Wednesday, 31 January 2007

A Midsummer Night's War: Long Distance Editing

Gareth finally gets called to Doha to start his contract with Al-Jazeera. Well, we've heard there's a contract: he still hasn't seen it.

I imagine he's lounging by a pool, sipping cocktails, being massaged by a bikini-clad dancer at the moment. How's the weather? Can I get you anything? Another drink, perhaps, or a cocktail umbrella for your glass?

The film is maybe 90% done by this point, but for the remainder we'll need to do a little long-distance editing. I'm really happy with it - I must admit I was skeptical about Gareth's idea of a two-part structure, but now I'm convinced it works. The film is essentially two very different views on the aftermath of the war. Both coming from the same place, having been through the same experience, but drawing different comclusions.

Skiing With Hezbollah: these days...

As Lebanon's Shia gathered to celebrate Ashura, the country entered a period of relative calm since the violence of last Thursday. At least Nasrallah, during his fiery speech, said he refused to be drawn into a civil war: maybe lessons have been learned from Lebanon's bloody past.

Under the circumstances, the government's offer of reviving its tourist industry seems more and more absurd, which means Ambiel's film becomes more and more interesting (and hopefully more relevent)...

We're both keeping a close eye on the daily news, and reports from our friends on the ground in Beirut. As of now, the production is still on, and I should be arriving in Beirut on February 5th.

Monday, 22 January 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah

On Febraury 5th, I head off to shoot another documentary in Lebanon. This one is from Italian director and festival coordinator Federico Ambiel. It's quite a strange idea, but really appeals to me (and the Tourist style), because it tries to discuss contemporary politics but from a completely non-political angle. Specifically, from the angle of a naive tourist.

It's based on two things: the first is the Lebanese government's invitation to revive the country's tourist industry by offering incentives for foreign visitors. The second is the holiday that Federico was planning before the summer war, and his desire to take the holiday regardless of what's now going on in the country. Add those together, and you get: Skiing With Hezbollah

If all of this sounds a little crazy, that's because it is. There aren't many ways to get through the propaganda, politics and media agendas surrounding news of Lebanon these days, but I think Federico may have found one...

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

A Midsummer Night's War

Filmed during the Ayam Beirut film festival held only one month after the summer ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon's Hizbullah forces, A Midsummer Night's War is about the reconstruction not of the city's buildings, but of its reputation as an artistic and cultural capital.

At the moment, Gareth and I are still underway editing the film, perhaps around 2/3 done. We are back to the good-old days of 12-hour shifts, staring intently at a computer screen until nothing seems to make sense any more, breaking into hysterical, maniacal laughter, having a tea break, then getting back to work.

The film is structured as a story of two completely opposing views on the aftermath of the war: one who says we should simply go on as a sign of defiance, the other asking whether it's ever possible to go on after such a complex and destructive war.

"I have a problem with this Lebanese national sport of always going on as though nothing really happened..."

The editing has to be finished by the end of January, not only in time for a planned screening at London's Frontline Club, but because Tourist's alchemist-editor Gareth Keogh will soon begin two months in Doha with Al-Jazeera International. That's right, Mr. Keogh is finally making his way back to the Middle East to work for one of the world's most exciting, and controversial, news conglomerates. Then, hopefully, he'll be back to London for some more work with Tourist.

I hope.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

The Family Home

Shukri's old house wasn't easy to find. I had seen the photograph online many times - an old black and white taken before 1948. The text underneath said it was now part of the Weizmann Institute. But after looking around the Weizmann Institute for half a day, I managed to find only one old villa, now cut off from the rest of the centre by a high barbed-wire fence, and disused for years. No one could tell me the origins of the house. Although the surroundings, and the fact that staff seemed uncomfortable talking about it, seemed to say that it might have originally been a Palestinian home, it didn't match the photograph I had seen online. I had to start the search from the beginning.

Looking up Shukri's name online, I eventually found an old Al-Ahram article about the house. It was not written from the perspective of someone like me, tracing their roots, but from a journalist investigating the origins of Israel's secret biological weapons programme. Salman Abu-Sitta, president of London's Palestine Land Society, had uncovered documents proving that the same house, the house that once belonging to Shukri Taji Al-Farouky, had immediately after the war of 1948 become the Israeli Institute for Biological Research. Abu-Sitta claims, to the Israeli government's denial, that the research facility is, in fact, the centre of a clandestine and illegal weapons programme streatching back to Israel's very origins in the war of 1948.

The article goes into considerable detail about not only the house, but the life of Shukri following his, and his family's, expulsion from the house. Most crucially, the article also included exact directions to reach the house, as well as its map coordinates. I copied them down, and the next morning, returned to Nes Tziona.

As you would expect from a secret government research centre, no one in the town knew what I was looking for. I read the directions out, exactly as they had been written in the Al-Ahram article, but they seemed to lead out of town. I know from Abu-Sitta's description that the centre was immedaitely in the centre of town, it couldn't have been more than half a kilometer from where I was standing, but no one at the taxi station had any idea. The map coordinates were no good without a GPS.

The taxi drivers, huddled around my map and written instructions, asked other taxi drivers. They asked a hairdresser. Eventually, they even stopped someone in the streets. No one had any clue. I tried to explain "research", "biological", "old house" but their English was limited, and my Hebrew non-existant. I could just keep repeating the one word they seemed to understand: "Bee-o-log! Bee-o-log!"

Eventually, and for some reason I still don't understand, after repeating the world endlessly, something finally snapped.
"Ohhhhh!" one of the taxi drivers yawned. "BEE-o-log...bee-o-log..."
"Yes! That's right! Bee-o-log! You know it?" I asked hopefully
"Bee-o-log. Yes. Around the corner."

I walked around the corner to the beeolog. It was, as described, directly in the middle of town, less than five minutes from the taxi stand. No wonder no one knew about it. I later read that Avner Cohen, senior fellow at the university of Maryland and author of a comprehensive paper on Israel's biological weapons programme, described the centre's location as "classified" and it was not shown on any map. I approached the main gate, a discreet guard post surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. I was greeting sternly by Ori wearing wrap-around shades and cradling an Uzi. My name was Sam, and I gave him my architecture student story, now expertly rehearsed. After a little dialogue, a few innocent questions, his final response was clear:
"Don't waste your time. I'm not even allowed in there."
He was very polite, even helpful, and he was just being honest, but he wouldn't budge. As usual in cases like these, I kept talking, perhaps hoping to annoy him into letting me through, evne just for a second, to catch a glimpse of the house.

"What if I speak to the administration and tell them I need to photograph the house for my thesis?"
"Look, even employees are not allowed in with camera-phones."
"Ori, thanks for your time. Hopefully I'll see you again." I couldn't see the house at all from the main gate, and it wasn't visible form any of the roads around the facility. The only place to find a contemporary photograph of the house is online, on the IIBR website, where the house is proudly displayed - still looking almost exactly as it did in 1948 - as the centre's headquarters.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

The Family Home: Even at the best of times

I become obsessed with the idea of the Israeli secret police. I imagine every taxi driver I speak to, everyone frying falafel in the cafe, everyone serving me coffee is listening in to my conversations and passing on information. Sometimes I think I'm getting carried away - other times I think I'm not careful enough. Someone once told me "one in five...remember, one in every five peopoel you talk to is an informer." I think about that every time I sit around a table with six friends.

I had to come up with a cover story for my reporting. With the PhotoVoice project over, I went searching for two houses that once belonged to my family. I know they still exist, but one is now a mental institution, the other a secret biological research facility. During research for a documentary, I go to visit the houses, pretending to be an architecture student from London looking at how development affects old architecture in the Middle East. In a way, it's true, but I have to immerse myself in the lie in order to keep a straight face. At one point I feel my eye starting to twitch, and I'm convinced the people at the Weizmann Institute are on to me. "Why do you keep asking about that house?" They ask. "Because," I say "no one seems to know anything about it. That makes me even more curious..."

It's exahusting, lying. I use the architecture student story whenever I don't want to reveal too much about what I'm doing in a small secluded Israeli town - Nes Tziona - that was once the Palestinian village of Wadi Hunayn, overflowing with orange groves. I have an hour-long conversation with an army reservist, sitting beside me on the bus back to Jerusalem, about my thesis, even showing him photos of the houses on my camera. Several times I strike up conversations with regular Israelis, which make my cover story of being a British architecutral student even more difficult.
"What do you think of Israel? It's great, isn't it?"
"Yes," I say, biting my tongue "It's great."
"It's a beautiful country!"
"Yes, it's a beautiful country..."

Monday, 8 January 2007

Side by Side: It follows you wherever you may go

Now with the workshops finished, there's a sense of relief and exhaustion. The first two days went well, the important things worked out, and we know what's missing. But there's still another six months to keep up this momentum, maybe this is the real challenge.

At the meeting following the first workshops, it hits me, once again, that the occupation here is something you can never avoid. There are moments of calm, when everything seems distant and the news is simply a collection of other people's stories, but sooner or later it will slap you in the face. I ask Leena, the Palestinian coordinator, whether she prepared the short report I asked for:
"I'm sorry, I couldn't think last night. My brothers were arrested."
"Your brothers were arrested? What happened?"
"I don't know. The soldiers came in and took them at night. I was so panicked, I couldn't get the reports done."

I also realised, finally, that there's never any need to ask "why" in these circumstances. Ask "why" and you're met with a puzzled look, exasperated, as if to ask "are you serious?"

Driving through Jerusalem with Sami, he explained he hadn't been since his papers were torn up during the first intafada. "Why?" I asked, and he just stared at me. Mohannad explained how he was turned away from Allenby bridge last time he tried to cross into Jordon. I asked him why, and he laughed. Someone explained the story the boy whose father was killed during an Israeli army raid into Hebron, and I asked why. "Why?" they replied. "What do you mean, why?"

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Side by Side: Workshops begin

We all meet in St. Joseph’s monastery, Abu Ghosh, on top of a hill somewhere near Jerusalem. Fourteen kids, seven Palestinian and seven Israeli, all there to take part in a photographic dialogue. Each has their own goal: some want to show the other side what their life is really like, some want to speak to the world with their photographs, to show their view on the conflict, other simply want to learn photography.

Over two days, brief moments of panic as I start to realise how difficult this could be. Not everyone is coming from the same place, with the same ideas, not everyone is ready for the challenge of talking to kids from the other side. I speak to one Palestinian whose father, a well-known photojournalist, was killed during an Israeli army raid into Hebron. He refused to work with any of the Israeli students. But still, we knew that because he was there, he was there to learn something, to hear another perspective.

It’s difficult to keep the students focused, between talking to their friends and listening to music on their mobile phones. As the project manager, I can just sit back and watch as the photographers run through shutter speed, focus, composition with the kids. Over the course of two days, the students switch between inspired and anarchic every other minute. On the second morning, the other hotel guests complain that the kids were running around like maniacs until 5 in the morning. I didn’t hear anything. I slept soundly, with sporadic dreams of being shot and being taken hostage – this seems to be happening a lot lately.

In the conference room, we find yesterday’s notes ripped up and strewn on the floor, and across one sheet is written “Where are the educators?” I don’t know what it means. These are the challenges I hadn’t expected, but in between moments of fear and chaos, there are moments of inspiration when the kids seem to finally understand what they want to do with their photography.
“I want to learn to speak with images, not words.”
“I want to show the world what our lives are really like.”
“I want to try to understand the other side through their images.”

Saturday, 6 January 2007

Side by Side: I wasn't born in Jerusalem

I’m back in Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, to continue my photography project with Palestinian and Israeli kids. Last time I tried to leave this country, I was interrogated for two and a half hours. They seemed particularly fascinated by my bag. “We can’t understand why you don’t have a bag with wheels…why doesn’t your bag have wheels?”
“Because I prefer to carry my bag.”
“So why do you have it on a trolly now?”
I just played along politely, without any of the smart answers running through my head. This time, I was given the interrogation on the way in. They seemed surprised that I hadn’t been questioned on the way in the first time I arrived only one month ago.
“You should have been questioned last time.”
“For…security reasons…”

Things have changed since last time. The place suddenly became more dangerous as the battle between Hamas and Fatah has spilled over from Gaza into the West Bank. I hear Faleh was shot not long ago.
“A friend was shot two days ago,” Khlaed explains. “Oh. You know him. Faleh.” I met him last time I was here. He works with Al-Tariq, the Palestinian institute for Development and Democracy, and is a committed peace activist. Not a new-age, soft, leftist peace activist you understand, but someone who has seen the horrors himself, been through the process of trying to make changes, and finally concluded that non-violent resistance and activism were the most powerful, and most effective tools. He was shot in the kneecaps – whoever it was that shot him wasn’t trying to kill him, just send a message. Now he was lying in hospital recovering.

I began to worry - not just for him but for myself. Khaled hadn’t told me earlier that he, as well as everyone else involved in this project, was active in Fatah. Now it seemed people like him were a target, and I often stayed in his flat.

That night, two of Khaled’s friends sit in front of an electric heater in his flat as he explains the story: (the short version) “We were all sitting around, it was late, maybe 2am. I said ‘let’s see the Saddam execution video’ so we looked online for the Saddam video. After a while, I got a call from Faleh. I immediately asking him ‘what’s wrong’ because his voice was very weak, but he just said ‘come over straight away’ so we dropped everything and drove straight there. When I pushed open the door at his house, I saw him lying on the floor in a pool of blood, like when they slaughter an animal. His kids and wife were there, looking at him, not knowing what to do. I tried bandaging him up, but eventually we had to go to hospital…[later] whoever it was, they knew exactly where he’d be, they knew his front door and what window he’d be standing at.”

Khaled and his friends then begin arguing the reasons behind the shooting, who they think was responsible. They each have their own theories: some say Hamas, some says another Fatah faction, some say Israeli undercover police. There are reasons for all of them, and each man had his own evidence. I tried listening, but could only imagine his family looking down at him, not knowing what to do. Faleh hoping his family was safe, maybe afraid of dying, maybe just afraid that his family was hurt. But they were looking down at him, the pool of blood expanding as they stood their, helpless, waiting for someone to show up. Outside the sound of a car speeding away.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Side by Side: Meanwhile, In Ramallah...

Earlier today, there were 3 attacks in the West Bank on Fatah officials: a kidnapping, the burning of a car, and firing of weapons outside a funeral, each designed to let Fatah know that if they didn’t back down, the situation in Gaza would spill over into the West Bank.

They were all supposed to be messages. Maybe the attack on Faleh was another message.

As we’re are all ready to leave for Abu Ghosh to begin our photography workshops, Khaled’s phone rings. He quickly switches the tv to Al-Jazeera and we watch, live, as the Israeli military rolls onto the streets. There are fire-fights in the streets, kids throwing stones at armoured cars, sporadic gun-fire. People are running through the streets with white sheets waving above their heads. The armoured cars move forward, they move back, they send in bulldozers to run over a few parked cars for no obvious reason.

Khaled seems most bothered by the cars. Sitting next to someone from Ramallah, he asks “Is that your car?” Khaled and the others in the flat begin to panic as the situation starts getting worse. They’re worried about their family and friends, I’m worried about anyone getting anywhere for the workshops now that the checkpoints are closed.

Every few seconds a mobile phone rings (everyone in this flat has at least two phones) with another panicked family member. “It’s okay, I’m in Ram.”
“No, I’m in Ram, it’s okay, talk to you later.”
“Don’t go to Ramallah! I’m in Ram, it’s okay.”
The only relief is the ring tones, punctuating the panic every few seconds, with an Arabic pop song, or that unavoidable Zamphir tune or, in Khaled’s case, a cover of “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)”

Every few minutes, people start come out of the shops and houses they’re hiding in, only for one of them to be shot and everyone to scatter again.

One of Khaled’s friends is speaking on the phone to his family in Ramallah. He can see, on the screen, what’s going on outside their door. “Stay inside,” he tells them.
“Okay, I think they’re pulling out” Khaled says watching the television.
“Oh, they’re pulling out,” his friend says into the phone,
“Oh, no, wait! They’re back!” Khaled shouts, hearing gunshots and watching more people scatter
“Stay inside! They’re still there!” his friend yells down the phone. It’s all feeding live into Khaled’s living room - we’re watching, hearing the police and ambulance sirens on tv, and now, outside the window of his flat.

I suddenly fear, as well as everything else, that this project is never going to happen. Qalandiya is closed, the only checkpoint any of us can use to get to the Abu Ghosh. If the violence spreads just outside the city of Ramallah, we’ll all be locked inside. For a few minutes, we each sit in silnce staring at the screen, each thinking his own fears and frustrations.

Khaled eventually decides to pack the car. The taxi drops us off at a smaller checkpoint just outside Ram and we carry the equipment, two flip charts, video projectors, photo albums, laptops, through in several trips. The Israeli soldiers don’t know what to make of me walking through the checkpoint, waving my passport, carrying two flipcharts under my arms. I smile and act chirpy.

When I come back through with the second load of gear, the guard motions for me to stop and asks “show me your passport”.
“I just showed it to you!”
“Oh, you’re the same guy?” he looks surprised.
There must be a lot of Palestinians crossing this checkpoint with flipcharts under their arms.