April 03, 2008
Like Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Barenboim had a dream. He wanted to break down the barriers of fear and ignorance that kept the Middle East in a constant roil and used what he knew best — music — to strive for his goal.
In 1999, Barenboim, a pianist, conductor, and musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1991 to 2006, collaborated with the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said to assemble the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a group of talented high school and college-age musicians (with a couple of younger prodigies thrown in) from Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia.
The idea shared by Barenboim and Said — and, frankly, not a very original one — was to teach Arabs and Israelis to put aside what they thought they knew about the other in working for a common purpose. Knowledge is the Beginning, a documentary directed by Paul Smaczny, chronicles the group’s progress from its nascent rehearsals, interspersing music with comments from Barenboim and Said and many of the musicians, who blossom on stage and off as their inter-relational skills mature.
As they begin their venture, the players, as might be expected, are hesitant and dance around the outside of the circle, feeling each other out. While they mesh during rehearsals, they are less together during interviews. At one point an Arab musician angrily storms off camera in disagreement with the comments of his Jewish counterpart.
Said and Barenboim acknowledge that the young people come from different backgrounds and circumstances but express their fervent belief that by working for the collective good of the orchestra, “personal identities and history drop away and become irrelevant.”
The documentary, which was released in 2005, tracks the orchestra’s travels as it performs through Europe, including Italy, Spain, and Germany, where they make a predictably emotional — and obligatory? — trip to a concentration camp.
The ultimate goal — a Ramallah concert — was a concept unthinkable to most adults but held out like a shiny gold ring to the musicians. The film captures the tension of the logistical and political nightmares. In one dramatic scene, we see Barenboim receiving Israel’s Wolf Prize, given for promoting intergroup relations, and using his acceptance speech to chastise his government’s treatment of the Palestinians, much to the chagrin of his hosts, including the minister of education who immediately takes the musician to task for his criticism.
For most of the film, Knowledge is a rondo largo, slowly and repetitiously building its case. It is only toward the end, when the musicians are finally presented with the opportunity to perform in Ramallah, that it builds to an accelerando. The Israelis, fearful of security issues, must decide whether to accept the “ultimate” chance, the purpose for which they have been working for five years. Will that fear strike out? Will they be accepted, even welcomed, by their Arab audience?
Smaczny’s film earned several international awards, including Best Arts Documentary from the Banff World Television Festival 2007, a 2006 International Emmy Award for arts programming, and the Award for the Documentary of Highest Cultural Value at DOCFEST Palermo.