Saturday, 24 July 2010

It's Enough To Make You Believe in Conspiracies

Doing preliminary research for an investigation in Israel, I was sitting in the Wellcome Trust Cafe with two other colleagues. We are looking through our notes, discussing the structure this film will take, comparing ideas, characters, concepts, leads. A man walks directly to our table, it looks like he's just walked into the cafe, and stares intently at our notes. He's craning his neck so obviously that two of us laugh at how blatant he is. He makes no attempt to hide his staring. He then sits at the table right next to us, opens his lap top and starts a loud conversation on his phone.

"I was in a Palestinian refugee camp a year ago," he's saying into the phone. "My friend is a doctor, he was there delivering a baby, and he was burned to death! I had to hold his skin back!" He starts repeating the same line over and over again. It begins to seem like he's having this conversation for our benefit, but we're trying to ignore him, carrying on with our work.

He has the conversation again. Louder.
"I was in a Palestinian refugee camp a year ago. My friend is a doctor, he was there delivering a baby, and he was burned to death! I had to hold his skin back!"

The same conversation. Maybe he's not getting the response he wants from us. After a few minutes of this, he leans over to our table and yells,
"What about the British government, investing £7million in Darfur, where up to a million women have been raped! Why aren't you doing anything about that?"

I can't tell if it's a rhetorical question, or if he actually expects an answer. Often, when I'm working on a film, people yell ideas at me. "Why don't you do a film about this!" But they usually mean it as a passionate suggestion, rather than an accusation. This was starting to sound like an accusation.

The man is starting to sound unstable. He's not having a normal conversation, but he's stuck repeating the same story.

"I'm Jewish, a Jewish friend of mine - a doctor - went into a Palestinian refugee camps a year ago to deliver a baby, and he was burned to death! I had to hold his burned skin back!"

"I'm sorry to hear that," I reply.

"No you're not."

Now I know he's not just giving us a suggestion for another film.
He goes on:

"There have been 15 UN resolutions, 14 of them against Israel! Why are you only concentrating on Israel! What about everything going on in Darfur, you people are doing nothing about it!"

Earlier, I was calm. It was slightly amusing. Now I'm starting to lose my temper. Empty accusations. Questioning my morality. It's not something I take lightly. I ask what makes him think he has any business listening to our conversation and getting involved. I ask who he thinks he is morally judging us without knowing anything about us.

"You know nothing about me, or where I'm coming from or what I'm doing." I tell him.
"I don't care. You're an anti-Semite! You're all anti-Semites!" he points to my colleagues at the table with me.

I have to roll my eyes back and look up to heaven in disbelief that he would make the anti-Semite comment less than one minute into our argument. He is revealing himself as a lunatic. We're both yelling loud enough now to get the attention of other people in the cafe.

"I'd be more than happy to have this conversation once you've seen my film" I offer "but at this point you have no idea who I am to start calling me an anti-Semite."

"You're either an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew." He replies. "I'm a liberal Jew and I'm also a filmmaker and me and my friend went into a Palestinian refugee camp one year ago and my friend was burned to death," he starts telling the story again.

Security arrives. The man at the nest table starts to get nervous. Security asks what's going on. I tell him the man - out of nowhere - is accusing me of racism. Security asks us both to calm down. The man now starts to get nervous, saying "It's ok. It's ok," but I'm too angry at this point to let it go.

"It's not ok," I reply. "You're accusing me of being an anti-Semite and you know nothing about me. I'm not ok with that." Security gets in between now, urging us again to be calm and pointing out that other people in the cafe are getting nervous.

The man tells his story again, about his friend the doctor getting burned alive.

I can feel, welling up inside me, real anger. The only way I can calm myself down is to end the conversation now. As we move to another table, he says again "anti-Semite". He strokes his gray beard, adjusts his glasses. I know the best thing to do is move to another table, it's the only way to diffuse the rage inside me.

Security comes to our new table, and says thank you for being more reasonable than the other man. There's obviously something wrong with him, he says, and you guys seem to be the more responsible party. My job is to make sure everyone in the cafe feels safe.

But there are still some unanswered questions. I have to wonder how he knew, as soon as he walked in, that we were talking about Palestine and Israel. Why did he decide to sit right beside our table and have what now seems to have been a fake phone conversation, several times over, about his friend the doctor? Why would he accuse us of anti-Semitism immediately? Who was he? Does he know what we're working on? It's enough to make you believe in conspiracies...

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