The Battle of Durban II: New Film Brings Dose of Sanity to Debate Over Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Documentaries are a genre of film with a long, shady past. They are captives of the medium of film which, by its very nature, almost always demands narrative, pacing and restrictive rising and falling action. And so documentaries often feel like non-fiction anthologies shoe-horned into a Harlequin Romance with a dash of histrionics for good measure. Complex tales, conflicts, and deeply engrained social issues are regularly reduced to Manichean terms because it’s more dramatic and easier to conceptualize. The end result is what appears to be a near-absolute tradeoff between impact and objectivity.

On the other hand, movies are one of the most powerful and immediately impactful ways of getting a message across, and a documentary that skirts the fine line between telling a story and telling the truth can be a powerful device for change. The Battle of Durban II is one such film. At times alternately enraging and frustrating, Durban II deftly paints a myriad portrait of a political system paralyzed by polemics, and the tired, beleaguered diplomats who try in vain to remain afloat in a rushing sea of their own and their nations’ self-righteousness.

The movie follows the events of the 2001 UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa up through the eponymous Durban II conference held earlier this year. From the first few minutes the message smacks you in the face: What should be a conference on discrimination, Darfur, the Tamil people, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities devolves into a shouting match as soon as someone mentions “Israel” or “Palestine”. Like those childish conversations you had in High School, where every political debate inevitably spiraled into a tirade against the hot-button issues of the day, it seems like NGOs, world governments, and even the UN can’t seem to get their minds off the noisiest issues, at the expense of the most important.

Into this morass of quagmires wrapped in chaos topped with mire and tied with several billion knots of shared history and mutual bloodshed, waded the obviously daring people at Second Generation Films. And what I was afraid would disintegrate (quite ironically) into a tangled mess of shouting heads, emerged as a sterling example of balanced documentary-making that sought the depressing truth in the divide, instead of just the moral high ground. No one person, nation or organization is singled out, skewered or lampooned. The true tragedy that The Battle of Durban II reveals is the systemic inability of very devoted, well-meaning people to actually solve real problems.

It’s easy to overlook what a great feat it is to bring an even view to international politics. Objectivity is often portrayed as simply showing both sides of a disagreement, but so often the disagreement isn’t about two sides, and even if it is, those two sides are rarely in equal proportions. True even-handedness is a matter of carefully weighting opinions by their truth and legitimacy.

The Battle of Durban II doesn’t quite hit the notes perfectly, but given that it’s trying to properly balance the opinions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a problem that has vexed intelligent politicians and academics for decades, I’m willing to give them leeway. And, though the movie takes a while to get around to this point, the subject of this movie is not to place blame with Israelis, Palestinians or the UN. It’s a wider indictment of general negligence toward true human suffering in favor of posturing over the most politically convenient. It’s a point that is too rarely made when so many debates seem steered by the fringes and the meat of larger issues are obscured by the controversial dressings. We’re all sitting down to thanksgiving around a perfectly moist turkey and complaining about the napkins.

This is the type of movie I wish they would make more of and make more people watch. As of yet, I haven’t been able to determine when the DVD will be available for wide release. If you’re lucky enough to live in New York, there are screenings at the Tolerance Center November 17th and December 2nd. I recommend seeing it if you have an even passing interest in international politics, and the systemic difficulties surrounding such deep-seated problems. For those of us not on the East Coast, you can keep an eye on the website: for information on screenings and DVD releases.

View the preview of The Battle of Durban II at the official website.

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