David Michaelis and Jamal Dajani befriended one another six years ago in San Francisco, where no borders or questions of identity affected their relationship.
But what would happen if they went to the land of their birth and filmed the result?
“If you guys are in such good dialogue, go to ground zero itself and see how you do in the conflict,” was how Michaelis described their challenge.
They accepted, with a private foundation sponsoring their journey.
The result is “Occupied Minds — A Palestinian-Israeli Journey Beyond Hope and Despair,” a documentary that will screen next week at the Commonwealth Club. It will also screen in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose as part of the Arab Film Festival in late September (information: www.aff.org).
Michaelis was born to Jewish parents who fled Germany for pre-state Israel before World War II. Dajani, a Palestinian American, can trace his roots back to seventh-century Jerusalem.
They grew up within miles of each other but worlds apart, as West and East Jerusalem, though no longer separated by a physical barrier, still have a psychological one.
Working at Link TV, a San Francisco-based satellite channel, they became friends.
“My relationships with Palestinians were nonexistent before the Oslo agreements,” said Michaelis, who has worked in Israeli television for 25 years. “If you wore an army uniform as I did, you met them on a very unequal basis — as soldier versus citizen.”
That changed with the Oslo accords in 1993, when Michaelis started regularly working with Palestinian journalists.
Michaelis came to San Francisco to help with the launch of Link TV before the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, so his relationships with Palestinians back home didn’t suffer the same way many others did.
Dajani came to Link TV a year after its founding, to spearhead its effort to help Americans better understand the Arab world.
Before he moved to America, his primary contact with Jews was when they came to East Jerusalem as tourists. “They shopped and at the end of the day, everyone went home to their own neighborhoods. They were business relationships only and there was a lot of apprehension.”
It was only as an undergraduate at Columbia University that Dajani befriended Jews for the first time.
The apprehension he once felt is clear in the movie; one of the more memorable scenes shows Dajani visiting what used to be his family’s compound in Jerusalem’s Old City. Dajani himself did not grow up there; prior generations of his family were forced to flee to East Jerusalem in 1948. The family’s former home is now a yeshiva.
Michaelis and Dajani interview numerous subjects on both sides: the Palestinian militant, the father who lost his daughter in a suicide bombing, the peace activists.
“The movie is, in essence, a travelogue; we are the eyes and lenses that bring you our experience,” said Dajani. “We are using ourselves as a medium to tell the story, and the story is about the people we encounter.
“We didn’t say we’ve got to get two people on the Jewish side and two on the Arab side. What we wanted was to show the realities we encountered, at that moment.”
Michaelis added, “We’re trying to make you look outside of the usual channels about an issue that everyone knows about, but walks in known paradigms. We want people to see things in a different way.
“It wasn’t about balance, but about trying to achieve a different kind of insight, a human and political insight.”
“Occupied Minds” will screen at 7 p.m. following a 6:30 p.m. reception Tuesday, Sept. 20, at the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., S.F. A panel discussion will follow. $12 members, $18 non-members, $7 students. Information: http://commonwealthclub.org/INFORUM/index.html.