I was recently in Minnesota for the holidays and took a roundabout route between Rochester and the Twin Cities to add to the collection of prairie nightscapes I started last winter. Working on this project has been a deeply refreshing means through which I have been able to partially reforge my belonging to this wide and empty landscape. The solitude and silence and crunching snow is impossibly peaceful.
A few weeks ago, I attended an evening of the Boston Palestine Film Festival at Harvard for the films ‘It’s Better to Jump,’ ‘Blogging Ramallah,’ and ‘Beirut Photographer.’ I had strong reactions to each, so thought I’d put my Cinema & Media Studies degree to good use and briefly review each film.
It’s Better to Jump (trailer)
‘It’s Better to Jump’ was, in a word, disappointing. The documentary is essentially a profile of the city of Akka (Acre), a fishing town north of Haifa surrounded by age-old fortifications that protect its Old City from the sea, and lend its residents an iconic pastime: jumping off the city walls into the ocean some 40 feet below. Predictably, the profile of the town is intended as a microcosm of the current Palestinian situation, and residents’ tradition of jumping from the city walls is a metaphor for living in the Palestinian struggle, a leap of faith. However, the film’s structure is not tight enough to pull this off convincingly, and the result is 71 minutes without a compelling narrative arc and a predictable conclusion.
The film’s content is delivered through interviews with numerous Palestinians who live in the city, or are from the city. In addition to interviews, the film is at times punctuated with archival footage, mostly of the Nakba, which is displayed in an inset 4×3 frame. I liked this stylistic choice and thought the footage, for the most part, was helpful and well-selected.
The film begins with sound bytes from various interviewees about the city of Akka’s location on the ocean over nice b-roll of waves lapping the shore and city walls, and tantalizing footage of young boys leaping from the city walls. At first, we do not see any results of the jumping, which I found slightly frustrating but very valid as a stylistic decision. From this interesting opening sequence, the film turns into one of the most poorly-executed history lessons I’ve seen in a contemporary documentary featuring confusing and cluttered maps of the Mediterranean, and (small) on-screen text in place of a narrator.
After this introductory sequence, the film is driven by interviews, edited into a dialogue between characters by topic. The film is structured into 5-10 minute segments that deal with topics including the youth of Akka, education, and trend of Palestinian residents being bought out of the Old City. These sequences are separated by artfully filmed scenes of boys jumping to the sea from the city walls. The longer this went on, the more frustrating I found the format, because I was mostly interested in the beautiful photography of the jumpers, and felt like I was being dragged along by this hook, instead of being led to understand both intellectually and visually the connection between jumping and contemporary issues.
One of my most fundamental criticisms relates to the way interviews are used in the film. Firstly, interviewees are so numerous that it was difficult to keep track of the multiplicity of voices; I think there were at least 10, but I honestly lost track. The interviewees themselves are extremely well-spoken and come across as intelligent individuals with wry senses of humor. Unfortunately, we do not find out until the end of the film exactly how remarkable some of these people are: a professional boxer, an educator with a masters degree from Boston University, etc. The interviews would have been even more compelling, and the characters easier to get to know and keep track of if this information were delivered as they were introduced. Finally, the interviews suffer from the absence of a cohesive visual style, or a consistent technical execution. The interviews range from beautifully shot, to rather poor setups, and the edit features confusing cuts that break one of the most fundamental principles of shooting people in film: the 180-degree rule. Additionally, nearly every interview shot by the sea suffered from poor sound quality as voices were not properly isolated from the waves in the background. These technical errors distracted from otherwise well-done interviews and fantastic interviewees.
The most compelling sequence of the film dealt with youth and education. It was successful because the selection of the interviewees included high school teachers, a high school principal, and a young student who spoke with authority and compassion on the subject. The sequence was made more powerful as the only obvious connection between the content and metaphor of jumping from the city walls as youth were inextricably involved in both. Unfortunately, this sequence suffered from a lack of convincing b-roll, which was most noticeably off when we saw footage of cars driving down the nighttime streets of Akka and young boys under a streetlight laughing and slapping hands as an interviewee alluded to drugs and gang activity. The b-roll simply did not match what I was hearing, and the result was a confusing and less credible conclusion to what should have been a hard-hitting point. If I were to re-edit this film, I would have focused entirely on youth and education, strongly linked it to the pastime of jumping, and shot for a runtime of 20-30 minutes.
The narrative concludes by finally answering my internal plea to tell the audience more about the tradition of jumping with a long montage of boys (and one girl) flinging themselves toward the sea on a bright, sunlit afternoon while interviewees describe their own youthful experiences jumping from the walls. Some of the interviewees admit to being badly injured in the process and (in conjunction with an earlier comment about how the kids jump because they have nothing else to do), I was a bit confused about how I should be feeling about the idea and practice of jumping, despite the amazing photography which felt very uplifting and exciting. I also strongly felt that this sequence should have come at the beginning of the film, instead of teasing and dragging viewers through the entire film. Using the footage as a ‘reward’ was not satisfying and felt like a forced and heavy-handed metaphor in its place at the end.
The photography in this sequence was truly awesome, featuring go-pro shots from cameras attached to some of the jumpers, and some beautiful tilt-shift shots. It was a completely different style from the rest of the film, leading me to suspect that more than one cinematographer had shot different parts of the film, which is not entirely a bad thing, though I would have liked to see the same vision applied to some of the less-well executed interviews.
I thought this dramatic conclusion was the end of the film and I groaned with apprehension when, after a very convincing outro sequence, a title popped up in the middle of the screen: “But what about hommus?” and we were led for a truly cringe-worthy tour de hommus with b-roll of hommus restaurants and interviewees discussing their views on the dish. I winced through the entire sequence, feeling it was completely inappropriate at the end of this otherwise serious film. This segment did not “lighten up” a heavy topic, it dragged down the professionalism of the entire film and left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
In its defense, the film does an excellent job of presenting an alternative, Arab narrative about the city of Akka, a much-needed voice for the troubled city. The filmmakers found a compelling story in the tradition of jumping, and some excellent individuals to illustrate life in their city, and I certainly learned a lot from watching it. However, the technical and editorial aspects of this film were, in my opinion, not up to par.
The second film of the evening proved to be a short, focused piece that was both educational and enjoyable. The film was only about 20 minutes, structured as 4 short profiles of Palestinian activists who rely on blogging and social media for their work. At the very beginning, the activists that are profiled meet for interviews on a radio show, which nicely sets up the fast-paced piece. The film was unified by a strong visual style, most notably featuring posterized freeze-frames that served to introduce an activist’s face and name (with text, too) at the beginning of each individual’s profile. The film covered both male and female activists, all young, who were involved in a wide variety of work ranging from the iconic protests in Nablus to radio and web based writing and research. The storytelling was sharp, smart, and hard-hitting.
My only criticisms of the film are that its quick pace meant that for most of the film, an interviewee was speaking in Arabic, which, for an English-speaking audience meant a lot of unfamiliar sounds, and a lot of subtitle reading. I liked that the cuts were sharp, but also would have liked the audio to breathe a bit more. Secondly, a number of typos in subtitles or English text were unfortunately a distraction from an otherwise cleanly executed film.
The last film of the evening was “Beirut Photographer,” a 40-minute documentary about Arab-American photojournalist George Azar and his quest to revisit the people and places he photographed as a young man in the Lebanon-Israel war of 1982-3. The film opens with gorgeous photography of Azar flipping through slides in an old-fashioned projector, immediately signaling that this viewing experience was to be in a league of its own.
Throughout the film, we follow Azar (and a small camera crew) as he travels through Beirut and Lebanon and tracks down people he photographed during a war that changed the Palestinian struggle, the country of Lebanon, and the photographer himself irreversibly. We witness him visiting a woman he assumed was dead as he photographed her laying in the street after a 1982 bombing. We meet members of a family whose terror he documented in a narrow hallway as he sought shelter with them as an Israeli battery division approached. And we see him reconnect with the captain of a small division of teenage resistance fighters. Cleanly shot contemporary footage is intercut with Azar’s own photographs from 30 years earlier, and both are blended to tell the stories of people and places he knew in the past and revisits in the present. The result is a haunting, honest, and personal look back at a devastating war for a people and a place that play a pivotal role in Palestinian culture and history.
My only criticism of the film is that although the storyline is driven through a first-person narrative from Azar’s perspective, the voice that is heard does not seem to be the photographer’s own. I fully understand and appreciate that this is an appropriate solution for someone who does not wish to use their own voice, or whose voice is difficult to understand. However, it would have been more powerful and intimate to hear Azar’s narrative in his own voice. Overall, I highly recommend ‘Beirut Photographer’ for anyone interested in Palestinian culture, history, or photojournalism and documentary filmmaking. The film encapsulates a brilliant concept, and the execution is well done to match.
I started my day with a bleary-eyed trip to the cafe below my apartment and hopped on a crowded bus before the sky was light. Sunrise found me on the Cambridge Street bridge overlooking the Mass Pike and a sprawling railyard. The sun kissed downtown buildings when it finally appeared on the horizon.
I’m shooting for a new project and it’s really exciting! More to come.
One year ago today, I ended my journeys in Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland by flying to London, the heart of the British Empire which, over the past century, had placed its Midas touch on each of these three sites. Needless to say, I had emerged from my travels with a rather cynical outlook, waylayed slightly for the time being with the exhilaration and relief of finishing the trip and also meeting a very good friend in town.
As you may have noticed over the past week or so, my posting frequency fell off dramatically, reflecting the way that Walking Walls wound down. The truth is that 5 weeks was entirely too long to spend in Northern Ireland–more than enough to get the content I was looking for, and not enough to get more deeply engaged. So the extra time sagged and was spent on post-processing the 4000+ photos I had accumulated (still a work in progress).
Also, while it was a massive relief to be in an (mostly) English speaking place again, after a while I realized that I had responded by not engaging the environment the same way that I did in I/P and Cyprus where I was forced to be hyper-aware and rely on context clues to navigate space. Belfast was almost too comfortable, and I didn’t adjust accordingly.
But more than any of those excuses, I was simply grateful to be finished with the travel, which had finally become more exhausting than exciting in the last leg of the 90 day adventure, especially as my budget and the British pound caught up with me.
After the trip when people would ask what I learned, I developed a half-joking short answer response to the tune of “religion and the British ruined everything.” But at its historical roots, Walking Walls is a story about Colonialism and conquest, and how the victors demonstrate and enforce their control over space. When you think about it this way, it makes a lot of sense that walls and fences are the solution of choice in Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland; an ancient remedy for an ancient practice of domination. And so although my visit was recreational, it was indeed fitting that I visited London, the lion’s den, at the end of this adventure.
I anticipate that I will be posting further reflections on the trip after I have a chance to synthesize the mad writings from the past 90 days. I feel that the process of reliving moments from the trip one day at a time has been an invaluable springboard into the next phase of intensive work on the book.
I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to undertake this project last year, and am pleased that I had the chance to revisit such a powerful time in my life with this series of reflections. I hope they have been interesting to read as well, I have certainly enjoyed sharing them.
Of the three sites I visited during Walking Walls, I’m still debating which one is the odd man out, and whether or not it even makes sense to think about the conflicts through the lenses that would group them in such a way. You could make endless arguments that distinguish one site from the other two: Israel/Palestine as the odd one due to not being part of Europe…the physical borders have yet to be fully constructed….most recently a violent hotspot. Cyprus because the UN is still involved…because the border is built to stop an army instead of individuals. Northern Ireland because the borders are entrenched in neighborhoods…because the walls were requested by the residents.
But even as I was writing that list, I was struck by the number of things that I had to omit after encountering dissenting opinions on this trip. For example, although I cannot articulate the details of the argument, I now know better than to classify the Troubles as only an intra-state conflict. I have come to appreciate that the generalizations I made above are much more complex than I have characterized them to be; I think you could find exceptions to any of them.
I can’t reflect on this project without being comparative because I intentionally went to three different sites to gain a more complete understanding of what it means to live in a physically divided society. The idea was to unite the partition in different places through the common, human threads in my experience. But you cannot separate the personal stories from the conflicts. A Palestinian refugee is not a Greek Cypriot refugee is not a Belfast resident who moved to a different neighborhood to escape car bombs and gunfire. Glossing over this would be a disservice to the individuals, the complexity of the conflict, and the difficulty of any solution.
But at the same time, it’s not very useful or interesting to completely separate my reflections on each site, because it misses an opportunity to deepen my understanding of why and how people build walls, and discourages any transfer of good ideas for solutions from one place to the next. There will be some good insights on the X axis from thinking about the intersections of these three sites, both in commonalities and differences, the negative and the positive.
I’m not sure what the Y axis is at this moment. Maybe it’s the stories of exceptional circumstances, the extremes on the scatter plot, the odd man out. That’s worth thinking about too.
It’s possible I’ve posted this picture here before, because it’s one of my absolute favorites from the trip. Hiking up to the Mourne Wall this day last year was a good reminder that wall-building is a very old practice, undertaken for any number of reasons, almost an instinctive, territorial urge. Because of this, it is at once completely understandable and extremely strange that we are using this old technique for 21st century conflicts.
One of the main reasons that I am obsessed with political partition is because it is incredibly visual. Walls are extremely simple, easy to communicate, and read well as images. One of the challenges of Walking Walls was trying to make barriers look interesting and different after photographing them for 3 months straight. I remember thinking that I was grasping for ideas when I lay down in the wet grass to take this picture in Portadown one year ago today.