Parents Circle shows another side of war &mdash peace

As the daily body count in Iraq proves, it seems possible to grow numb to relentless tragedy. Apparently, there’s only so much pain one can take, especially if it isn’t your pain.

A new documentary, “Another Side of Peace,” aims to correct that, depicting the incomprehensible agony suffered by Israelis and Palestinians who’ve lost loved ones in the ongoing conflict.

“Another Side of Peace” airs locally Sunday, Oct. 9, on KQED.

The film is about the Parents Circle, a group of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians who meet together in both sorrow and hope. Their grief is too strong to entertain revenge.

Parents Circle-Families Forum was co-founded by Israeli Roni Hirshenzon and Palestinian Ghazi Briegieth, two men who lost family members to violence. Their message is simple — too simple, apparently, for the world at large: no more death.

Though the documentary tells both families’ stories, filmmakers Ellen Frick and Gretchen Burger focus on Hirshenzon, an articulate and engaging man of 60 with a bottomless supply of empathy.

His son Amir, a soldier, was killed in a double suicide bombing. Five years later, his second son Elad, in despair after the death of his best friend, committed suicide.

Rather than collapse inward in sorrow, Hirshenzon instead was moved to reach out, starting Parents Circle. His partner Briegieth lost a brother who was shot by an Israeli soldier at a border crossing.

As the two meet with reluctant new recruits to the Circle, they (and the filmmakers) check their politics at the door. The two men seemingly turn up wherever and however they’re needed: co-sponsoring a bicultural phone campaign called “Hello, Peace,” in which Arabs and Jews speak to each other; helping in the recording studio where a popular Israeli pop band teams up with a Palestinian hip-hop artist.

Hirshenzon illegally enters the West Bank to meet a doubt-filled but ultimately conciliatory Palestinian family. Briegieth crosses into Jerusalem to attend a Parents Circle meeting.

They are mourners without borders.

Many of the scenes in “Another Side of Peace” are clearly staged for the cameras (the fact that 90 percent of the dialogue is in English is tip-off enough). Because of that, and a sloppy editing job, the film lacks the kind of cinematic punch of today’s best documentaries.

But the power of the stripped-down human emotion overrides the film’s deficiencies.

Hirshenzon laments that most of his friends have abandoned him, unable to relate to his loss. But the film shows him meeting with one true friend. Their handclasp, which caps the one scene, is inevitably moving.

So is a scene in which Hirshenzon returns to the radio station office where his son shot himself. We meet Elad’s co-workers and his boss, who breaks down in tears recalling that horrible day.

There are plenty of tears in the film, but surprisingly few from Hirshenzon and Briegieth. The two are pretty much cried out. As Hirshenzon says at one point, for him “there is no future, only the present.”

As the two, individually and together, meet with more bereaved families, one senses a kind of pornography of pain, but from the filmmakers’ perspective, that’s par for the course in the Middle East.

Yet the film ends on a note of hope. As Arabs and Jews, united in grief, meet at a Jerusalem hotel conference room for the first time, their common humanity emerges. As Hirshenzon says, peace is not a Polaroid picture but an embroidery.

“Another Side of Peace” is one of those documentaries in which the substance trumps style. It won’t win any awards for cinematic achievement, and its story could certainly have been told with greater context and coherence.

But as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently wrote, the moral authority of a grieving mother is absolute.

The same is true for the families in this film, both Palestinian and Israeli, who would likely say there is no other side than peace. Peace is the only side.

“Another Side of Peace” airs 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, on KQED, channel 9.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.