By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; C01
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Why can't they be sexy?
That may not be the primary question raised by "Budrus," Julia Bacha's riveting documentary about a group of activists in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. But it bears asking as this modest, low-budget film seeks an audience in a cinematic landscape crowded with bigger, slicker offerings.
Based on its story alone, "Budrus" is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. It features a terrific protagonist: Ayed Morrar, who in 2004 led his neighbors in the West Bank village of Budrus in a campaign of civil disobedience to stop the construction of Israel's security barrier. Ultimately Morrar galvanized some 100 activists -- including Israelis -- to conduct more than 50 demonstrations, staring down the Israeli military and proving to Palestinians and the world that nonviolence is the key to political and existential survival.
But the unassuming, middle-aged Morrar didn't wield a gun, nor did he adopt the swashbuckling swagger of typical movie heroes. So he doesn't get a major motion picture. When it comes to tough guys, pop culture reserves pride of place for terrorists, gangsters and garden variety bad guys. Political activists like Morrar, whose methods often involve far more daring, savvy and moral courage, are left with dutiful documentaries or sanctimonious melodramas.
Consider this season's hottest biopic. It's called "Carlos," and it features a breakout performance by Édgar Ramírez as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. "Carlos the Jackal," who became famous in the 1970s for a string of bombings, shootings and raids that eventually landed him in prison.
"Carlos," which clocks in at 5 1/2 hours, was one of the event screenings at Cannes this year, and it earned universal critical praise when it was shown earlier this month on the Sundance Channel. (The mini-epic will be shown in its entirety at AFI's Silver Theatre in Silver Spring in November.)
Simply to represent something isn't tantamount to endorsing it, of course, and Ramírez's astonishing turn infuses Carlos with enough charisma, complexity and raw physical appeal to make an otherwise monotonously brutish thug watchable. But somewhere around hour four of the film, one might wonder why an intellectual lightweight and macho poseur deserves such lavish time, space and attention, while Morrar and his colleagues in "Budrus" get little more than an hour, with no splashy Cannes premiere or attendant media hype.
In the dramatized version of "Budrus," the compact, mustachioed Morrar could probably be played by "Carlos's" Ramírez. As he withstands tear gas, stun grenades, beatings and rubber bullets (eventually replaced by live ammunition), he displays just as much physical bravery as the trigger-happy terrorist.
He and his teenage daughter, Iltezam, court just as much danger when they stand before the bulldozers, or plead with the young men of Budrus not to throw rocks at the soldiers occupying their village. When Morrar convinces a local Hamas leader of the wisdom of nonviolence, or later when he bristles at an encounter with the staff of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, "Budrus" shows flashes of the political intrigue that make "Carlos" and its close cousin, last year's "The Baader Meinhof Complex," such mesmerizing cinematic experiences.
Nonviolence, in other words, is not for sissies. But invariably, our eyes are drawn to wimps hiding behind explosive props, from the Baader-Meinhof gang and Carlos the Jackal to Tony Soprano and Nucky Thompson in HBO's new series "Boardwalk Empire." Guns are big and shiny, sure, but they're also crutches used by cowards (not to mention the transparent phallic symbols of the pathetically overcompensating). Why, then, do antiheroes get "Scarface," while real heroes get "Gandhi"?
Make no mistake: "Gandhi" was a fine film. And "Budrus" is a fine documentary, offering an intimate, cinéma vérité glimpse of a world viewers would otherwise never get to see, not to mention cheering news from a region better known for cyclical tragedy. But aren't we past due for a movie that infuses civil disobedience and principled political action with the excitement, appeal and stylish iconography we routinely impart to criminals?
It's not that activists aren't mythologized in Hollywood. The latest, best example is "Milk," which at least allowed its protagonist, gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), fleeting moments of physical desire. But we're past due for the kind of electrifying, vicariously seductive portrait of nonviolence that eschews martyrdom for swagger, uplift for renegade glamour. Less earnest nobility, more alluring sangfroid. Fewer secular saints, more rock stars.
In May, HBO announced that it was teaming up with Oprah Winfrey to present a seven-hour adaptation of Taylor Branch's magnificent three-book cycle about Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement. Directors Steven Spielberg and Lee Daniels ("Precious") reportedly also have biopics in the works. King will no doubt emerge in those films as the thinker, speaker and martyr we've come to revere. He'll be depicted with appropriate gravitas as enlightened, inspiring, perhaps flawed, but surely important. He'll be depicted as noble. But just once, it would be nice to see him depicted as cool.
(81 minutes, in English, Arabic and Hebrew with subtitles, at West End Cinema) is not rated. It contains very brief profanity.