Grad Student Wins Awards for Documentary on Israeli Teen Imprisoned for Refusing Military Service

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Thursday, December 12, 2019
Photo of Atalya Ben-Abba leaning against fence, with view of building with Israel flag in background
Jerusalem teenager Atalya Ben-Abba, who refused mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, is the subject of student Molly Stuart's documentary. Photo courtesy of Molly Stuart.

For 18-year-olds of all genders in Israel, serving in the military is a mandatory rite of passage. But what if you believe that military service conflicts with your morals or political beliefs? Molly Stuart, a Master of Fine Arts candidate in Cinema, explores this dilemma in her documentary about a Jerusalem teen imprisoned for refusing to join the Israel Defense Forces.

“Objector” won Best International Documentary at the Hot Springs (Arkansas) Documentary Film Festival in October. At the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival in November, it won the Leon Award for Best Documentary and the Interfaith Award for Best Documentary Feature. The film’s most recent screening took place at the International Documentary Film Festival-Amsterdam in late November.

“The directorial precision and care given to her subjects, exhibited by this first-time filmmaker, is deeply moving,” Hot Springs juror Lisa Hasko said. “Her ability to tell a complicated story with nuance and grace resonated well beyond the political nature of the film.”

A courageous story

“Objector” protagonist, Atalya Ben-Abba, dreamed of becoming an Israel combat soldier early in high school. As her views evolved over time, she questioned the role of the military in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She made a defiant move that shocked her family: refusing the compulsory service. Amnesty International and other organizations have supported Ben-Abba’s cause.

Stuart met Ben-Abba through her brother, Amitai, while attending Middlebury College in Vermont. Amitai wrote “Objector.”

Stuart said she hopes the film will build awareness of the conscientious objectors’ movement in Israel. According to Amnesty International, several young Israeli adults are imprisoned annually for refusing their required military service. Ben-Abba was among at least six Israeli conscientious objectors to spend time in prison in 2017.

“Their perspective is at odds with the conflict they grew up with and witnessing what Palestinian life looks like,” said Stuart, a native of Soquel in Santa Cruz County. “We want to bring their perspective to Americans, particularly the American Jewish community and youth in the U.S. who can be inspired by Atalya’s courage.”

Aware of the potential for outrage and controversy in covering such a contentious issue, Stuart made sure to include a range of viewpoints. Her intimate approach allowed this to happen naturally, as “Objector” captures the objections and concerns of Ben-Abba’s family members, who are proud of their lineage in the national defense forces. After completing 110 days in prison, Ben-Abba was a civil service volunteer for two years.

“Objector” began as an eight-minute film for Stuart’s first year at SF State. After receiving the University’s Bill Nichols Excellence in Cinema Award and SFFilm’s Women, Peace and Security Fellowship, Stuart returned to the Middle East to create an expanded, 75-minute version of the film.

SF State’s Veteran Documentary Corps, an SF State-based organization that produces documentaries about veterans, also helped fund “Objector.” VDC Director Daniel Bernardi called “Objector” an original and courageous story. He signed on as a producer.

“I found the story to be aligned with the VDC mission to tell the diversity of the veteran and military experience,” said Bernardi, a Cinema professor and a Navy veteran of the Iraq War. “I could also see that Molly had an insightful voice and the integrity and work ethic to pull off a feature film. It is not every year — or even every decade — an MFA student produces and directs a powerful, award-winning documentary while also taking classes, teaching and embarking on a separate thesis film.”

— Matt Itelson

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