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Palestine's Open-Air Prison on Film

Bill Meyer: It is amazing that any film actually gets made in Palestine, which makes it all that more important to support works by Palestinians who also help train indigenous talent that eventually will build a 'Palestinian' film industry.
Palestinian Open-Air Prison


Certainly unique in the world, no other country has its borders – land, sea, and air – totally controlled by another country. The world's only open-air prison has wreaked havoc on most all the people in the land of Palestine. Two films that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year addressed these unique conditions in radically different ways. They examine the toll the Occupation is taking on the minds of many Palestinians who have been living for decades in a state of extreme, almost surreal, oppression. One of the films takes a satirical approach while the other goes uncharacteristically beyond the traditional focus on the heroic acts of courage the world has come to know from people in this region.

Screwdriver is a serious and disturbing story about Ziad (played by Ziad Bakri), who finds life after 10 years in Israeli prison – mostly in solitary confinement – very difficult and almost impossible to withstand. Many returning prisoners develop serious psychological problems trying to readjust to society and end up living with a deep trauma. While they were away from their community, old friends moved on, the struggle for change heightened and now developing new relationships or restarting old ones become extremely difficult.

The Palestinian director Bassam Jarbawi, who studied film at Columbia University, chose to make a fiction film rather than a documentary to address these issues, because, he states, in real life Palestinians cannot and do not freely see or talk with other Palestinians outside the Occupation. This is Jarbawi's first feature, receiving 80% funding from Palestinians, and shot entirely in the West Bank with mostly a local crew and within a refugee camp with mostly non-professional actors. The community created a supportive and positive environment and the Palestine Authority created no obstacles for the crew, hoping the filmmakers would represent their voice accurately to the world. He didn't want to create a story of heroism but rather depict the harsh realities and difficulties released prisoners face after cruel torture and long confinement. The director doubts the film will be seen by Israelis who could benefit from seeing the effects of their extreme policing and oppressive social policies.

Jarbawi remembers when he was young during the 1st Intifada, his father was humiliated when ordered at gunpoint by young 18 year old Israeli soldiers to paint over Arabic writings on a wall adjacent to their house. So murals are featured in his film as political statements – a common condition of Palestinian reality, referencing the many paintings brightening the offensive walls installed by Israel around their homeland.

It is amazing that any film actually gets made in Palestine, which makes it all that more important to support works by Palestinians who also help train indigenous talent that eventually will build a 'Palestinian' film industry.

Lead actor Ziad Bakri comes from a famous family of actors and directors. His father, director/actor Mohammad Bakri, lives in Israel and has appeared in over 50 films and has developed star status as a defiant opponent of the Occupation. He started his career in 1983 with the iconic court drama Hannah K, by famed French leftist director Costa Gavras. Bakri once said “Let me tell you about the Palestinian film industry. Very simply, we do not have one. We have some very talented film-makers, but that's about it. We have no film schools and we have no studios. We have no infrastructure because we have no country.”

Palestinians have to travel to other countries to hone their skills and access equipment. When returning home they have to deal with the crippling checkpoint system that severely limits access to locations, funds, and a predictable work schedule. It is amazing that any film actually gets made in Palestine, which makes it all that more important to support works by Palestinians who also help train indigenous talent that eventually will build a 'Palestinian' film industry.

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Screwdriver is an emotionally difficult film that draws the viewer into a life that no one would want to live, but it's a rewarding and valuable humanizing experience presented by very talented and dedicated Palestinian artists.

Another approach to addressing the Occupation, albeit quite dark, is served up in a satire that examines both sides of the long battle for justice. Salam, an unemployed middle-aged Palestinian, is hired on as production assistant for a popular TV show entitled Tel Aviv on Fire, same as the film title. The show's audience is on both sides of the wall and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes on a new twist in the daily soap opera that has to appeal to both sides to survive on the air. Salam is suddenly promoted to writer when he demonstrates his inate understanding of politics and local Hebrew street talk. But in order to keep his job he has to come up with storylines that will appeal to both sides.

Palestinian Open-Air Prison

Tel Aviv on Fire

The story gets complicated when he is stopped at a checkpoint where the Israeli general discovers he's the writer of his wife's favorite TV show. In order to make Salam's life easier at his daily checkpoint crossings, the commander bribes the writer into altering the storyline to give more favor to Israelis. The film turns into a biting and hilarious satire of Israeli society and the absurdities of the Occupation. Writer/director Sameh Zoabi (Man Without a Cell Phone) wrote the script for the award winning Palestinian drama The Idol, and now teaches at NYU.

In 2005 the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel PACBI) established ways in which cultural artists can support the struggle against the Occupation. It's defined as a boycott of institutions (not individuals) that whitewash Israel's human rights violations, including lobbyists and complicit organizations. In the film world, many directors and actors have signed on as sponsors, including people like Ken Loach, the entire Bakri family, Vanessa Redgrave, and many others. There are also those who choose to get Israeli funding to complete their projects that might not be completed otherwise.

Screwdriver is funded by Palestinians, but Tel Aviv on Fire has partial funding from Israel. In order for someone to support the cultural boycott it would appear that a film such as this should be boycotted, however there is a clause that states “Israeli cultural products that receive state funding as part of the individual cultural worker’s entitlement as a tax-paying citizen, without her/him being bound to serve the state’s political and propaganda interests, are not boycottable.” And besides, these two films certainly do not hold back on exposing Israeli's human rights violations. They are great additions to the growing list of important Palestinian films to see.

bill meyer

Bill Meyer