Objector Review: Youth in Revolt

Atalya Ben-Abba’s quest for peace evokes a new youth movement

6 mins read

(USA, 75 min.)
Dir. Molly Stuart

What hope does a nation have for peace when it prepares each generation for war? This question underlies Molly Stuart’s Objector, a doc that provides a figure for the pro-peace movement comparable to what Greta Thunberg stands for in the fight for climate change. Objector tells the story of Atalya Ben-Abba, who was jailed at 19 years of age when she refused to enlist in the Israeli army. Although Ben-Abba is the dominant voice in the documentary, she represents a growing number of young Israelis who are conscientious objectors. The doc gives voice to a generation of concerned citizens who believe that violence is not the road to peace.

Objector, which is the opening night screening of Toronto’s JAYU Human Rights Film Festival, highlights how young people drive change. This doc’s specific look at a brave individual in Israel illuminates a situation of complex geopolitics and long-standing division. Stuart’s film also conveys how change begins at a personal level, as Ben-Abba’s journey speaks to a shift in consciousness that can be gained by expanding one’s worldview. It shows how every individual mind is part of a larger collective consciousness, and how each personal awakening is a step towards substantial change.

The film follows Ben-Abba as she comes of age for her three years of mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Instead of falling in line with her country’s rite of passage, Ben-Abba asks what she would be fighting for and why she should protect her fellow citizens from the Palestinians. This soul-searching inspires her to visit the occupied territory and witness the alleged actions of terrorists firsthand. She sees no violence, outside of the deeds that Israeli soldiers commit against Palestinians daily. Stuart accompanies Ben-Abba as she watches Palestinians stand helplessly as the IDF razes their homes to please residents of a nearby Israeli settlement. (They claim the smell of the Palestinians’ cooking disrupts their quality of life.) Ben-Abba and other young people sift through the rubble and find remnants of a family’s life and dignity, offering them hands-on experience that teaches them how to use their energy to create peace. They help prepare playgrounds for children amid the arid fields of the walled-in and heavily patrolled territory.

Ben-Abba’s outspoken objection to the mandatory service draws considerable media attention. She knows that she faces time in military prison if she refuses service on the day of her conscription. This choice to hold strong to her beliefs divides her family. Her brother, Amitai, an activist and writer, supports her and joins her in the fight. Having escaped military service himself by receiving a doctor’s note excusing him on grounds of anxiety and mental health, Amitai knows the emotional and psychological toll of facing a commitment to service to which one is ideologically opposed. The siblings’ parents, on the other hand, aren’t initially convinced. They fulfilled their service, so why shouldn’t their children? So ensue the same propagandistic “what if” scenarios about unseen evil and keeping Israel “safe.”

However, when Ben-Abba willingly goes to prison and spends 110 days away from her family to avoid service, her fight assumes a new spark. Atalya’s mother becomes willing to see the conflict through her daughter’s eyes: productive policy and peacemaking, not protectionism by force, will ensure peace and equality for Israelis and their neighbours. Atalya’s voice becomes part of a growing youth movement as more young Israelis stand as conscientious objectors. The film lets them speak through a unified voice as they inspire change by challenging the status quo. The objectors nevertheless remain a minority, however, as the camera accompanies Ben-Abba to some post-prison social gatherings. Her friends who serve in the military don’t seem to question the necessity of mandatory service.

Objector offers a sharply focused perspective on a volatile conflict. The images of the occupied territory are urgent and gripping, but also fair evidence to support the views of Ben-Abba and her fellow conscientious objectors. The film is a personal interrogation of the road to peace, and the alternatives that are so obviously required when decades of military presence have only widen a conflict that is fuelled by ideology and division. However, Stuart’s film optimistically suggests that the end is in sight through these small but significant acts of change.

Objector screens at the JAYU Human Rights Film Festival on December 3.
Please visit HRFF.ca for additional films and screening info.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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