As I watched My So-Called Enemy, a documentary that follows six Israeli and Palestinian teenage girls from a peace-building workshop in New Jersey in 2002 and back to the Middle East several years later, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at times. The Palestinian young women refer to their Israeli counterparts exclusively as “Jews;” Hanin, a Palestinian Muslim, tells Gal, an Israeli Jew, that she should go back to Iran where her parents were born; Inas, a Palestinian Christian, tearfully tells the camera her father died of a heart condition when ambulances were prevented from entering their village during a lockdown.
But I also felt a more general sense of awkwardness, that strange frenetic energy invariably emitted whenever teenage girls come together for the first time—though in this case a lot more was at stake in the us vs. them dynamic. But the beauty of this film is not simply that it looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a new way, it’s that it shows how the particularly vulnerable demographic of teenage girls attempts to deal with and understand the “enemy”—in this case, other teenage girls.
Sitting in director Lisa Gossels’s apartment a few days after watching the film, I told her about my discomfort—and she didn’t seem surprised. The point of the film, which was recently screened at the New York Jewish Film Festival, is to highlight the voices not heard in the news and show the viewer “the realities of life on the ground,” she explained. Gossels, a New York-based filmmaker who attended the Building Bridges for Peace program in 2002—a particularly devastating year in Israel—said she was struck by the absence of any semblance of political correctness in the room of 22 girls ages 16 to 19. That they were so brutally honest with each other, she explained, created a depth of communication and allowed for intense, productive discussions. It also makes for a vivid viewing experience, where raw emotions—exhausting frustration, very real anger, and desperate hope—punctuate the budding friendships between the girls.
For Gossels, who won an Emmy in 2001 for her first film, The Children of Chabannes (the story of a French village where 400 Jewish children, including her father and uncle, were saved during the Holocaust), My So-Called Enemy is a coming-of-age story, filmed through the lens of six women “crossing the threshold from adolescence to adulthood.” When the girls are revisited in their homes several years later they have each changed in many ways; they have grown up and developed strong identities. Some have entered the Israeli army; some have gone to college; one has chosen to wear the hijab. (The girls remain in touch with Gossels, emailing and calling her regularly). The circumstances in which the girls have grown up are undeniably distinct—they face actual dangers and have fears far beyond the usual adolescent anxieties—but Gossels hopes to convey a more universal message of what young women are able to achieve when equipped with the proper tools and education.
“That the film is about women is wonderful,” she explains. “We all know that when women have equal voice and equal access to education, the societies they live in will thrive.” For Gossels, making the film was a transformative experience she describes as an eight year journey of learning and unlearning. The filmmaking process was not without its challenges, from the logistical complications of filming the young women in Israel to the responsibilities of editing a film which would no doubt affect the girls—who are identified by first name only—after it was released. “I was always reminding myself that the girls have to live in their society after this film comes out,” she says.
Gossels says she struggled with issues of representation during the editing process. In one of the first scenes in Israel, after the program has ended, the lower third of the screen introduces the scene as “occupied Palestinian territory” (which I admitted to her I had immediately noticed), and she stands by her decision to refer to the area in this way. But ultimately, Gossels says she hopes she has created a film that shows the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while depicting “what happens when we create relationships across borders, personal or physical.” These relationships, she says, can be the first steps towards solving conflict.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.