It took Roni Hirshenzon two years before he was able to visit the office at the army radio station in Israel where his son Elad shot himself, ending his pain over the deaths of his brother and his best friend. Two years of grieving for his two sons has shattered Hirshenzon’s life, a life made bearable with the help he gives and gets from a group he co-founded called The Parents Circle.
On May 19, at 10 p.m., KCTS Television will air the premiere broadcast of “Another Side of Peace,” a one-hour documentary film produced by two local first-time filmmakers about an extraordinary Israeli man, Roni Hirshenzon, who is reaching out to other Israeli and Palestinian families that share his soul-wrenching, agonizing loss.
Filmed on location in Israel during September and October of 2002, with one day of shooting in the West Bank town of Beit Omar, “Another Side of Peace” moves from the kitchen tables of grieving Palestinian families who risked their safety by speaking on camera, to the living rooms of grieving Israeli families as they gather strength from each other to go on.
It is a deep and honest look into the broken hearts of both cultures, each at a loss to make sense out of the death of their children. Seattle musician Rafe Pearlman wrote the original music score.
“Children are dying, that’s what it’s about,” said Ellen Frick, a 47-year-old former environmental engineer-turned documentary filmmaker, a Jewish woman and one of the producers of “Another Side of Peace.”
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s an Israeli or an American child,” she said. “It’s politics aside. It’s anti-violence and anti-death. No more death.”
According to Frick, she decided to go to Israel to see things for herself during the second intifada, when the daily dose of news and violence from Israel depicted in her morning New York Times grew increasingly bleak. She bunked with a family on what she called a two-week reconnaissance mission.
Frick interviewed army generals from the left and the right, musicians, mayors, lawyers, and even visited a crisis hotline in Netanya. But it wasn’t until the end of her trip that she was told of a group of fathers that had started a support group. Some of the men, she was told, were fathers of suicide bombing victims and others were fathers of the suicide bombers. But they had all lost their children to the violence. That’s when she knew she her story.
“One of my main goals for the Jewish community all over the world and the Arab community is to sort of shake them up,” said Frick. “In the film, you’re sitting at the kitchen table with RoniÖand maybe you’ve never met an Israeli. Or you’re in this house in the West Bank and you’re watching this woman bake bread and serve coffee. I wanted to really get away from that prejudice we all have, the things we grew up with.”
Gretchen Burger is a freelance filmmaker and writer who co-produced the film with Frick. She hopes that after people see the film and then read news from the region, they will think about Roni and Ghazi Briegieth, chairs of the Palestinian Outreach Committee for The Parents Circle.
“For me that would be total success,” said Burger, who worked with Frick to edit more than 40 hours of raw, high-definition footage she brought back from Israel. “Because it’s not about sides. It’s a film about reconciliation or bereavement.”
Both women said they wanted the film to be accessible, so that viewers who know nothing about the people or the politics could see the beyond the conflict and into the hearts of the families.
“The issues are so universal,” added Burger. “It doesn’t have to have those words—Palestinian or Israeli.
A production crew of five—two from Israel and the rest from the U.S.—were escorted around the country and through military checkpoints by local guides and Hirshenzon. Israelis are not allowed in the Palestinian territories, so in order to speak to a Palestinian family who wanted to meet Hirshenzon and talk about joining the group, they had to sneak into a town called Beit Omar in the West Bank.
The family, who lost their own son when he agreed to carry out a suicide bombing attack, had to think long and hard before agreeing to be filmed for the documentary. Their neighbors did not want the film crew there. It was a risky and dangerous choice for the grieving family.
“Experiencing it was a big eye-opener,” said Marc Pingry, the multiple Emmy Award-winning Seattle photographer who directed the filming in Israel and the Palestinian territories. “It’s the worst thing that can happen to a parent. In almost every interview, you could see that something was missing inside them.”
Pingry, who is the father of two boys, said he hugged them a little more tightly upon returning home from the trip.
“I loved Israel, I loved the shoot there, and I loved the Israelis,” added Pingry. “I remember seeing a young kid with a full metal jacket and realizing that for them it’s an everyday job, it’s their life and this is the way it is. But Roni was so powerful. He is one of these rare individuals that can make a difference.”
Valerie Vozza, director of photography for the interview with Ghazi Briegieth in Seattle, had previously traveled to Israel but had never heard of this type of program.
“It made a huge impression on me and he was very warm,” said Vozza, when she first heard Briegieth talking about his own loss and how the program helps him cope. “I didn’t even know something like that was going on in the Middle East. I’ve never heard anything about these programs. There is no news coverage of that sort of thing. It renewed my faith in humanity.”
Frick and Burger received no funding from the Jewish community for this film and were turned down for two years in a row by the Jewish Documentary Film Fund.
They are currently in the process of trying to sell the film to educators, libraries and schools, and they are marketing the film to international distributors. In addition, the two producers have been invited to screen “Another Side of Peace” at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival starting May 15.
KCTS will repeat the documentary on Monday, May 23 at 2 a.m.
“We screened it and felt it explored a human component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that few stop to truly consider: the healing process for the many bereaved families suffering the loss of loved ones due to the conflict,” said Eric Maki, programming manager at KCTS.
“Knowing that families from both sides are coming together to support and draw strength from each other will leave KCTS viewers with a sense of hope.”
The two independent filmmakers have their hopes about the potential impact of the film.
“We hope we can show people that these are not two primitive people fighting in the desert,” said Frick. “You will see Elad swimming in his pool, smoking cigarettes and drinking Heineken beer, so you feel like you know them. They look like us.”