BY HERMAN ASSELBERGHS AND PIETER VAN BOEGART
In Jerusalem there is not a tourist in sight. Except for the daily bustle in the Arab souks, the economy in the old part of the city with its age-old Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim places of interest is more or less at a standstill. Indeed, nobody even thinks of travelling on the West Bank, where everyday life is defined by curfews and checkpoints. Unfortunately, because of this they tend to miss much of the things that never reach our media.
Trying to lay your hands on a map of Ramallah is a time-consuming and fruitless enterprise. The only way to find your way around the administrative capital of the West Bank is to resort to a makeshift solution. In other words, you simply step into one of the many service-taxis and allow yourself to be transported along; the drivers have a reputation for localising an address on the basis of a surname. Edward Said had already pointed out the difficulties caused by this strange Palestinian custom many years ago. He saw the lack of well-documented maps as one of the main reasons for Arafatâ€™s lack of success at the Oslo negotiations in 1993. The Israelis on the other hand knew what they were talking about, and Arafat paid for his superficial negotiating position with a camouflaged defeat. The outcome was slightly more independence and far less freedom of movement. Indeed, ten years ago Oslo resulted in dozens of Israeli-controlled checkpoints being installed on the West Bank and in Gaza.
In times of occupation
The Palestinians could probably have continued to survive without detailed maps of their country and their cities for centuries to come. However, what they have no longer been able to do without since Oslo is the identity card, of which there are more versions in existence here than in any other nation in the world. There are already four for the Arabs who live within the boundaries of the Palestinian areas: one for the 2 million inhabitants of the West Bank, another for the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza, one for the 250,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem and yet another for the 1 million Palestinians in Israel. Some mention the place of birth, others the place of residence, sometimes religion is specified, but never is there a question of nationality, of a Palestinian identity. In addition to this, we have the Jordanian, American and other passports of thousands of returnees as well as those of the millions of Palestinians living abroad in expectation of better times. Each identity card has its own specific regulations. The logic behind the innumerable rules is never explained by the occupying Israeli forces, who check constantly to ensure that they are upheld. Life in Palestine is a complicated affair, it is nevertheless a source of inspiration for the artists we met there. Art is only natural in times of war. It is the end of November 2002. Our visit to Ramallah takes place at precisely the right time. Although there is still a curfew in all the other cities on the West Bank, the 25,000 inhabitants of the administrative capital have been moving freely around the city for the last two weeks. For the first time in a year, life is gradually returning to normal. Shops, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and theatres have opened their doors once more and the inhabitants of Ramallah are clearly enjoying themselves. One of them is Emily Jacir, a Palestinian artist with an American passport. A few months previously she had launched the idea of the â€˜Palestine International Video Festivalâ€™. Taking the size of the city into account, her idea was to select video films and then have them passed on from home to home on VHS cassettes during the short periods that the Israelis lifted the curfew. Now, six months on, the festival has become reality in a relatively relaxed atmosphere, with the presentation of installations on location in Ramallah and at the nearby university of Birzeit, as well as the presentation of various productions in peopleâ€™s living rooms by way of the local Palestinian broadcasting channels.
The broadcasting channels are very much in need of this â€˜contentâ€™. The main condition for being selected for the festival was that the productions did not relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any way. After all, films dealing with this theme are for the rest of the world and of little use to the inhabitants of the West Bank. Palestinian film-makers today ask themselves what type of audience they wish to reach. Is it the local population, who want to see something different from the psychological or physical warfare they experience every day, or is it the international community which, more than ever, needs reliable information from this permanent conflict zone? There appear to be as many answers as there are film-makers in the area.
In times of isolation
â€˜A crazy country is a good place to experimentâ€™, says Raed Andoni, film producer and head of the small production company â€˜Star 2000â€™. His West bank passport places him at the bottom of the ladder with regard to freedom of movement, but at the top in the field of inventiveness. In his company car â€“ a 4X4 disguised as a TV vehicle and with look-alike diplomatic number plates â€“ he moves around the West Bank without having to pass through the checkpoints. As he cannot go to his hometown of Bethlehem at present because of the curfew there, the film producer has been camping in his Ramallah office for a few weeks. When the curfew is also in force in Ramallah, the same office serves as a hotel for the entire staff. Raed shows the daily harassment in films such as Challenge. In Andoniâ€™s view, despite everything, modern Palestine embodies the hope for a better future in the Middle East. Of course, the Intifada absorbs a great deal of energy which would otherwise be invested in creative activity. But this is compensated for by a solidarity and inventiveness that provides a very special perception of culture: Independence through isolation. Unlike many other Arab countries, the Palestinians have no government interference and therefore no censorship. Moreover, Palestine does not have a real tradition of film and therefore no straitjacket to restrict film-makers in what they do.
Azza El-Hassan is a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport. She is one of the returnees who came back to her country in the nineties. She was a student at the London film school and made a number of documentaries for NGOs â€“ humanitarian images showing the rest of the world what life is like under the occupation.
In times of apartheid
News Time is her most recent film and is a reaction to this. In this personal documentary she aims to show her life in her own street in Ramallah during the first few days of the second Intifada. However, she cannot find anyone who is able to work together with her. Indeed, all her colleagues are working and filming and editing for the many foreign television stations in the city. In â€˜newsworthy timesâ€™ like this producers of images profit from the war while the inhabitants simply try to get on with their lives as best they can. We meet Azza in the â€˜Stonesâ€™ cafÃ©, a bar with Palestinian beer and American R&B on the cassette player. Clearly, the mortification associated with the Ramadan, which is gradually drawing to a close, counts for little here. The last ten days of the fast create an undercurrent of tension: anyone who dies during this period is assured of immediate ascent to heaven and this idea can prove very tempting to martyrs. As in most places in Ramallah, there are no extremists hiding at â€˜Stonesâ€™. The managers are only too familiar with frontline scenes. During the first Intifada they earned money by filming for Reuters. The work was so dangerous that only Palestinians showed an interest in the substantial danger money offered to them by Western news agencies and news broadcasting stations. In their case, the proceeds have been well spent: when they found themselves without work at the end of the uprising, they decided to pool their resources and start the cafÃ© with its striking name together. The soundman is the waiter and the cameraman is the cook. Since 2000 the two have frequently relinquished their place in catering: the second Intifada started out much more violent and once again spectacular news images and daring reporters were urgently wanted by CNN, Al-Jazeera and Co. Since Oslo, there have been great changes in the Palestinian population. Before then, the gallery owner Jack Persekian from Jerusalem could expect to welcome several visitors from Ramallah to his openings. He still remembers the time when cultural life mostly took place in the disputed Israeli-Palestinian capital. The Qalandia checkpoint on the perimeter of Jerusalem has made it difficult if not impossible for Palestinians to commute, so that in matters of art, theatre and film the centre has gradually been transferred to Ramallah. It is difficult for TV-viewers and newspaper readers to picture Qalandia; indeed, they ought to pay a worthwhile visit to see this place of infamy with their own eyes. For Palestinians, crossing the border is the real confrontation with the apartheid policy that the Israelis have been mounting since the start of the second Intifada. Anyone who cannot present the proper passport at the heavily-guarded and armed post is not permitted to enter or leave the site. At nine oâ€™clock at night, the gates are closed to all. The teenage soldiers of the occupying forces check, order about and belittle. Jack has a Jerusalem passport (and an American passport) and this guarantees him the greatest freedom of movement; however, despite this privilege he is aware of a certain fatigue creeping into his system. Living and working in occupied Palestinian territory takes a lot of energy. He knows that this daily war of attrition is a recipe for the departure of the upper social classes and anyone else who can afford an outward ticket, including artists. Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, would like nothing better, and so Jack answers back with an exhibition of young Palestinian artists (such as Emily Jacir) who, like him, persist, and internationally famous artists (such as Mona Hatoum and Beat Streulli) whom he invited to come and learn about the problematic situation on the spot.
In times of imprisonment
As we soon learn, getting to know the situation on the spot is no easy matter. Passenger travel on the West Bank is well-nigh impossible: since the last suicide attack on an Israeli target two weeks ago, a 24-hour curfew has been imposed in Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus and other Palestinian cities. For the time being Ramallah is the exception to the rule. The only arterial road that will definitely get you to your destination is the road leading to Birzeit University (where it becomes a dead end). Here too there is a degrading checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. Surdah is more subtle than Qalandia however: a bend in the old tarred road between Ramallah and Birzeit has been reduced to a winding dirt track that extends for a distance of one kilometre and can only be covered on foot. Where each part of the road terminates and begins, there is a cacophony of taxis that transport tens of thousands of transients from the surrounding villages to and from this spot. In the middle of the crossing â€“ boiling hot in the summer and a pool of mud in the winter â€“ two armed soldiers stationed there select passers-by at random and proceed to check, order about and degrade them. There is no way through without the proper passport. Nor is anyone allowed to pass here after four oâ€™clock in the afternoon. This is also sometimes the case during the day, when suddenly there is no through way, without prior notice or for no apparent reason. Students wishing to attend classes in Birzeit do well to set out two hours in advance, even though the distance is a mere fifteen kilometres. Some professors at the university refuse to subject themselves to this checkpoint on principle. For practical reasons certain lessons have been transferred to the centre of Ramallah, for at nightfall there is a real risk of getting shot at this â€˜border-crossingâ€™. Life in an open-air prison is complex. It is the end of November, four days later. Our stay in Ramallah takes place at exactly the wrong moment. CNN has proclaimed a â€˜day of terrorâ€™ for the Israelis due to a bomb attack on a hotel in Mombasa, a failed attack on a flight from Kenya to Tel Aviv and a suicide squad in Jericho. That evening in the â€˜Stonesâ€™ there is the sound of mobile phones ringing: everyone is passing on news of the curfew due to commence the following morning and continue for seventy-two hours. Our appointment with the choreographer Omar Barghouti will have to be cancelled, as will our visit to the film library and our reservation for the theatre performance of the Ashtar Company. We leave the city the following day. We pass Qalandia, no questions asked. We are carrying the proper passports and besides, the soldier guards are only too glad to see Nosy Parkers go. Filming the Invisible
â€˜Hidden hungerâ€™ is the World Health Organisationâ€™s term for Palestinian micro-nutritional deficiencies. This is the toll taken by two years of Intifada, with tightened checkpoints, restrictions and curfews. As a result of poor nutrition, the children in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank of the Jordan are missing out on normal growth and development. Their cognitive faculties are often seriously and irreversibly harmed. Their immunity system is endangered. The mental and physical capacities of both adults and children are impaired. Sometimes this leads to blindness, sometimes to death. In most cases it remains unseen. Except in statistics that show that nowadays children are three centimetres shorter than before the Intifada. â€˜3 centimetre lessâ€™ is the title of the latest film by Azza El-Hassan. Azza is one of the â€˜returneesâ€™, Palestinians who came back to their country after the Treaty of Oslo (1993). She was born in Jordan in 1971, and moved to the Lebanon with her family, where at the age of eleven she already worked as a hospital volunteer. In the eighties â€“ when the Israelis invaded southern Lebanon â€“ she returned to Amman in Jordan. After secondary school, Azza decided to become a film-maker and left on her own for the film school in London. Since 1996 Ramallah has been her new home and workplace. She retained a Jordanian passport, which gives her more freedom of movement than other Palestinians. This piece of paper and her film diploma also give her a certain responsibility towards her compatriots. Someone like Azza is expected to show to the world what goes on in this occupied country. In time of war artists are supposed to inform people.
Azza has her own views on this matter. There has already been so much information about the Israel-Palestine conflict since the spectacular hijacks and attacks of the seventies. After Washington, Jerusalem has the greatest concentration of journalists in the world. Every Palestinian who has ever made sound or film recordings or is able to act as a guide or translator or interpreter can get a job with the foreign reporters. What information is there left to communicate? The essence of the 50-year occupation lies in small unspectacular things. Things that never reach the news but which do define the Palestinian reality and mentality. Azza knows this reality, she grew up with it. She knows what the Palestinians need. She helps her people by distancing herself and projecting images of their own recognisable environment. For her previous film News Time, which won several international prizes, she filmed the people in her street during the first few months of the second Intifada. She shows the effect the situation has on relationships that have existed for years. Relationships between lovers, relatives, neighbours and acquaintances. She watched the children in front of her door, and youngsters from the refugee camps trying to put up resistance. She looks at herself and how she deals with this reality and looks for support from the people around her â€“ familiar and unfamiliar. The war situation is so overwhelming. The little moments of happiness and love in Azzaâ€™s films distances them from the violence of a society used to spectacle. She develops her own survival strategy. She learns how to live with war and death â€“ with the disappearance, the camouflage, the invisible.
Images from the front line.
One TV picture that symbolised the horror of the second Intifada around Christmas 2000 remains engraved deep in the collective memory. It is the sequence in which the young Palestinian boy Muhammad al-Durra in vain seeks cover at his fatherâ€™s side under heavy crossfire but then loses his life to Israeli bullets. The film-maker Nazir Hassan and his producer Raed Andoni were presented with these news pictures by a film festival, with the task of making a â€˜visual statementâ€™ about them. Instead of the umpteenth recycling of the same images, they made a short film about the difficulties of making films in Palestine. Challenge, or how does one make a film using shocking TV pictures that the whole world has already seen? How can one make a film when checkpoints and passport controls make cooperation impossible? How can one make a film at a time of war and occupation? Not easy, but not impossible. This is proven by Azza El-Hassan, Mai Masri, Elia Suleiman, Ali Nassar, Rashid Mashawari, Sobhi Zobaidi, Raed Al-Haellou, Ismael Al-Habbash - Palestinian film-makers cannot be counted on the fingers of one hand! Short films, feature films, TV films: there is a great variety but every production, including the fictional ones, has a documentary character. There is no escaping reality. Raed knows all about it. His â€˜Star 2000â€™ production company often serves as a hotel during curfews. When he receives us at his office in Ramallah he has just finished clearing up the mess left after a weekâ€™s compulsory sojourn amongst colleagues, videocassettes and editing tables. His company car has for a long time been covered with garish TV and press insignia and a numberplate in the familiar diplomatic colours. These â€˜camouflageâ€™ tactics sometimes save him a lot of time when there are spot checks on back roads with no checkpoints: the Israeli soldiers are obliged to let him approach and once eye-contact has been established the usually young recruits find it hard to use their weapons. One can live with the customary intimidation and insults.
â€˜Life here is a film,â€™ says Raed, â€˜And yet there is no film culture. During the first Intifada the cinemas in Ramallah were closed and with one exception they have all become indoor car parks. Television sticks to Jordanian soaps and Egyptian â€˜Hollywoodâ€™ films. Independent Palestinian film-makers are burdened by years of isolation in both Israel and the Arab world. European film festivals and TV broadcasters offer an alternative in terms of finance and performance, but European coproducers bring European rules with them and the realisation that political motives inevitably play a part in showing or not showing Palestinian films has its consequences. In this sense, a screening in Palestine is the ultimate test, because here a Palestinian film-maker is just a film-maker, and a Palestinian film just a film.â€™ At â€˜Star 2000â€™, â€˜just a filmâ€™ does not necessarily mean an average film. This independent company has a strong reputation for original critical documentaries and has little interest in well-tried TV formats. In Live from Palestine, Rashid Mashawari reports on events at a radio station in Gaza. In A Number Zero, Saed Andoni reports from his favourite hairdressers in Bethlehem, which serves as a live news post during the umpteenth incursion by the army of occupation. In Challenge, Nazir Hassan examines the impact of the mass media on the image created of â€˜the Palestinian causeâ€™. Each and every one is a personal statement from the front line, powerful films full of vitality and cinematographic quality. Raed, the producer, persists, â€œOne thing is certain: the future of Palestine is not yet settled and so Palestinian films offer as many possibilities as difficulties. The question is whether we can continue to sustain our energy. Trips abroad give us new input but at the same time the difference between the â€˜holiday â€˜ and staying in this prison is becoming greater and harder to bear. It is not so much the news reports as the everyday details of life in Palestine that depress us. Life here is more complicated than making films.â€