he says from his West Bank home. “Because of the bloodshed and demonstrations, there were other things the media focused on at the time. In a sense it’s a simple story, but it’s very symbolic, and at times hard to believe—it sounds like a George Orwell story.”

“When we first met, the idea for the film was at a very embryonic stage,” recalls Fichman. “Amer wanted to do a short animated film about the Wanted 18. I thought it was a very rich, interesting story. The cows are innocents who are caught up in the Intifada. The animation would make it very whimsical, but it’s also a serious story. And I liked that it was a different perspective from either the Israelis or Palestinians. It was absurd and ironic.”

Then Fichman was struck with the question “Do we have a feature film here?” The veteran producer had worked on hybrid documentary projects that involved dramatic re-creations before, and this story certainly seemed rife with possibilities, but the question was still there. She asked writer-director Paul Cowan, a filmmaker who has tackled such diverse and controversial topics as abortion activist Henry Morgentaler, billionaire Robert Campeau and WWI hero Billy Bishop, to write up a treatment.

“It was so complicated, but Paul wrote an excellent script,” says Fichman. “Then there’s the reality. How would we pull together funding and get the film made? We felt like Amer’s drawings could pull the story together.”

Stop motion animation sequences from The Wanted 18 (dirs. Paul Cowan and Amer Shomali, 2014) / courtesy Intuitive Pictures Inc.

The three agreed that Shomali and Cowan would co-direct. Shomali decided upon stop-motion animation, an expensive, labour-intensive and time-consuming form. Fichman approached two animation instructors at Concordia University’s film school, Shira Avni and Eric Goulet, who recommended recent graduates of the animation stream of the film production programme who might be willing to collaborate. “The work they did was amazing,” Fichman says. “The short they animated helped us to get early funding.”

Gathering funding proved one of the biggest challenges, with production of The Wanted 18 halted for months-long gaps due to financial dry spells (a narrative that will read as familiar to most documentary filmmakers working today). Ultimately, SODEC, Radio-Canada and the French side of the NFB came on board, buttressed by an online crowd-funding campaign.

Cowan and Shomali concede that sharing the director credit was a complicated process—at least initially. “I have been to Israel, but I revealed my ignorance to Amer right away,” says Cowan. “I know a thing or two about filmmaking, but not [much about] Palestine. In 1983, I made a documentary for the NFB series War, so I spent two months there just as war was breaking out between Israel and Lebanon.”

Cowan had experience making docudramas before, “and I love making hybrid films. But I knew nothing about animation or stop-motion animation. We had a lot of confidence in Amer, which helped. But when we started, Amer was set to make a film that was 100 per cent animated, while I was set to make a film that was 100 per cent documentary. There was a gap to bridge.”

Cowan adds that “my concerns were also about tone, considering the topic: What’s going to happen when we have a scene of a Palestinian having his bones broken, and then cutting to an animated cow that’s funny? From the awful reality to a funny cow—that was the biggest question mark in the filmmaking process. We had these different stylistic approaches going on, but there had to be a fundamental homogeneity to the film.”

“At first it was perhaps a bit difficult,” Shomali says of co-directing. “We come from very different backgrounds. Paul’s a documentary filmmaker, so his main goal is for the story to be clear. For me, it’s about fantasy and being funny. Our ideas went back and forth, like a ping-pong game. That added with a seven-hour time difference meant arranging a meeting was always tricky.”

The Wanted 18 does indeed show the signs of divergent creative impulses, but in a good way. It’s a mash-up of ideas and styles, but all around one coherent theme. And while the film shares nothing in common with the style of a Michael Moore film, the sheer absurdity of a military cow hunt can’t help but evoke the surreal streak that runs through Bowling for Columbine or Capitalism: A Love Story.

“We were mixing many different levels and styles of reality-based filmmaking,” says Shomali. “Interviews, re-creations, archival footage, comics and animation—how do we make this look like one film? We were using five different ways of representing reality.”

The other crucial gap to bridge was to make sure they had the voices of Israeli military officers who were involved in the search for cattle. After all, the tale at the centre of The Wanted 18 is so strange, if only Palestinian voices were to be heard in the film, some might simply dismiss the entire thing as a hallucinogenic conspiracy theory. “Fiction has to make sense; reality doesn’t,” Shomali notes. “We struggled for two years to find a way to reach one of the commanders. We got him to talk, but he clearly doesn’t really want to. At the same time, he doesn’t really see what the problem is, or was.”

“I was obsessed with getting [the] perspectives [of the military officials],” says Fichman. “We had the anecdotes from the Palestinians. Now we needed the Israeli military to describe what they were doing. This was 20 years ago, so it was tricky, but I think it really gives another dimension to the film. The thing that strikes me is, the Israeli military were not prepared for what they met at that point. They were expecting some kids throwing rocks at them. Instead, they got this group of educated Palestinians who were involved with peaceful resistance. All they wanted was basic human rights. I mean, they wanted to have some cows so they could make their own dairy products. How do you challenge that militarily?”

“We wanted to put the story into context,” says Shomali. “We wanted it to be on a human level or an animal level, not told through politicians. I think the story of what is going on is so often told about fanatics killing fanatics. The Palestinians we see in the media are either dead or in masks. It’s often very difficult for people to relate to those stories or to the people in them. We wanted to show what’s happening in a more subtle way—to find a place where people can care.”

While there was no one film that served as a model, Shomali says he did think about Animal Farm, the 1954 animated adaptation of Orwell’s dystopic novel, and Waltz with Bashir, the 2008 animated documentary that featured interviews with Israeli soldiers involved in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. “Mainly, we wanted audiences to see the occupation from a different point of view—in this case, from the cows’ perspective. Most of the audience will relate to the cows more than the humans in the film.”

For Cowan, making The Wanted 18 led to a personal revelation. “I became far more understanding of the Palestinian perspective on the conflict. This film serves as one aspect of what might make Palestinian lives so difficult. Each taken on their own, perhaps none of them are things you’d go to the UN over. But taken together, they make life miserable.”

Working in the media in North America, says Cowan, “means you’re going to know and have worked with Jewish people. And they will probably have been to or have relatives in Israel. I think that means we tend to feel much more connected to the Israeli side of things. I’ve certainly known Arabs, and I must have met Palestinians before, but prior to this film I don’t think I’d ever sat down and heard a Palestinian discuss the situation from their perspective. I think that’s why often it’s much easier for North Americans to have a sense of community with Israel than with Palestine. I just hope this film allows audiences to see the conflict differently.”

“I really didn’t want to make a film that was simply preaching to the converted,” says Fichman. “What I’d like to see is The Wanted 18 helping to broaden the audience. And hopefully, broaden the conversation.”

A contributing editor of POV, Matthew Hays has written for The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Guardian, VICE, Cineaste, The Walrus and The Daily Beast. He teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. He was on the jury at Hot Docs 2014.

View all articles by Matthew Hays »