Life under Occupation: Two New Films


Imagine that you have to drive your kids to school along the beach because a foreign occupying power has closed off all the roads in your city. Imagine that you switch on your TV each morning to find out where shooting is going on that day so you can chart your commute to work. Imagine that you have to interrupt rehearsals at your local theater because it's being routinely shelled from the surrounding hills. Imagine that enemy "settlers" create fortified towns near your ancestral village and spray your family with bullets when you go to pick your harvest. These and other scenes are some of the wrenching portrayals of the everyday life of Palestinians, in two recent documentaries.

Every high school, college and university, every community organization needs to show these two films, so that people can grasp the trauma that Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are now living through-a trauma made all the more vivid by the moments of real beauty and artistry that permeate both films. These are visions of hell in the midst of what should be a paradise: makeshift tents among blasted apartment buildings, next to the shining sea; funerals of young children under a blue sky beckoning kids to play; the still life of an empty slingshot and scuffed shoes, vestiges of a child who was shot for throwing rocks.

Make the following assumption: human beings have the right to live dignified lives, to work, to raise food, to send their kids to school, to build homes and to live in them. If denied a normal life-one that includes some measure of hope, at least for one's children-the result is psychological despair. "I cannot find a role for myself," says Dima, a university student in This Is Not Living. "I want to be a martyr and leave this life," comments a 10-year-old boy in Gaza Strip. An older woman says: "There is no future, there is nothing. This is the end."

This Is Not Living, by Palestianian-American filmmaker Alia Arasoughly, was recently awarded the Peace Prize at the International Festival of Women's Films in Turin, Italy. Arasoughly and her crew filmed throughout the West Bank, visiting Salem Village, Nablus, Ramallah, Birzeit (the University), Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Beit Jalla. This geographic sweep is especially notable because of the obstacles to travel. Arasoughly's video tells the stories of seven Palestinian women: a Christian fashion store owner who tries to commute daily from Jerusalem to Ramallah; a mother who works to support a family of seven and who has spent 35 years as a displaced person, moving first from her village to Al-Birah, and then into Al-Am'ari refugee camp; a student who volunteers in a day-care center; the director of the Inad Theater in Beit Jalla; the owner and news editor of an independent television station in Nablus; a peasant woman barred from her olive grove by settlers; and a young girl whose brother was killed by Israeli forces at Al-Khader. The stories are told in the women's own voices, overlaid with images from their lives-driving to work on unpaved roads; checkpoints; homes damaged by bullet holes; even a view from the Israeli tanks overlooking Beit Jala, and shots of the shelling.

The insistent point of the film-conveyed by the remarkable editing (by Tareq Eid) and a haunting music track (by Said Murad)-is that a life with dignity is precisely what is denied to the average Palestinian. A mother relates that her children survived a shelling because the family washing machine absorbed the shock of the missile. The TV news editor describes how she is forced to look at pictures of bodies violated and ripped apart, splintered. Home videos of a child, Yazan, who has been shot, are intercut with his sister's description of his death. (The word routinely used in Palestine for those who die in war, whether killed accidentally or because of a direct attack, is "martyrdom," a term that underscores the unnaturalness of dying as a result of armed conflict.) The concluding shot of Yazan's family at home the winter before his death, marveling at a rare snowfall, is a bitingly ironic ending, a scene full of foreboding that this peaceful normality was not destined to last.

Gaza Strip, by American documentary filmmaker James Longley, takes as its historical point of departure the second Intifada, which began in September of 2000. An introductory explanatory text states that 30% of the land has been confiscated by the Israeli occupiers, in a strip 28 miles long by 4 miles wide where 1.2 million Palestinians live. Israel controls the water and electricity, as well as all transportation, whether by air, land, or sea.

Gaza Strip focuses on children, mostly young boys, whose lives Longley documented during his three-month stay in Gaza in 2001. (Because this was an area that Arasoughly's team could not visit, the two documentaries complement one another.) Like This Is Not Living, it avoids "authoritative" commentary and relies of the voices of interviewees. A 13-year-old has had to drop out of school to sell newspapers to support his family. Another boy says that all his friends have been killed. A dead boy is brought home, his abdomen ripped out after a shell explodes inside a baseball glove he and his friends had found lying on the ground. Children hospitalized after an Israeli gas attack writhe and scream in the hospital. No one knows what this new weapon is; it is not tear gas (a fact confirmed in an interview with Dr. Helen Bruzan, from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization Doctors without Borders). A helicopter rains down bullets onto the streets. The sheer terror of living under the constant threat of shelling and mortars is conveyed through the rapid montage of images of nighttime attacks by Israeli forces. Cinematically this works out to be a very effective way of communicating the visceral experience of danger. A hospital emergency room is the site of frenzied activity as victim after victim is delivered bleeding from bullet wounds. "In the end, I am nothing," says a young boy, "I would rather die. It would be easier."

"They have cut down the trees of peace, the olive trees," recites another voice, "the trees older than my grandfather's grandfather." What one cannot forget after seeing this film are the faces of the children, prematurely old and wrinkled with care-children only playing at being children among the rubble, children growing up without hope.

Inez Hedges
Co-director, Cinema Studies Program Northeastern University