The First Intifada of the 1980s was a tumultuous time for Palestinians… and cows. Eighteen of them, to be exact. Sold to the middle-class villagers of Beit Sahour by an Israeli kibbutz, the cows were more than just a source of milk for the town. They represented the struggle for freedom. Middle Eastern culture isn’t hugely cattle-friendly, but the Palestinians worked tirelessly to create a communal dairy farm to wean themselves away from depending on the Israeli government’s commercial supply of necessities during the uprising. Their efforts proved so successful that the Israelis deemed the cows a threat to national security.
The story itself is a fascinating chapter in the non-violent, civil-disobedience approach taken by Beit Sahourians in the 1980s, and the tactics necessary to make it work and keep the dairy farm a clandestine operation. How could any filmmaker mess up a story about the Palestinian struggle that’s this illuminating and empowering? Simple: by animating the cows in stop-motion, and making them talk. The Wanted 18 is technically about 18 cows, but apparently only four can speak, and they do throughout the film, whining and crying and exclaiming every step of the way. Their heavy-handed chorus is meant to embody the sympathy viewers are supposed to feel for the Palestinians.
This would be less glaring an issue if the animated sequences were kept to a minimum, but unfortunately, the cows won’t shut up. One is a smutty, pregnant cow, another is scared and whiny, another is a no-bullshit cow leader who has to keep her friends in line. How these cows manage to speak perfect English with Valley Girl accents in Bethlehem is beyond comprehension; it’s as if directors Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan felt that the original story wasn’t beguiling enough. The cow characters are loosely based on a comic book Shomali read as a kid growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp, and he inserts himself and the mythical impression the cows had in his life into the film in such a way that it distracts from the talking heads, who have absolutely no trouble telling their own compelling anecdotes, sans Claymation.
Are the cows supposed to represent the Palestinians? The Wanted 18makes that connection immediately in the first scene with Shomali’s voiceover: “Maybe you think that cows are all the same, and they’re stupid and lazy, and just grazing all day, with nothing going in their heads. Maybe you should think again.” Though it’s certainly easy to imagine how the Palestinians are being herded like animals by the Israelis, it makes less sense for the film to actually equate them with cows. (Or animated animals that look like nothing like real cows, are terrible to look at in their scaly, lumpen forms, and don’t sound like Palestinians.)
The Wanted 18 works best when it sticks to simplicity and aims for the main purposes of documentary filmmaking: to educate, enlighten, and entertain. The Beit Sahourians who were part of the resistance movement discuss how the village created subcommittees (health, farming, education, etc.) to operate initiatives to support their community in every aspect of living. The end result sounds like high-functioning communism—people learning from each other how to grow gardens, help with the dairy farm, and share the fruits of their labor. As promising as this sounds, the filmmakers don’t probe their subjects enough to get a nuanced perspective of these experiences. It’s a story of utopia ruined by evil Israeli oppressors, and though that’s certainly accurate on some level, the film simply doesn’t go into enough detail, or question the interviewees’ rose-tinted nostalgia.
This is less of an issue when the talking heads explain the tactics of their civil disobedience, like when they decide not to pay taxes to the Israeli government for the luxury of being an oppressed people. (A damning moment arrives when an Israeli interviewee admits he wouldn’t have paid taxes were he in their shoes.) None of this is dry or sentimental, because the documentary is rooted in a true story of sacrifice and governmental inanity, and the film plays that up. The Wanted 18 is most entertaining when the villagers relate the more absurd details of the dairy-farm days, especially after the Israeli government prohibits the use of the cows, and goes on a fruitless, rigorous search to track them down. It’s a feat that the Palestinians were able to hide 18 large animals in a small village for so long, and that coup becomes so convincingly comical that no claymation is necessary.