Sunday, 28 November 2010

3 Million People. Is It Possible?

Mustafa wakes up at 6am, heading to Paris for an interview to determine his asylum status, to determine if his claim is real or not. I wake up with him and film the rituals. Packing your bag is a ritual. Praying is a ritual. I wish him good luck, now that his life here in France is in the hands of a panel of assessors.

A demonstration today in Rabat, against the call for a UN investigation into the recent violence in Western Sahara. Salah and Hossam are entranced by the television coverage. There is Moroccan news, celebrating the nationalist demonstration. They say there are 3 million people. Is it possible? Other news outlets call the number "inflated".

What strikes me the most is that the protesters hold up placards with a red hand, the hand of Fatma, and the words "Don't touch my country" written above. I recognise those placards. They were used in May of 2003, when a series of deadly bombings - a phenomenon that seemed to be seeping across the Arab World - first hit Morocco. Morocco had never seen anything like it. I stood with the crowds, staring at the bombed out hotel the next morning, in disbelief. "We don't deserve this" they thought. Then, they were right to say "Don't touch my country" to the bombers. But now, those words seem out of place, misused.

Around sunset, I want to film Salah's neighbourhood. He says it's not safe to film outside, the guys that hang around the building - he says they're drug dealers - and the other locals wouldn't like it. But it's necessary. It's a simple request, to film the outside of his building at sunset. No people. No names. Just the building. But everyone approaches me with questions. The first man is just curious. In my broken French, I explain the film, and what I'm doing here. He admires the camera. The next person is more aggressive. A boy, he only tells me to stop filming, but instead I have a discussion with him about the film. If you want me to stop filming, I'll stop, I tell him. But I only want to film the neighbourhood, nothing else. He seems satisfied. Later, an older man shows up with two of the boys who are in front of Salah's door every night playing cards by the light of a gas heater. He may be their father. He's a mixture of curios and suspicious. When he finally seems satisfied with my explanation, he asks "why isn't Salah here with you? Why are you here alone?" as if to say 'this isn't safe for you.'

I only manage two shots, between the children jumping in front of the camera, and the questions. When I go back inside the flat, Salah seems surprised. "You went outside? It's not safe." I know. But it had to be done. How can I tell this story without filming the outside of your building? In the back of my mind, though I don't say it, I'm thinking "I've been threatened at gunpoint in Gaza for filming, interrogated and followed by Hezbollah, intimidated by a Burundian general for asking the wrong questions. I think I can deal with a few neighbourhood drug dealers." I can't, of course, but these experiences offer a cloak of invincibility, a false sense of security. Often those most mundane and insignificant dangers are the ones that get us in the end.

Later that night, as if to prove Salah's point, the police raid the building looking for some of those boys.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Avignon, the second day

This neighbourhood of Avignon is compact, buildings back to back. They look the same. The taxi driver who brought me here from the train station had to look at a map to find the exact location of building 28. I ask the teenager standing by the front of the building if he knows Salah, and he leads me to his door.

Salah's flat is compact - a one person flat, now with his brother and cousin living here. Now we are four in this space, a living room/kitchen and a bedroom. There's no privacy for any of them, no chance to be alone. Now I understand what Salah meant when he told me, in the refugee camps in Algeria, "I feel free here." I didn't understand it at the time. I thought it was rhetorical, a conceptual freedom. But it was real. There are no walls there. No clocks. No identical high-rise council blocks. No paperwork for refugee status and unemployment benefits to take care of.

The three - Salah, his brother Mustafa and his cousin Hossam - are in the flat most of the day. Salah leaves only to run, or to buy food for the family. Otherwise, they are permanent residents of this space. Cuban, Algerian, Sahrawi and Basque flags are spread out across the walls. Shelves lined with Salah's trophies. In the next room, watching television, Mustafa yells to his brother to come quickly whenever Western Sahara is mentioned in the news. Salah is in front of his computer, connected to forums, online news and radio stations with news of Western Sahara, the protest camp and international condemnation of Morocco towards the demonstrators. He is immersed in that world.

"I need to rest," he tells me. "I've been travelling so much lately, and now thinking about 'the case' all the time." 'The case', they call it. It means everything. The occupation, the camps, the violence, decisions of the European Parliament, family, everything.

But he runs, outside, in the cold, in the rain. He runs with his friends, on the track and on trails along the river. 20 minutes later he's back in the car, driving to building 28 again.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

To Paris And Avignon

I travel to Paris for the first time in around 17 years. The last time I was here, my friend was attacked in the streets - blood pooling on the pavement - and taken to hospital. I watched, stunned. This time was much less dramatic. I fell asleep on the train in London (slept only four hours, in fits, the night before ) and woke up in Paris. I texted Mohanad, another Palestinian filmmaker, previously living in London, now living in Paris on an artist's residency.

We walked through the halls of his dormitory (once a hospital - perhaps that's the connection to my previous visit to Paris) and spoke about revolutionary cinema. He referes to Paris 1968, and the Palestine Film Unit, the use of the image, propaganda, structuralism, Vertov and the notebook. But Mohanad says the spirit of the artist is dead. This is the building where the students of 1968 would meet, in the common room. But they closed the common room then, and it never opened again. Now the students here talk about art, he says, but without the same spirit.

We get a visit from Dominique, himllef of the era of French revolutionary film. Now his focus is Palestinian cinema. He wears round glasses and drinks herbal tea. He draws a timeline on the wall of Mohanad's studio.

Later, around the corner from Mohanad's flat, we meet Raed, also a Palestinian filmmaker. We sit drinking coffee and beer and eating falafal. Are we "a movement" now? The three of us? Three Palestinian documentary filmmakers in Paris? I will say that we were, suddenly and temporarily, a movement. We have yet to decide on a name. We talk about feature films, Producers, cameras, therapy. We watch films online and get excited by the capacity of other Palestinian filmmakers to create. Even under the most difficult of circumstances. Raed watches the latest material from The Runner and asks me to keep in touch about it. He might know some people who would be interested.

Into the rain, we walk quickly to a bar around the corner. Qadr's bar. An Algerian, Qadr has served and danced with people like Cheb Khaled and Nas El Ghiwan in this tiny bar. We drink Calva - liquor made, I think, from apples? - sipping it in tiny glasses like Moroccan tea. I can barely keep my eyes open, I'm falling asleep.

The next morning, up early again for the train to Avignon. The sun doesn't rise for another hour after I board the train. Like the Eurostar, I fall asleep as soon as we pull out of Gare de Lyon, only managing a few pages of Conversations. Two Egyptians are talking quietly in the seat in front of me. Two French teenagers squeal a loud conversation for the entire journey. But I don't mind. I'm gone. I wake up as we pull into Avignon. In Avignon, the air is beautifully clean. The sun pierces through the thin, cold atmosphere. I haul my luggage and camera equipment into a taxi to meet Salah - in his flat - for the first time since we filmed together in Algeria in February. Now we are about to continue filming. This, I tell myself, is the start of the real production of the documentary. Everything previous was development.