DV, 30 min. 2004
Director/Producer: Vincenzo Mistretta
Women in Black is an international network of women and men who stand for an uncompromising commitment to justice and a world free of violence. In Buffalo, NY they started protesting after the bombing of Afghanistan and have been standing once a week in a silent vigil since. In NYC they began in 1993 in support of the original WIB group in Israel of Israeli women who are calling for an end to the violence in the occupied territories and Gaza. This documentary chronicles their weekly vigil for three years and it’s a testimony of their perseverance and commitment.
The following is a paper presented at the International Oral History Conference in Rome, Italy, 2003, by Vincenzo Mistretta. It has subsequently been published by the journal Historia, Antropologia y Fuentes Orales (2005). 3rd Epoca, Universitat de Barcelona, Spain. pg.151.
Documenting Women in Black
I live and work as a film-maker in Buffalo, NY. On September 11th 2001 I had just returned from New York City, where I had been sight seeing with a friend from Italy. I witnessed the media event of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon from my living room sofa in Buffalo,NY. As the towers fell I thought myself lucky to be safe at home after being on top of the Twin Towers two days earlier. Soon after that initial reaction I thought of the dire consequences that would no doubt follow based on the US Government’s “eye for an eye” policy in the past. People around me and on the mainstream media were shocked and surprised. The prevalent question was “why” did this happen?
After September 11, 2001 the US government started to implement its policy against “terrorism” in order to protect the “Homeland”. Congress passed the Patriot Act and set it in motion. There were many people who were scared enough to relinquish their civil liberties in favor of taking action for their “protection”. Others, like myself, started to feel nervous and hesitant to give so much un-reined power to an administration that had already, before September 11th, taken liberties to undo some of the small accomplishments attained in such issues as workers rights, the environment, and international peace (treaties).
In October 2001 there was a series of bi weekly meetings at Rust Belt Books, a local used book store in the city of Buffalo. People met to talk about taking actions of dissent against a policy of war waged by the US Government in an atmosphere of fear. People felt vulnerable to possible violent attacks and afraid of their own government’s response. I decided to attend the meetings as a concerned individual who was looking for some sense of discourse to oppose the onslaught of patriotic slogans from the mainstream media. The meetings were an opportunity for like-minded individuals to share their apprehensions.
The Associate Director of the Gender Institute at the University at Buffalo, Pat Shelly, attended the meetings and suggested that we start a branch of a woman focused group called Women In Black. She told us the history of the group in Israel and subsequently the rest of the world. Men were also encouraged to join, so I did. This was a Thursday evening and by Saturday, October 14th 2001, the first Women In Black vigil for peace in Buffalo began. We chose to stand on the corner of Elmwood Avenue at Bidwell Parkway for one hour from noon until one. That corner is across from a farmers market during the spring, summer, and fall and is also a high traffic area. There is a small park and lots of cafés, restaurants and shops so we are visible to pedestrian as well as automobile traffic.
Over 30 people showed up that first day, mostly women and a few men. Since then, we’ve met every Saturday for over two years. Our intention is to be a public presence for peace and human rights, and for the right to dissent in a so-called-democracy. We have numbered up to 120 people, and we average between 30 to 40 each week.
History of Women in Black
Women in Black is an international peace network, not an organization, but a means of mobilization for action. The International movement of Women in Black started in Israel in 1988 by women protesting against Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; one month after the first Palestinian intifada. They stand in silence once a week dressed in black and holding signs that read “Stop the Occupation”. By word of mouth this type of protest spread throughout Israel and within a few months Women in Black vigils were held in 40 towns.
In the late 1980’s a group of Italian women visited Israel and the occupied territories and then returned to start their own vigil, Donne in Nero, which then spread throughout Italy. Soon vigils spread to different countries in support of Women in Black in Israel. Women in Black is now a worldwide network of women of all nationalities who hold vigils to oppose not only war, but violence and human rights abuses in their part of the world.
o In Italy, WiB highlight problems including Mafia violence.
o In Germany, WiB have protested against neo Nazism and nuclear arms.
o In former Yugoslavia, WiB set a rare example of inter ethnic cooperation.
o In Australia, WiB have held vigils drawing attention to domestic violence.
o In the US, WiB are calling for ‘justice not vengeance’ after September 11, 2001.
Women in Black is not the first group of women to hold a silent vigil as protest. Movements such as the Black Sash anti-apartheid protesters in South Africa, and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who sought answers about those who disappeared during the dictatorship of the 1970’s and 1980’s in Argentina, were predecessors to this form of protest. There have also been other groups of women resisting injustice and war, such as, The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom formed in 1918, and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp which opposed nuclear missiles in the 1980’s.
Each Women in Black group is autonomous. What we share is a commitment to non violence and the particular means of protest: silent vigils, dressed in black. There is no central organization or funding.
Women in Black in Israel was awarded the Aachen Peace Prize (1991) and the Jewish Peace Fellowship’s “Peacemaker Award” (2001). In 2001, the international movement of Women in Black was honored with the Millennium Peace Prize for Women, awarded by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Women in Black has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 .
Documenting Women in Black
By talking to many of the people who come to the vigils I find that there are some common reasons why they choose to participate with WiB. Reasons which I also share. The non-hierarchal structure of WiB is an inviting element. It is a spontaneous gathering of people who feel the need to make a statement in their community in order to ensure a continuos physical presence, and to show that dissent is still possible in the United States. As a woman centered group there are many aspects of its style that reference feminist theory, such as language. The feminist theorist Luce Irigaray examines how Language gives value to a male perspective, and how the female view stands as mere opposition. A non-patriarchal, organic, and impartial group like WiB offers an alternative voice to the male dominant voice. WiB succeeds in neutralizing a phalocentric language by exercising silence as their mode of communication.
Traditionally a silent vigil is not considered an active form of protest. In contrast to a traditional viewpoint, silence can be a form of action when it is done by choice. Participants in WiB have a profound impact on the community by utilizing their bodies as vehicles of protest. The reactions from the passing public verifies our impact, with positive and negative responses. I am always astonished by the violent negative comments that a group of people standing silently in a peaceful vigil can instigate.
When the discussion of starting WiB initiated at Rust Belt Books, some of the people who agreed to participate were concerned about the possible public backlash against such a protest. The times were such that people thought twice before taking a position of dissent against a government that looked to defend itself from terrorist acts. Many people at the meeting suggested that a video camera should be present to record any act of aggression that might arise. We felt that the presence of the camera might even deter violence. Since I have access to a camera I offered to bring one every week.
After a few months of just recording the Wib members standing in silence holding their signs and the occasional passing person yelling negative remarks such as “Go back to Canada!”, I decided to use my skills and try to make a documentary video of our group. I began to interview people. I chose to ask one question only to the participants of WiB. That question was, “Why do you come to Women In Black?”. I also interviewed people passing by and asked them “What do you think of the peace group?”. I wanted to keep the questions general so that the answers could be open to the interpretation of their experience. I started gathering footage and after two years I made this video I’m presenting today.
Something that fascinated me while making this video, and still does, is how the camera plays two roles, one is as instrument for protection and the other as apparatus for documentation. This idea of a video camera as protection is not new, but it was the first experience with it. When video cameras became more portable, they started to be more present in protests and demonstrations as an eye for documentation, or video as witness. An example is the WTO demonstrations where the camera is witness to the military tactics of the police. Another use of video is as accuser, for example, the Race Riots in Los Angeles in 1992 where video was used in court to incriminate individuals. Video also has played the roll as instigator of violence. The aggressive party often stages violent events for the camera to show their dominance and control of the situation. In Women In Black the camera took the roll as a deterrent to violence and as guardian. We brought the camera in the hopes of deterring someone from committing a violent act. This does not completely deter violent verbal responses but in some occasions it has done so. A good example happened a few months ago; a person driving by in his SUV slowed down and started shouting insults at the group. I placed myself in a visible spot and pointed the camera at him. As soon as he saw me videotaping he stopped his remarks.
The camera is also used as a tool for intimidation. There was an occasion where a man came with a camera claiming to be with the FBI and took pictures of every one in the vigil. Another day a man came to the vigil with a digital still camera and began to take pictures saying he had the government’s permission. He tried to intimidate us with wise remarks and taking pictures even though some people asked him not to. On this occasion I placed myself and my video camera in his way and pointed the lens of intrusion back upon him. What ensued afterwards was a dance of two cameras in opposition trying to control each others gaze.
In her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey first coins the term “gaze” assigned to a gendered point of view: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly”. In the two incidents of harassment with a camera the photographers tried to impose the dominant order of the male gaze and reduce the, mostly women, WiB group to mere spectacle.
The nature of Wib is also threatening in a society in which the mode of control has become intricately interwoven within its economic system. David Lyon in Big Brother to Electronic Panopticon states, “A perfectly plausible view is that in contemporary conditions consumerism acts in its own right as a significant means of maintaining social order, leaving older forms of surveillance and control to cope with the non consuming residue.” WiB projects an alternative method of communication, one that is anti-dominant and yet accessible to everyone. Standing in a silent vigil, as stated by many of the women I interviewed, is an empowering act. This non-hierarchal and anti-authoritarian spontaneous gathering of the community is the most important example that WiB is offering to the public. Wib vigils stand in conflict with consumerism by making silence an instrument for protest, and by making that statement visible with their physical presence in the community.
Yet the silent vigils of Wib are far from being silent. We are a loud presence contrasting the daily exposure to mainstream jingoistic jargon. In Wib there is no hierarchal structure. The members are equal and everyone’s voice counts. The motivation to act is spontaneous and it comes from the people. There is no special interest party that dictates to the participants how to behave.
Everyone who come to Wib have their own personal reasons. They all hold signs that project their opinions. Some want US troops in Iraq to come home. Some ask for peace talks between Israel and Palestinians. Many criticize US foreign policy. All want an uncompromising commitment to justice and a world free of violence.