The People & The Olive Charts Traverse City’s New Global Focus
Bravo to Aaron Dennis, Jacob Wheeler, and all the rest of the Run Across Palestine crew for producing an event and a piece of courageous journalism that matters to the world. In The People & The Olive, a 70-minute documentary that received its premiere Monday night in Traverse City’s downtown State Theatre, Aaron and Jacob join camera, reporting, and story-making skills to explore the dangerous irony of a native people, Palestinian olive farmers, walled off and occupied by a Jewish nation that itself was formed to escape oppression.
And bravo to Traverse City. The restless little city near the top of Lake Michigan is producing a new generation of talented artists and business owners who are reaching across continents to connect with communities confronting the limits of poverty, ecology, education, and liberty.
In political advocacy and community branding terms there is almost nothing like a good film to boost both ideas. The People & The Olive is not just a first-rate exploration of injustice. It is a study in how Aaron and Jacob stitched the fine silk of character, place, music, and pacing to create a narrative brocade that, at times, dances in the brightness of laughter and human connection, and at other moments, many other moments in fact, reflect the dark colors of indignation and contempt.
The movie’s director and producer weave this tale from the simplest of human stories — a five-day, 129-mile Run Across Palestine by a small group of marathoners, most of them from Traverse City, that occurred in February to raise money and elevate to western attention the daily trials of West Bank olive farmers.
In a strong article in Tikkun, Jacob describes the olive industry’s perilous conditions:
Largely forgotten amidst a political debate that too often focuses on rocks and bulldozers, fear and hatred, intifadas and historical trauma, the Israeli occupation has prevented many West Bank farmers from harvesting the olive trees their grandfathers planted, and caring for the land they know and love like their own children. Nearly 60 percent of the arable land in the West Bank is used for growing olive trees, employing over 100,000 Palestinians, making it by far the most lucrative agricultural industry for an aspiring nation that suffers from a crushing unemployment rate of 30 percent.
Among the film’s heroes is Nasser Abufarha, the founder of the Palestine Fair Trade Association, a group of 1,700 olive farmers who’ve allied themselves and generated a commanding market presence. In one of the film’s most telling scenes, nervous Israeli security forces arrest Abufarha on the side of the highway, on the morning of the run’s first day, and charge him with organizing an illegal demonstration. Abufarha attended the Traverse City premiere and told the packed house that during his hearing in June, and with the help of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, he learned that the charges had been dismissed.
Another of the film’s compelling characters is Timothy Young, the owner of Food For Thought, a fair trade maker of high quality organic jams and jellies here in Benzie County. Timothy is well-known in these parts as a man capable of commanding language and emotion to articulate big ideas about land and agriculture, community and justice. In The People & The Olive he fills the role of senior American counsel. Timothy is a steadying presence at tense moments, like Nasser Abufarha’s arrest. He’s also the eloquent observer when the runners confront the impassable Israeli-built wall that encloses Palestine, as well as the charming visitor moved to tears when his hosts dedicate an olive tree in his name.
The Run Across Palestine was organized by On The Ground, a Traverse City-based non-profit founded by Chris Treter, whose Higher Grounds coffee company is an admired local institution, and not just because its coffee is excellent. Higher Grounds’ business plan is centered around a mission to advance economic justice through fair trade, resource conservation, promoting safe farm practices, and supporting the people in the places that Higher Grounds does business.
Last year, in a similar ultra-marathon expedition organized by On The Ground, ten Americans and six Ethiopians ran over 250 miles across Southern Ethiopia in a campaign that raised over $200,000 to build three schools.
The two expeditions, and the set of values and principles of justice and sustainability that underlie them, are helping to open a new era of social activism in Traverse City that finds its energy in the deep well of global concerns. Traverse City, for those who don’t know, enjoys a national reputation for the strength and ardor of its civic campaigns, whether they safeguard the land and water, promote gay rights, develop a film festival and a grand downtown theater to anchor it, take interest in caring for the homeless and hungry, promote transit and downtown development, build a new regional farm economy around locally produced fresh foods, or convert a mouldering state hospital into a new neighborhood and an engaging center of commerce.
A new generation is building on this work. Chris Treter, Aaron Dennis, and Jacob Wheeler are part of a loose confederation of Traverse region professionals, many of them just starting their careers — business owners, artists and musicians, Internet and communications specialists, non-profit leaders, even a film maker with impressive skills — who are leveraging their time and concerns to cross national and cultural boundaries.
Higher Grounds and Food For Thought are actively making the economic case for fair trade as profitable and satisfying business strategies. The Great Lakes Bioneers organization, with Sarna Salzman at its center, focuses a good deal of its annual conference on global environmental risks, particularly the damage climate change is already producing in the Great Lakes. Aubrey Ann Parker, a Benzie County journalist who photographed the Run Across Palestine, is an editor at Circle of Blue, the award-winning news and science organization, founded by Carl and Eileen Ganter, that reports on the global confrontation between water, energy, and food.
These are the specific global projects that I know in Traverse City. I’d like to learn about others. I also hope you’ll join me in financially supporting Aaron and Jacob’s work to produce and promote the film.
As I watched the story of Palestine’s olive farmers unfold in The People & The Olive, I also recognized something essential about our community. The marathon journey across uneven ground, so difficult to organize, so arduous in its execution, and so successful in its results, is another exceptional reminder of why we lead lives of purpose here.
— Keith Schneider