In a packed cinema in Tel Aviv, the screen is filled with the image of Adriaan Vlok, South Africa’s former Minister for Law and Order, washing the feet of a grief stricken mother whose son’s death he ordered (one of the “Mamelodi 10“), during the Apartheid years, while saying “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for what we did to you people.” The women next to me hands me a tissue, and I turn round to look at the audience behind me, noticing that I’m far from the only one struggling to maintain their composure.
This is day five of the Docaviv film festival and the Israeli premiere of One Day After Peace – a documentary following the journey of Robi Damelin, an Israeli peace activist, who is investigating the South African Truth and Reconciliation process after her son is killed by a Palestinian sniper in the West Bank while he was serving at an Israeli military checkpoint. Her aim is to see whether this process, which has been applied after conflicts in Ireland, Rwanda, and in Canada and the United States (between the state and Native American populations), could one day work in Israel and Palestine. She is also wrestling with her own grief, seeking a meeting with her son’s killer in the hope that by understanding why it happened she might gain some closure.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process, we learn, is a radical one. Perpetrators of violence and killings from each side of the conflict are invited to testify before a commission (and often the families of victims) and speak honestly about the events of the time, focusing how it happened and who was involved. They do not need to apologise – although some do – and families do not need to forgive – although some do that too. What they do need to do is speak honestly and acknowledge what happened, on the record, without omission. In return, they receive amnesty from prosecution, while the involved parties hope this process will end the cycle of violence.
The film makes it clear that the process isn’t perfect. Damelin speaks to victims like Shirley Gunn who was initially framed by Vlok for the bombing of Khotso House, who feel the TRC didn’t go far enough, as well as perpetrators who rejected the process and faced prosecution because they felt their actions were justified; “it was war, it was necessary”. Damelin also journeys into Palestine, meeting and bonding with mothers of Palestinians killed in the conflict, while facing the criticism at home for doing so.
The main message of this film however is that for peace to come, this kind of process is absolutely essential. As one of the men who testified before South Africa’s TRC says, “it is painful to touch a scar, but sometimes you need to touch it so that, slowly, it can begin to heal”.
However, we are also left feeling we are a long way from that kind of resolution in the Middle East. Robi’s son’s killer agrees to meet her, but makes it clear that he thinks she is crazy to want to reconcile with him. And Robi herself admits that Truth and Reconciliation can only come as part of a genuine peace framework, which is currently sorely lacking.
Seeing the reactions to this movie in the Tel Aviv Cinemateque however provided some pause for hope. On Bishop Desmond Tutu’s final words – that the TRC is based on the premise that it is possible for people to change, and that one day that change will come to Israel and Palestine – the cinema erupted in applause. As Robi herself took to the stage, this applause turned into a standing ovation.
Peace may be difficult to imagine, but this brave and inspiring film puts the process in a global, historical context that helps us glimpse what might be possible. It happened in South Africa after nearly fifty years of Apartheid and 200 years of white rule. It happened in Rwanda after nearly a million Tutsis were murdered in just 100 days. So, as the audience left Cinemateque 3 and walked back into Tel Aviv’s streets, we were left with one challenging question; if reconciliation can happen there, under those circumstances, then why not here?
This post was originally published on the Urban Times on 8th May