Shot over 18 months in the Middle East, Encounter Point is another in the long line of sincere, low-budget (this one cost $300,000-400,000) films intended to shed light on the terrible conflict between Israel and Palestine. In Encounter Point’s case, the conflict is explored via a handful of subjects, all of whom have been directly affected by its violence. Robi Damelin, a South African woman whose uncle was one of Nelson Mandela’s lawyers, lost her Israeli reservist son to a sniper’s bullet. Ali Aboawwad lost a brother to the conflict, and himself spent years in an Israeli prison. Shlomo Zagman, meanwhile, grew up in a settlement and spent most of his adult life there, sharing the far-right views of his neighbors; gradually, however, his perspective broadened and he left the settlement, and founded a peace movement.
While there are powerful individual stories in Encounter Point, the film’s major weakness is that it fails to effectively tie those stories together. They are presented, end to end, without a specific setting, and it’s impossible for the viewer to know what pieces of information to hold on to. Are we to remember their names? Will these people be interacting later? At first, it feels as if bios are being sketched in preparation for a later, dramatic convergence. When the convergence never happens, however, the audience is left trying to mentally backtrack, and to create a new context for the stories from remembered fragments.
Frustratingly, a true common thread never emerges and, though the press materials for the film indicate that its goal is to give those who feel that “all hope for the Middle East is lost” renewed strength, the overall effect is quite the opposite. While it is true that all of its subjects are opposed to the conflict, their reasons are very different, as are their means of fighting the violence. Some are part of a bereaved parents’ group, dedicated to “Sharing Hope" and “Sharing Pain.” Another founded the Movement for Realistic Religious Zionism, while a third works with Seeds of Peace, a group dedicated to bringing children from the two sides together. Along the way, these idealistic, hard-working groups encounter such strenuous, unblinking opposition that even from their resolutely optimistic viewpoints, reconciliation seems impossible.
Some of the figures featured on both sides are true heroes, fighting unquestioningly for concerns bigger then themselves, against unimaginable odds. Watching Damelin force her way, daily, through her still-powerful grief (her son was shot less than two years before we meet her) as she attends protests, appears on television and, in the end, works to meet the mother of her son’s killer, is truly humbling. Similarly, Aboawwad’s easy, incredibly thoughtful commitment to his cause is mind-blowing. He visits wounded Palestinians to tell them about the Israelis who want peace; he speaks with those who are being forced out of their homes by Israelis and calmly, sincerely, explains to them that not all Israelis feel the way their neighbors do. This from a man who, as he says, has been granted “the right to hate” by his jail time and could, if he wanted it, wield tremendous power within his community. Instead, he has chosen to fight quietly, virtually alone, for what he thinks is right.
The problem, of course, is that by the end of Encounter Point, it’s impossible to believe that he and the other assorted fighters have any chance to succeed. While part of this is due to Encounter Point’s lack of organization, the fact is that its scattershot approach probably gives a more realistic view of the conflict than a more professional, slick documentary about the same group of people would have done. In that way, the film’s crippling weakness -- it does, after all, fail to accomplish its stated goal of renewing hope -- becomes its greatest strength.