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.
The above photograph was featured on this blog last year, but I think it’s worth sharing again. As I was reflecting on January 24, 2012, I realized that hearing this man’s story had been a turning point for me. He had been shot in the leg by a Settler in his own neighborhood, and walked with a cane and a pronounced limp. His story was heartbreaking. Silwan’s story is heartbreaking.
After listening to him and seeing the streets of Silwan for myself, there was little doubt in my mind that the neighborhood was under siege. As I was leaving, I remember being inspired by panic and flat-out running to catch up to the group I had come with after lingering for a moment to take a picture-an uncharacteristic move, I’d like to think.
A few weeks later, the building we sat in while this man told us his story was torn down by the police. It was sickening and frightening to begin to see the human impact of the Occupation.
The language barrier I encountered in Israel/Palestine was probably the most disorienting obstacle I faced throughout Walking Walls. I traveled extensively before heading to the Holy Land and from Paris to Poland, I had always been able to read a few street signs, master some key phrases, sometimes I could even understand and respond to simple conversation in German or more advanced discussion in Spanish.
I didn’t stand a chance with Hebrew or Arabic. Reading was out of the question and I only learned a few basic words in either language during the five weeks I spent in and around Jerusalem. To be fair, I didn’t have the time or resources to make a more serious effort at either language, but my resulting confusion and dependance on the prevalence of English signs and English speakers was both remarkable and isolating.
And a note about the prevalence of English on those signs. In Israel/Palestine, most public signs and notices will include writing in Hebrew, Arabic and English. In my experience, the order of the languages tells you who controls the area and by extension, reveals your relationship to the neighborhood. English is usually last, but it seems to me that the real battle is between first two, Arabic and Hebrew. They switch predictably based on geography, but with an insistence that would make you think someone was keeping score.
The above photo was taken in the Shu’afat neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
The only thing I know for sure about this picture is that it was taken from a moving bus on a Friday somewhere in East Jerusalem. But when I found it in my files today, I thought to myself, ‘those people are probably Settlers.’ And I thought it with a smug sense of superiority and disgust.
I’m not sure when it started, but there was a time on this trip when I began to make ruthless and unwarranted calculations about the character of people I had not met. It was very easy, and the consequences of this discriminatory, dualistic thinking was exactly what I had come to study. But in my idealistic manner, I had hoped to avoid the uncomfortable details and continue to see myself as part of a solution. I was happy to play the role of ‘concerned but largely-innocent global citizen’ who could easily step aside if things got out of hand.
Yet there are no outsiders in this conflict because at its very core, building walls is about distilling complicated ideas into right and wrong, something humanity has done for thousands of years with the ease of instinct. And it’s a mindset, a pitfall that we are all a party to.
One year ago today, I went to Bethlehem for the first time and saw the wall up close. I wish that I had more time to explore it at my own pace, in addition to being whisked around by my enthusiastic taxi driver. Yousef was wonderful, but it would have been fascinating to get a closer look at the graffiti on the wall there. From what I did see, a lot of it was in English, Arabic a close second. Some of it was peaceful, some of it was angry. It felt immediate, important, and unsettling.
When I first arrived in the Holy Land, I was astonished by the scenery. I remember thinking that the fields between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were quite possibly the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen. I was also astonished by the very existence of the small mountains that Jerusalem is built upon. Despite considerable time spent perusing the Bible, it had somehow escaped me that Israel was anything other than arid and sandy; it took some reflection to reconcile the vistas I imagined in my youth with what I saw before me. Beginning to walk through the rugged beauty of this land helped me begin to understand why people fight over it.
This is one of my only pictures from January 17, 2012. I had just boarded a bus from the side of a small highway near Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, fairly sure that it was bound for Jerusalem. I was fascinated by the accouterments that the bus driver had affixed to his ceiling. There was a Star of David that looked like it had been fashioned out of Popsicle sticks, a few photos, air fresheners, and most mysteriously, a row of red things that resembled small shovels. I was struck by how the collection was vividly personal but on display, strange in its look and arrangement but familiar in sentiment.
Exactly one year ago, I was laying in a warm bed in a nondescript flat in Vienna. My girlfriend’s arm was draped easily over my chest, her breathing steady while outside, snow fell thick and fast for the first time all year. It was almost time to get up, but I hadn’t slept to begin with; rest would not come. My mind had been projecting a relentless loop of blurry horrors on my path ahead which prevented me from closing my eyes for too long. This was the first time I fell prey to my imagination by night, but it would not be the last. I said goodbye to her at the bus stop, night heavy around us despite the orange haze rising from the blanket of snow.
Exactly one year ago, I took my first physical steps of Walking Walls. Those steps took me from the comfort of Vienna to an airport terminal in Berlin where I observed a pair of Orthodox Jews with a strange intensity; to Tel Aviv where I refused to let the customs agent stamp my passport; to the streets of Jerusalem, where I somehow found my way to my friend’s flat in Nachlaot, the world buzzing around me and wet stones slippery underfoot.
Tonight, my girlfriend will come to bed, drape her arm across me, and we will go to sleep in our American apartment where it is very easy to rest and I rarely awake with last year’s half-remembered visions a scream on my lips.
Last year, I was beginning a long and lonely journey that was often terrifying but ultimately rewarding.
I have not yet found its end.
As I continue to reflect on my time in Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland, I have been seeking new conversations, lenses, and methods for examining my experiences. I’ve tried to quantify what it was to wake up softly on a chilly morning in Jerusalem, to feel again the peculiar mixture of awe, intoxication, and trepidation when I first saw strips of light marking the Buffer Zone from a university campus in North Cyprus, or to understand with my head a certain ache of my legs and heart after walking miles across Belfast to visit strange neighborhoods.
I have few illusions that these sketches of memory will ever be more than pieces in my quiet and private portrait of self-confidence. Though really, that is quite enough. But, anniversaries are a time to remember, reexamine, and contextualize events of the past. They are dates that demand attention, for better or for worse. And so, to mark the 1-year anniversary of Walking Walls, I have posed the following challenge for myself:
1. Every day, post a photograph that was taken a year ago and has not been posted previously on this blog (if one exists).
2. Craft a brief reflection on the photograph, the day as a whole, or a moment of the day, ideally reflecting an idea that that has not been discussed extensively on this blog.
It is my hope that this process will allow me to think more deeply about my experience of Walking Walls than I have had time to do since getting home. The length of the challenge will mirror the length of the trip, thus matching my new reflections to the speed of the previous year’s progression of travel and thinking. Furthermore, I will be able to connect last year to the present by reliving my trip in some small way for the next 90 days, considering what forces I encountered last year that shape my thinking now. And finally, I hope to give life to the small memories and strange photographs that I know exist, but have been ignored because they had little to do with Walking Walls and everything to do with life on the road, strange experiences, and an eye-opening journey.
For a start, here’s the only picture I took on January 16th, 2012, using my phone. This was supposed to be my directions from the Jerusalem bus station to the place I was staying in Nachlaot. Of course, I didn’t account for the fact that I didn’t understand any Hebrew characters, rendering the street names on this map useless.
But what was I expecting? How could I use this map when it was from a different world?–the world I knew before I woke from a foggy fear, got on a bus and then a plane, slammed my feet on the ground in Jerusalem, and kept walking.
We may not be able to control how the cards fall when walls are built by states that are motivated by fear. We can protest, be arrested, go to court, but there too often comes a time when the foundation has been built and division is cemented on the ground, and these measures become less effective because it is harder to bring a wall down than to leave it there. Walls, after all, are about limiting these options, beating your path for you by dictating where you can and cannot go, what experiences you have, and implying what you should think about the other side by making it almost impossible not to think in us-versus-them terms.
But when walls change the rules, we can choose what they represent to us. If we are taken in by their unfeeling, monolith blocks, if we live in fear of their prickly-poking barbed wire, if we treat them as the alpha and omega of our world, then they have won, and things will begin to unravel around them accordingly as people’s conceptions of their place in the world shrink and spiral. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the cruelest variety; the walls themselves lack agency in this process, it is entirely based on how people act around them. If those who guard the wall worship it as their idol, they will destroy anyone who thinks otherwise. If those who oppose the wall cannot see through it’s sham, they too will fall under its spell of violent dichotomy. If we choose to empower walls and the places they inhabit with the mystic fear of the edge of the world and monsters unknown, we surrender ourselves to base human behavior as the walls come to represent the edge of our minds, reflecting the fear, doubt, and lack of reason that lurks there.
I do not know much about bringing walls down because they are so often resilient to attacks that humans can muster. If we let them, they will grow larger in our minds and should brick and mortar ever crumble, our eyes will be unaccustomed to the sunlight revealed by cracks and holes. But by refusing to worship the walls, we can prevent the edges they create from fraying and curling upon themselves, burned. If we reject the idolatry that has always been so tempting for humans, and instead maintain a vision that extends beyond the concrete plane that surrounds us, subverting the wall for a higher, and more difficult purpose: human relationships. I do not know much about bringing walls down, but if we can see through them, we will be ready when they fall.
I’ve been working on the Walking Walls book for a little more than a month now, on the weekends, and I think it’s far enough along to release a little more information. The whole thing will likely come in around 100 pages. There are five chapters:
Introduction – to the project and conflicts
Key Concepts – walls as a site of security vs. conflict, walls in geographic space or not, and walls as symptoms of a greater ill
My Experience – outlined by revealing moments in Abu Dis, Palestine, middle of nowhere, North Cyprus, and Shankill/Falls, Belfast
Others’ Experience – short description and a quote from various individuals, opposite their portrait
No, I don’t have an anticipated release date, I don’t know how it will be published (ideas and solicitations welcome!), and I likely don’t know much more than I’ve outlined here. Nonetheless, I’ve found it to be a very enjoyable process so far, and feel good about what I’ve done. In that spirit, I’d like to share two mockup pages and would really appreciate any feedback on design, writing, layout, anything. The first page is from the introduction:
The second is an excerpt from “My Experience,” probably the section that feels most vulnerable and scary:
Again, any comments or ideas are very welcome.