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A Powerful Portrait of the Palestinians

Stereotypes are falling, the line separating good guys and bad guys blurring. Some bold journalists and film makers get some of the credit:

--"60 Minutes” sent Morley Safer to Hanoi for an incredible piece on the Vietnam war from the perspective of the North Vietnamese. This March 19 story was one of the most profound “60 Minutes” segments ever. When one North Vietnamese veteran expressed his lingering anguish over killing an American Marine, it was . . . something.

--Tiny KEYT-TV in Santa Barbara recently produced a memorable documentary on the shared suffering, attitudes and experiences of American veterans of Vietnam and Soviet veterans of Afghanistan. It was appropriately titled “Comrades in Arms.”

--Last weekend, cable’s TBS ran a remarkable “National Geographic Explorer” documentary on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from the point of view of Soviet troops. Yes, they hurt, bleed--and sometimes even think--just like us. (It will be rerun at 6 a.m. Saturday.)

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The producer of this hour (which first aired last Sunday) is Jeff Harmon, who two years ago also made an acclaimed documentary from the perspective of the Afghanistan Moujahedeen who were fighting the Soviets.

These extraordinarily humanizing pieces from “60 Minutes,” KEYT and “National Geographic Explorer” share a global bonding. In emphasizing common denominators, they obliterate musty, narrow cliches about peoples whom Americans have traditionally seen as bad guys.

Not that governments may not have bad policies, only that soldiers and ordinary citizens who execute those policies out of a sense of duty or patriotism are not necessarily bad people.

And now comes “Letter From Palestine,” Steve York’s very small but very important film airing at 11:30 p.m. Sunday on KOCE Channel 50. (KCET Channel 28 is delaying it until 10 p.m. June 1.)

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More common denominators.

Last May, York brought along a small, 2-pound home-video camera while spending two weeks with a group of young Palestinian doctors and other medical workers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. They were there treating villagers cut off from medical care because of the uprising, or intifida , as it’s known in Arabic.

York clearly identifies himself as a film maker, not a journalist. And his half-hour program has a point of view--a Palestinian point of view.

That makes it controversial.

There are some complaints here from villagers about alleged mistreatment by Israeli soldiers, stories that York neither affirms or rejects. “When I heard such stories, I took them at face value,” he says in his role as narrator. “I was just here to listen.”

And observe. “Letter From Palestine” is neither shrill nor covertly propagandistic. It is propaganda only if propaganda means showing that Palestinians are human.

“My feeling is that you can be sympathetic to Palestinians and also be supportive of Israel,” York said by phone from his Washington office.

Here, at least, are doctors who make house calls. York records a sort of medical road show that visits homes and sets up makeshift clinics. He rides in the back seat of a van, accompanying the medical personnel into remote areas that have been sealed off.

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“The Israeli army puts rocks in the road to keep villagers in; the villagers put rocks in the road to keep the army out,” he observes about one of the ironies of the conflict.

As he also notes, hundreds have been killed in the violence, even thousands more injured. We meet some of them, including a 10-year-old boy who lost an eye to a rubber bullet. There, too, is a pregnant woman suffering from stress and fatigue, wounds of battle rarely visible in stories that appear on the nightly news.

“The army” is omnipresent as a reference point, but there is only one very minor altercation here with Israeli soldiers, in an isolated village where York says no one had seen a doctor for 43 days. After an hour, the dispute was resolved, and the medical crew ended up treating 189 of the villagers.

Although the uprising in the occupied territories has surely helped reshape public opinion of Palestinians in the United States and helped soften White House policy toward the PLO, the intifida remains a volatile topic.

So much so, apparently, that PBS stations in Cleveland and Miami are refusing to air “Letter From Palestine.” New York’s giant WNET and stations in Philadelphia, Detroit, Dallas, Atlanta, Baltimore, Hartford, Portland, Orlando, Kansas City and San Diego are among those that have not scheduled the program. Whether they will remains to be seen.

KOCE’s 11:30 p.m. time slot is not exactly prime exposure for “Letter From Palestine,” but at least the station has the courage to air the program.

York, whose fine two-parter on the U.S. Supreme Court, “This Honorable Court,” aired last season on PBS, has made two previous documentaries on the Middle East for public television. He was aware that “Letter From Palestine” could cause a stir.

“This is meant to be kind of subjective, not the traditionally fully balanced both sides of the story,” he said on the phone. “I went, I saw, I heard--take it for what it’s worth.”

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Shouldn’t Israeli casualties of the intifida be chronicled, too? “That’s legitimate,” York said. “Somebody should do that.”

But not in this film.

“Letter From Palestine” raises anew the eternal question of what constitutes balance. Yet it’s true that a documentary with no point of view is often a documentary with no vision--a weak, flat, bland, tit-for-tat regurgitation of opinions without focus. York agrees.

“Should balance be attempted on the same show, or be part of the flow of programming?” he asked rhetorically on the phone. “I think, in general, I belong to the Edward R. Murrow school of documentaries that says that the best documentary has a point of view, and as long as the audience knows that, they can keep that in mind when they watch.”

The shoestring ($40,000) “Letter From Palestine” grew from York’s meeting in Washington with a young Palestinian doctor who agreed to “let me come hang out with him” in the occupied territories. York then took his idea to “Frontline” executive producer David Fanning (who also carries that title on this program), who encouraged him to go ahead. When Fanning suggested using the small, unobtrusive camera, York’s exercise in cheap, compact technology was under way.

The Palestinians he accompanied did not impose their views on him, York said. “Nobody attempted to stop me from seeing anything. No one attempted to force any view on me. These medical folks were professionals. They’re not involved in politics.”

York said he feels no “personal antagonism” toward the Israeli army. He said he asked permission from the army to film a squad of Israeli soldiers for a separate film, and “live what they live, do what they do, hear what they hear.” He said he was turned down.


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