This review was written for Animations Online
Filmmaker Amer Shomali first found out about the Wanted 18 in a comic book, which he read while in a refugee camp. Inspired by the super hero antics of the ordinary people from his home town of Beit Sahour – which at that point he had never visited – as an adult he decided to seek out the main characters and retell the now forgotten tale in this, his first feature length film. The Wanted 18 are not who you think – they are not men but beasts. Milking cows to be precise.
A bittersweet story that proves how potent non-violent action can be, this documentary shows audiences a side of the Israel-Palestine conflict which we very rarely see. In ‘The Wanted 18′, the actions of a group of solidly middle class Palestinians are centre stage as they peacefully work together to boycott Israeli products and become self-sustaining. One way they attempt to do this is by buying 18 cows (from Israel) and setting up a small scale milk cooperative.
The tale dates back to the 1980s, during the first intifada, and the period just before the first Oslo Peace Accord was signed. It was a time when the residents of Beit Sahour felt empowered, despite regular army-enforced curfews across the West Bank designed to depress and suppress. The documentary recreates the amusing moments of the cows’ arrival and how local people learned how to milk and care for the herd. None of them had ever looked after cows before.
Using interviews with Israelis and Palestinians, live action reconstructions, hand drawings and stop motion, the mixed media documentary is deeply engaging. The animation is used to explore the cows’ perspective and adds a welcome lightness and silliness to the proceedings, especially as the story darkens towards its absurd and unhappy ending. The puppets are appealing, cartoon-esque creations with much personality. Their big-eyed innocence underlines the ridiculousness of what comes next.
The Israeli army decides local milk production is illegal and a security threat, and insist the operation be closed and the animals disposed of. The cows are forced into hiding and the milk has to be distributed in secret. When the army realises what’s going on, the cows become the Wanted 18, as the soldiers desperately try to find them. They bully and harass as they attempt to stop the Palestinians’ attempt at milk independence.
The slow crushing of ordinary people’s attempt to keep control over their own lives is heartbreaking to watch. The sense that, from a relative high point of peaceful resistance, things have got much worse is strong. But there’s a glimmer of hope. This sparkling film is full of quiet heroes – men and beasts – and is surely a call to action of sorts, designed to inspire a new generation about what was once and still might be possible.