Documentary filmmaker Tom Hayes wears his thinning hair in a ponytail. He's quick to laughter and praises anyone, including a reporter, who tackles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"You could get rocks through your window-I'm just warning you," he says.
Hayes, a professor of film at Ohio University, has had rocks thrown through the windows of his Clintonville home. And he's been shot at by Israeli soldiers, as well as received death threats.
In the documentary film world, he's known as an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause. He has devoted his adult life to documenting their journey, which he likens to the plight of the Armenians, who were victims of the first genocide of the 20th century. Some critics have praised his work, talking about its moral imperative. Susan Halpern, executive director of the Columbus International Film + Video Festival, calls his movies "dangerous and important."
"Tom and his films are the perfect mixture of brilliant, crazy talent and insistent witness that allows a vision of the truth to explode out of the screen and crawl under your skin," says Halpern.
But criticism of Hayes's films, chiefly from Israel and the partisan Jewish community, has been harsh. In those quarters, his documentaries sometimes have been denounced as "propaganda."
Hayes's latest documentary, Two Blue Lines, may win over a few opponents. That's because the film explores Israeli policy through the eyes of progressive Israeli Jews who are outraged by their country's treatment of the Palestinians. The documentary's power lies in the schism between the behavior of militant Jewish settlers and the conscience of ethical Jews in Israel. The film deconstructs the myth of a monolithic Israel.
"Israel has an oddly congruent pair of narratives. One is that Jewish pioneers made the empty desert bloom. The other is that Europeans with guns drove the native people off their land and built a nation on their stolen property," Hayes says. "That's the genesis of Two Blue Lines. I never conceptualized that I was making a film about these two narratives. It's just that when the Israeli army stopped me from working in either the West Bank or Gaza, I would either go up the hill and get footage with settlers or back across the green line into Israel proper and track down some interesting voices."
In a career that's spanned 30 years, the 56-year-old filmmaker has been to the embattled war zone of Gaza and the West Bank more than a half dozen times and spent a cumulative total of a year there in production trying to capture on film the suffering of a refugee population that has little hope for a future. In that time, Hayes has made three documentaries about the Middle East: Native Sons: Palestinians in Exile (1986), a study of a trio of Palestinian refugee families in Lebanon; People and the Land (1997), about U.S. foreign policy and the impact of billions of dollars of American taxpayer funding going to Israel, and the yet-to-be released Two Blue Lines.
Hayes started his research into the Middle Eastern situation in 1981, when it was difficult to mention the words "Palestinian" and "human rights" without provoking fury. "To talk about Palestinians immediately meant that you were talking about terrorists," Hayes recalls. "I would be asked to leave dinner parties when people found out what I was working on."
He was born in Vermont and moved around as a child, following the academic career of his mother. For a critical period, between ages 9 and 15, he lived in Chicago, and there he found a supportive milieu. He read lots of books as a child-there was no TV in the house until he was 11-and experimented with his father's Super 8 camera. Both of his parents encouraged education and a spirit of inquiry as well as exposure to spirituality.
Hayes won his first film festival award at age 15 with a prophetic fiction short titled Revolution. Soon afterward, he attended Morehead State University in Kentucky and was politically active. Restless to experience the world, he left college and went to work at sea on a cargo ship as a deckhand for three years. "That was an eye-opening experience," he says. "I got to see Third World countries up close-what we were extracting from them and what kind of poverty they were enduring."
He had no clue that he would be drawn into the maelstrom of the Middle East. But that turned out to be his calling. "Until Jews and Palestinians can live together like human beings, I'll be documenting the situation."
Jory Farr can be reached at email@example.com.