Friday, 26 June 2009

On a hill in Hebron

"Have you been to Hebron before?" Yoav asks, sitting beside me in a large transit taxi, driving out of Jerusalem.
"You're in for a treat," he chuckles.

Everyone has heard about Hebron - the anomaly in the Palestinian/Israeli landscape. Around 600 settlers live in the centre of a city of 170,000 Palestinians. The handful of hard-core settlers are guarded in turn by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, and the centre of town - off-limits to Palestinians - is a dead zone. All the shops on the main market street are closed, shutters pulled down over doors and covered in graffiti. We drive through a series of checkpoints, but no one stops us in our taxi with yellow license plates. The roads are completely empty. We drive through H2 (the zone of Israeli settlements) to H1: the zone theoretically under Palestinian control, but still peppered with settlers in Arab houses. It's a short walk up-hill to Issa's house, but under this sun and my heavy backpack - full of my cameras and microphones - I'm struggling. I'm also out of shape, that doesn't help my endurance much.

Issa's house is being used as the headquarters of a media project supporting the use of video in monitoring human rights abuses. So far, hundreds of cameras have been handed out across the West Bank, and these hundreds of Palestinian volunteers have provided invaluable footage to international news broadcasters, as well as filmed crucial evidence for legal appeals.

Now I've been brought here to raise the skill level a little and encourage the participants to start thinking about directing their own short documentaries, representing their own lives and revealing the human details of existence to an international audience that often has little understand of the ordinary, banal, daily life of a Palestinian.

The participants here know exactly how the international news media portrays them, and what's missing in the picture.
"People don't understand us, they don't see us as human beings."
So we talk about simple stories. Your family. Your neighbours. What it's like getting water from the well every morning. What it's like farming next to a settlement every day. Very simple stories, the sort of thing many of the participants would just overlook, but exactly the kind of stories that people outside Palestine need to see to understand the humanity of the situation.

It's not a easy project, and this isn't an easy idea to sell to everyone. Fadi leans forward, resting his elbows on his legs, and scowls at the group. He's a big guy, tall and wide. Even with a baby face, and his round bald head, he can still look intimidating. Fadi volunteered for the project, and he's enthusiastic about filming, but he's also angry.
"Why should we film? What's the point? Am I going to open a case against the Israeli courts? Then what happens? Nothing. If my son is being beaten, what am I going to do, just sit back and film it?"

Good question, of course. I'm not here to convince anyone that this project is going to save their lives and end the occupation, and I tell them that. I'm not here to tell them to stop everything and just film from now on, and I'm definitely not asking them to put themselves in danger to get evidence. But, amidst the politics and violence here, in the middle of all the pressures and strains, there is suddenly a very small possibility for Palestinians to take ownership over their own representation for once, to tell their own stories rather than having them told for them.

It's a tiny gesture: pick up a camera and film. But it can have massive consequences. I talk about how the footage is broadcast around the world. I talk about how much support the project has in the UK. I talk about the capacity of the participants to tell a story that no one would otherwise ever hear.

I realise quickly that I don't need to tell them all this, because there are others in the group already convinced of the project's potential. They tell Fadi their own stories. They describe what they filmed and what it feels like to finally hold a crucial piece of evidence when, for so long, the Israeli police and courts have asked - in answer to any complaints - "where's the evidence."

But I also know my limitations. "You know better than me what your lives are like. I can only tell you how to use this camera, where your footage goes, and what impact it can have. The rest is up to you."

"But we know the media is controlled by Zionists" they complain. It's an oversimplification I hear over and over again in Palestine, and I'm sick of hearing it. Not only because it isn't strictly true (the media is controlled by capitalists...) but because it's a phrase often used over and over again just to absolve us of our responsibilities.

"Whoever controls the media," I answer, "Maybe this is your chance to take back some of that control..."

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