Interview: Just Vision’s Ronit Avni on nonviolent leaders in the Middle East
Eight years ago, the human rights activist and award-winning filmmaker Ronit Avni conducted over 475 interviews with Israeli and Palestinian activists to find out what kind of support they needed to advance peace. The overwhelming answer was to become more visible. The pockets of nonviolent activists throughout the region need a space to link and promote their messages. Here, Dowser talks with Avni, the founder of Just Vision, about the value of a megaphone, the protests in Egypt, and how her organization looks to promote unsung heroes of nonviolent activism going forward.
Dowser: Just Vision is best known for its two award-winning feature-films, Budrus and Encounter Point, but its aims are wide. What are Just Vision’s central goals and how did they emerge?
Avni: Just Vision surfaces success stories of people who are catalyzing change. My background is in human rights work and the arts. After working in partnership with Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations for three years while at the human rights media organization WITNESS, I began to feel that I wanted to work in my own backyard. I am both Israeli and North American. After 9/11 and the collapse of the Oslo process I felt that my backyard was burning, that it was time to apply the skills I’d acquired to the issue for which I felt most responsible. I spent two years interviewing Palestinian and Israeli nonviolence leaders, peace-builders and human rights activists who overwhelmingly expressed that they felt invisible within their own communities and internationally. They felt very silo-ed in their own fields. I decided to launch Just Vision to highlight their untold stories of nonviolent activism, to connect these people to one another, to journalists, to thought-leaders and to the world.
What distinguishes Just Vision from other human rights organizations or other film-based human rights work?
The human rights field operates by identifying a victim, a violator and a violation and shaming the violator into compliance. But in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the parties don’t agree that they are violators and everyone sees themselves as the victim. Just Vision does not mean to replace other human rights work, which is critical, but rather to complement it with models of success and with stories of people working for change in order to motivate others to act. We also seek to highlight the range of nonviolence and peace-building work in the region.
What were your original projects for Just Vision and how have those changed?
I originally intended to just make one film, Encounter Point, about several Israelis and Palestinians who have lost something precious as a result of the conflict and who still are pushing their communities in the direction of peace. The plan was to create learning tools with which to use the film in educational institutions and communities to educate people about nonviolent activism in the region. The reach of the film completely exceeded my expectations – we reached tens of millions of people in Israel, Palestine and the United States and kept winning audience awards. Many audiences were moved to act and wanted to know how they could get involved. We made Budrus, our next film, to show an example of a Palestinian-led nonviolent movement that succeeded, so that people could see and learn from it.
Your films and newly-released slideshow of Unsung Nonviolence Leaders focus largely on the individuals who are making nonviolent change. How do the stories and actions of these people relate to larger-scale structural and political change?
Social change on a broad scale requires massive participation on every level. It requires that an educator rethinks how she teaches history; it requires bereaved families to decide how they want to heal and whether they ask for accountability; and it requires nonviolent activists who are willing to put their bodies on the line to make a statement. As we see in Egypt and Tunisia today, it takes every kind of person. Through our interviews, films and slideshows we hope that viewers can find themselves somewhere in the stories and types of activism we present and recognize that everyone has a role to play.
What is the importance of presenting these stories? How does that lead to change and peace in the region?
People engaging in nonviolent activism in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often isolated and under-appreciated. We hope that when we present their stories journalists will want to write about them, members of their communities will recognize the value of these efforts, students will want to study their approaches and perhaps volunteer with them, and even those who disagree with their methodologies will do so from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. Gaby Lasky, for example, is one of the great unsung heroes of this work – she is in the Israeli courts day in and day out defending human rights activists and nonviolence leaders, straining the resources of her firm, and sacrificing a significant part of her life to make this work possible. She deserves broader support.
How does Just Vision hope to build on this work going forward?
As we grow, we are able to cultivate deep relationships with community leaders, educators and journalists in Palestinian and Israeli society. We have a broader reach and greater capacity to facilitate strategic relationships than we did in the past. For instance, we brokered a meeting between a group of 55 women from Bethlehem who wanted to show support for the women of Budrus and learn about their key role in the successful nonviolent movement depicted in the film. Similarly, we are taking our materials to classrooms, refugee camps, and other strategic locations to catalyze discussion, engagement and learning.
What connections and opportunities has Just Vision presented that would not otherwise be available to activists in the region?
We act as a megaphone by amplifying the voices that are critical but aren’t being heard. Before the film came out many Palestinians did not know the story of Budrus, about the success nonviolent activists had there in facing down the Israeli army, or about the role of women in that movement. With an issue of this magnitude it is about connecting the dots – the layer upon layer of activism that media and storytelling can help to link together. The very current example of Tunisia shows just how much one successful nonviolent resistance movement can be a catalyst for another. We want to keep making those catalysts possible; to make people see examples of human agency.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Images: Just Vision.