The Wanted 18 is a deadly serious documentary, a film about rebellion, resistance to occupation and the tragic toll that can come with it. But it’s also a very funny story about cows. The film, which is screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this Saturday, oscillates between these modes seamlessly, with a few overlaps. How else can one explain the Israeli military’s orders to shut down a small Palestinian dairy farm except as both an example of the total control sought by the occupying power and also an exemplar of absurdist humor?
Through archival footage, claymation, illustrations, interviews, and some contrived reenactments, filmmakers Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan tell the tale of Beit Sahour, a small Christian town on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, during the First Intifada, or uprising. In late 1987, Palestinians began to organize a mass uprising in response to 20 years of Israeli occupation, which began with 1967’s Six-Day War. Local committees organized the demonstrations, strikes, mass refusals to pay taxes to the occupying authorities, and boycotts of Israeli products.
Beit Sahour was a hotbed of creative nonviolent activism. In 1988, activists decided to stop buying Israeli milk. But a substitute would be needed to feed the town’s families, so Jalal Qumsieh went to a friendly kibbutz, or Jewish collective community, and purchased 18 cows. But, as one Beit Sahour resident says in the film, Palestinians didn’t have a culture of cow farming, so a local university student was dispatched to the United States to learn everything from how to care for the cows to how to milk them. “The moment I saw the cows at the farm,” says Qumsieh in the film, “I felt as if we had started to realize our dream of freedom and independence.”
The sense of community that the cows helped to build comes across through present-day interviews with the neighborhood committee members. Everyone pitched in for the Intifada. One Beit Sahour resident tells of how a group of women would divide duties in order to sew Palestinian flags, which were banned at the time—including one woman to serve as a lookout for Israeli soldiers as the sewing happened. Majed Nasser, a doctor, recounts being stopped by soldiers as he swept the street; they did not believe a medical doctor would stoop to such a task. The soldiers then recognized, he said, “There was more to the Intifada than throwing stones and burning tires.” And, indeed, there were the cows.
The Israeli army didn’t like it one bit. Occupation was, so far as they were concerned, predicated on control—and dependence played a big part in that. Like much of the West Bank, many Palestinians in Beit Sahour depended on the Israeli economy for their livelihoods and for the products that sustained their lives; with the Israelis asserting firm control over open lands, especially so close to the so-called Green Line that sectioned off the occupied territories under military rule, agriculture proved enormously difficult. The neighborhood committees of the Intifada were themselves seen as a threat. The Israeli military governor, Shaltiel Lavie, explains in The Wanted 18:
We had a strict directive on dealing with those who formed the neighborhood committees with all the necessary force, and all legal means at our disposal in order to control them so as to prevent the possibility of their setting up an administrative apparatus which was ultimately designed to replace our own.