Julia Bacha

How does a Brazilian-born woman who attended Columbia University in the City of New York find her calling in the Middle East? How does a student who set out to study English and was interested in journalism become a groundbreaking documentary filmmaker? The answers to those mysteries lie in the personal motivation and creative spirit that brought you to where you are today. The writer Tim O’Brien has asserted, “Storytelling is the essential human activity; the harder the situation, the more essential it is.” Perhaps in those words we glimpse some of the impetus behind your compelling work and the attraction of the particular stories you have chosen to tell. The appeal of a liberal arts education led you to Columbia and the School of General Studies, and from that new vantage point you discovered an affinity with Middle Eastern history that would change the course of your life. Cairo was where your journey led next, to work on Control Room, a documentary film providing an incisive look at media bias and press freedoms through the lens of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That experience demonstrated to you the power of film to reach audiences around the world and convinced you to devote yourself to the craft. You gravitate toward the suffering of people who have been ignored and alarming events that have been overlooked. Your documentaries on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict upended the received narrative of that struggle by bringing us in contact with individuals who chose the path of nonviolence to effect change. Encounter Point examines families in the region who have decided to seek peace across religious, political, and cultural divides after surmounting the grief and anger caused by violence and loss. Budrus tells the story of a Palestinian village that saved itself from destruction through nonviolent resistance. My Neighbourhood follows a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem who was joined by Israeli supporters in peaceful protest to resist Israeli seizure of his home. There has been no shortage of acclaim for these films. From the more than thirty film festival awards to the Guggenheim Fellowship you earned in 2015 for a project exploring the experience of female leaders of the First Intifada, recognition for your unconventional and penetrating films has been widespread. Indeed, your work has been exhibited at the Sundance, Berlin, and Tribeca Film Festivals, broadcast on television networks around the world, and screened for Palestinian refugees living in camps and members of the United States Congress alike. Your documentaries shed light on the world’s most intractable conflicts by exploring the boundaries of what the human spirit can achieve in the face of despair and division. For the remarkable stories at once life-affirming and unsentimental that you already have given us, and for all that we know you will create in the future, we are filled with great pride and the utmost admiration in presenting you with the University Medal for Excellence.