Tour Day Ten: George Lucas Building at USC

by EGM contributor Tim Stoner

We arrive early for the donor event Thursday evening in the George Lucas Building at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, which is sponsoring tonight’s screening. The co-sponsors are Biola University and Azusa Pacific. The building George Lucas built is gorgeous, with lovely arches, quiet courtyards, and comfortable theaters. It evokes the gentility of a prosperous Spanish hacienda. There was some confusion about the start time, so there is plenty of time to talk with Matan Cohen. He is 22 years old and is our youngest panelist.

He began nonviolence as a 14-year old, protesting the building of what is known as the “apartheid wall” or “separation fence” (depending on your point-of-view) which runs along the borders of the occupied territories. For him, the shift came when, as a young teenager, he was waved through an Israeli check-point, and for some reason, was struck for the first time by the sight of the separate entrance for Palestinians. But what gripped him were the hundreds of adults and children waiting for hours in the blistering sun to receive permission to return to their homes.

As a way to express his repugnance, he helped establish Anarchists Against the Wall. At the age of 17, during one of their marches, he was shot in the face with a tear-gas canister and almost lost complete sight in his left eye. Since then, he has seen the inside of a jail no less than thirty times. Through his initiative, Hampshire University — where he is a senior studying philosophy, economics and political science — was the first American university to divest from Israel.

The donor event brings in more attendees than expected and we soon run out of the hummus, tabouleh, chicken kabobs, and flatbread. I speak with Dr. Varun Soni, the Dean of the USC Office of Religious Life. It is obvious that he is a bit nervous about tonight’s screening. His role in this diverse religious environment is to avoid controversy. Since there are few conflicts more divisive than the one addressed by tonight’s film, it is the first time he has sponsored an event like this. “But, new stories are needed,” he says, hopefully. “And from the trailer it looked as though this documentary tells a different kind of story.” Still, his smile is strained as he says, “I hope I made the right choice.”

There are many older peace activists among the over 120 in attendance tonight. One of them is Dr. Ralph Fertig, a nationally-respected spokesperson for nonviolence who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is the President of the Humanitarian Law Project. After the screening Dr. Soni invites him to speak. When this thin, elderly gentlemen, with a shock of snow white hair stands up the audience grows very quiet.

“What Martin Luther King taught was the need to love the enemy,” he says. “The beauty of this film is that it shows that there are alternatives to living in fear.” He then makes what I find to be a helpful distinction, “The flipside of fear is not fearlessness, it is the capacity to see the enemy as person and appeal to him as such. Violence only begets more violence, whereas nonviolence enables the capacity to love.”

As the newest member of the panel, Matan speaks first. “Our role is to stand in solidarity with Palestinians,” he urges. He describes the personal cost of this choice which almost lost him his one of his eyes. He dismisses his injury explaining that in the more than a thousand marches opposing the wall, the Israeli army has killed 19 Palestinians. “What we must do is to insert ourselves into the protests with our bodies and accept the bullets being shot at us.” The crowd murmurs its agreement.

Sami goes on to explain that nonviolence is no magic formula. “There is no guarantee that if you do it will work.” He then broadens the motivation behind the nonviolence movement. “We must resist the drive to attain liberation for ourselves without achieving liberation for all. This is why this strategy needs to be taught in a holistic way. It must be carried out in all aspects of life.” He then sounds a hopeful note, “The forces of historical trauma can be reversed. They do not have to be controlling. We can turn our wounds into tools for nonviolent resistance that transcend the historical violence we both have experienced.”

In the lobby afterwards, Dr. Soni’s posture and expression betray his relief. I ask him his opinion. “It was remarkable!” he responds without hesitation. “It was exactly what I had hoped. Stories of transformation are very powerful. Showing people changing their minds, especially when they come from such opposite backgrounds helps others embrace the message that they also can change.” What he liked most was the film’s lack of bias. “It is neither anti nor pro, actually, it is empathetic to both historic narratives. It humanizes a conflict that the media has dehumanized and helps provide a counter narrative to the popular storyline of violence.”

We leave this beautiful venue and its highly engaged audience. Tomorrow is the last day of the tour. We will fly to San Francisco for our last screening, at UC Berkeley.

Random Posts