The Wanted 18
Canada/Palestine/France, 75 min.
Dir. Amer Shomali, Paul Cowan
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
Documentaries about the conflict between Israel and Palestine are a staple at film festivals. Go to almost any festival with a documentary slate and one is bound to find a handful of Gaza-shot films to choose from in the programme. The range of these films reveals the scope and complexity of the war on both sides of the wall, but no film probes Israel-Palestine relations quite like The Wanted 18 does. This film by Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan (and co-produced by the NFB) looks at the situation from a perspective that one has never seen before: through the eyes of cows.
Employing stop-motion animation, drawings and interviews, The Wanted 18 muses that cows are funny, cute, valuable, and docile. One might agree with these four adjectives, but the film also asks if cows pose a threat to national security. The answer to that question, maybe, is a resounding “No!” (Or “Moo!” depending on one’s aptitude for cowspeak.) The Wanted 18, however, tells the peculiar story of how the Israeli Army deemed a bovine herd a “threat to the national security of the state of Israel” when a Palestinian collective farm began raising cows on the sly in order to provide milk for their community. It’s a preposterous charge and The Wanted 18 renders it doubly farcical when the charges are laid against the herd of Claymation bovines. That’s right, these are good old-fashioned cartoon cows, not even real live threatening ones, so the mixed form of The Wanted 18 uses only accentuates the absurdity of the case.
Shomali and Cowan recreate the story by assembling members of the Palestinian collective from the town of Beit Sahour who recall in interviews their unique role in the First Palestinian Intifada in which protests and other civil disobedience led to an end of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The testimonies are passionate and reflective as the peers recall smuggling in their dairy cows and learning to provide the necessities of life in an operation they built from scratch. The voices of the cows, however, are indispensable to the film, so Shomali and Cowan add them to the chorus using some lively animation that imaginatively dramatizes the story from the point-of-view of the four-legged warriors.
The Wanted 18 focuses primarily on a quartet of cows who were supposedly integral to the project. These cows laugh together while tension escalates between the farmers and Israeli army, which increasingly sees the self-sustenance of the farmers as a dangerous act of defiance. The camaraderie of the cows contrasts sharply with the narrative of resistance that the human counterparts voice in interviews. These cows, a range of sassy and sexy bovines, live the story of the Intifada milk through a veil of complete innocence and candour. The apolitical cows are simply here to provide milk for the masses.
The charges that the cows are a threat seem totally ridiculous when The Wanted 18 presents the cows as such jovial—and utterly harmless—beings. The juxtaposition between the childlike flight of imagination in the animated sections of the film and the hardened predisposition for violence described in the live action interviews draws out the symbolic necessity of these cows for the citizens of Beit Sahour. Independence, resistance, and revolution take time to amass with a herd.
There simply isn’t anything quite like The Wanted 18. It’s a true original. This ingenious documentary is often riotously entertaining thanks to the plucky humour of the cows, but it’s disarmingly moving, too, in its ability to morph these little mooers into agents of resistance. The talking cows share the same emotional and intellectual capacity that their human contemporaries enjoy—a point the film notes with one helpful interviewee—and The Wanted 18 builds to a climactic push as the cows offer the ultimate symbol for the stillborn future wrought by politics of oppression and violence. The Wanted 18 is one of the most entertaining and enlightening films you’ll see this year.