On Film

Pamela Nice.

Closing the School Doors: Curfew’s Hidden Impact

Secret Hebron: The School Run

Director and Producer: Donna Baillie

The Cinema Guild, 2003

28 minutes

This short documentary uncovers what seems to be a secret kept from the world, in spite of the amount of press given to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: The education of an entire generation of Palestinians is being jeopardized through the curfew policies of the Israeli Defense Forces in the West Bank.  School children are prevented from attending schools due to the curfew policy, which requires them to remain in their homes. Schools are closed by IDF fiat; teachers and students are harassed and even beaten on their way to and from schools.

British filmmaker Donna Baillie exposes this situation in her film through undercover camerawork; interviews of children, parents, doctors, teachers and administrators affected by the policies; and through contextualizing statistics from international sources.

The film is framed and punctuated with a phone call from the filmmaker to the IDF, asking for clarification of its curfew policy regarding schoolchildren. Curfews in the Occupied Territories can last for months at a time, resulting in long-term disruption of education. The completion of one grade level can become impossible. Not only are a vast number of days missed, but when students are able to attend school, they suffer from an environment that inhibits learning. Classes may be combined due to the inability of a teacher to get to the site, and often students are distracted by the presence of soldiers near or on school grounds, or by their ordeal of having evaded these same soldiers on the way to school. These are the hidden effects of the intifada that are seldom acknowledged or discussed.

How do the children get to school? Baillie’s camera follows them as they climb house walls, sometimes slipping on the ladders if it’s raining; cross between roofs on precarious planks; and dodge soldiers when making the inevitable street crossing.  It’s a dangerous journey that she chronicles simply and without added drama. The children are obviously at risk, and we are provided with a sense of their terrifying environment when Baillie interviews the Israeli soldiers on patrol, some of them, she states, “hardly more than children themselves.” When asked why they prevent the children from going to school, a soldier replies, “If Arabs go to school, they will just teach them anti-Semitism.”

The headmaster of one school responds to this sentiment: “If we want to teach them peace, they must come to school. In the streets, we can’t teach them anything – just how to throw stones. That’s what I see.”


Arab, Jewish Teens Wrestle With Stereotypes

Fire Within

Director:  Richard Berman

The Cinema Guild, 2004

90 minutes

This film documents the 2002 program of the Jacobs International Team Leadership Institute (JITLI).  For two weeks each summer, JITLI brings together 30 teen leaders from three diverse groups: American Jews, Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. (The last term is JITLI’s descriptor; the Arabs in the film identify themselves as Palestinians.) The goal of the institute is to help the teens form relationships that hopefully will dispel stereotypes they have of one another. The teens are filmed taking part in various activities in Spain, where they meet; visiting historic sites and group member’s homes in both Jewish and Bedouin communities in Israel; participating in cross-cultural exercises; and engaging in dialogue about contentious issues.  Interspersed in the film are interviews with individual teens and institute leaders about their views as they progress through the two-week program.   

The film is most successful in delving into the resistances one group might have when confronted with a perspective they don’t understand from members of another group.  One such case is when the American Jews discover that the Israeli Jews do not know how to pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  Yet the American Jews do.  The Israeli teens feel their nationalism more strongly than their religion. Another example occurs when the Israeli Jews fail to understand the frustration of the “Israeli Arabs” with the singing of the Israeli national anthem, which describes a land of freedom. The young people are shown candidly discussing their views and their emotional responses as they wrestle with the experiences that separate them.

The film’s greatest value is in showing how the teens grapple with both internal and external resistances to understanding the “Others” in their program.  Their honesty is refreshing, and we believe in the friendships they develop across their cultural divides, which have been tested by painful awareness and challenges. Though very affecting in this sense, the documentary has limited classroom use because of its length; condensing the promotion of the program at the end of the film would have helped solve this problem.


A Typical Day in the Life of an Iraqi Child


Boy of Baghdad

Producer and Director: Saba Al-Moswi

Award Films International, 2004

67 minutes

In this film, which exists only as a DVD, we follow what appears to be a typical day in the life of a 12-year-old Iraqi boy, Kheer Allah, in August 2004. We see how burdensome life is for him and his family, as they struggle to survive in war-ravaged Baghdad. The segment in which his distressed mother speaks of her isolation and despair is most affecting. But though the film is effective in showing daily realities, it suffers from a staged quality in scenes and dialogue that lessens its power. It is further hindered by a translation of the boy’s words that portrays him more as an educated adult than as a child who, according to his own father, is illiterate. The director strives too hard to arouse pity for his subject, especially through his overuse of Kheer Allah’s extended walks through the marketplace, talking of toys he can’t afford.  Some judicious cutting would have served the filmmaker’s purpose better, trusting the audience to see the deprivation in these lives without belaboring it.

Exiles in the Promised Land


Forget Baghdad

Writer and Director: Samir

Arab Film Distribution, 2003

111 minutes

“Forget Baghdad” is a film about memory, and this irony is evident from the beginning narration by filmmaker Samir. Neither Samir, born in Iraq but raised in Switzerland, nor any of his subjects, who currently reside in Israel and the U.S., will forget their cultural identities as Iraqi Jews. Samir’s film creates a scrapbook of the lives of five Iraqi Jews, including culture and film critic Ella Shohat, and is filled with so many visual materials that it is, at times, confusing in its detail. It is nevertheless a gentle and moving tribute to the filmmaker’s father and to those Iraqi Jews who, like him, weathered the passage from Iraq to Israel after World War II.

What is in this scrapbook? There are vintage newsreel excerpts, with a British narrator offering Orientalist interpretations of Iraqi politics of the time and of the Iraqi émigrés’ experience in Israel. We are given clips of Israeli and Egyptian films of the era, which dramatize the plight of the Iraqi Jew in Israel and love between Israelis and Arabs, and cuts from popular American films – all of which present stereotypical images of Arabs. These cultural artifacts, along with personal photos from the subjects’ own scrapbooks, provide a cultural context of 1940s-1950s Iraq and Israel, within which the subjects’ personal stories are told in extended interviews. Since many of the memories are of an Iraq during and immediately after World War II, the editing aesthetic calls to mind that time period. Editing techniques include a largely neutral palette, the fading circle close, the use of manual typeset in the titles and the overlay of close-up portraits with favorite landscapes of the subjects.

Tying it all together is filmmaker Samir’s narrative, a voiceover which evokes memory as a device in itself, but which also relates Samir’s father’s experience to that of four of the Iraqi émigrés to Israel: Shimon Ballas, Moshe Houri, Sami Michael and Samir Naqash – all now in their 70s, except for Naqash, who passed away recently (see Al Jadid no. 48).  Like Samir’s father, they were members of the Iraqi Communist Party who immigrated to Israel after WWII to escape persecution by the Iraqi government.  Samir’s voiceover offers context and creates links between the stories and themes, just as one might elaborate on photos in an album while turning the pages. It is as though Samir is trying to create a memory of his father’s migration through the photos, news items, films and memories of his subjects.

Many themes are touched upon in this film about memory: the submerged cultural identity of the Iraqi Arab in Jewish Israel, shortly after its founding; the relationship the émigré has with his native language, which has become the “language of the enemy”; the Ashkenazi/Mizrahim split in Israeli society (referring to the Western European and Oriental Jews, respectively), which increased the alienation of some of the Iraqi emigres; the different ways each subject has integrated into Israeli society; and the various relationships each has had with the ideals of the Communist Party of his youth.

The section on Ella Shohat is somewhat set apart from this main memory line – several pages, as it were, on a female counterpart of the narrator himself.  The theme here is the cultural identity of the children of the Iraqi émigrés to Israel. Shohat’s stories from her childhood are sensual and immediate: throwing away her “stinky Iraqi” sandwich on her way to school so she wouldn’t be teased by her classmates (though she secretly loved its smell and flavor); being afraid to bring school friends to her home because then they would discover that her family spoke Arabic; sensing that “to be an Iraqi was to deploy the identity of the enemy.” She also speaks of the refugee experience of her family, which, however traumatic, paled in comparison with the Holocaust of the Ashkanazi Jews, who  formed, as they do now, the majority of the Israeli population.

The most evocative and unforgettable pieces of this scrapbook are often the metaphors used by the émigrés themselves to describe particularly painful memories. Sami Michael describes what it felt like to view on CNN the bombing of a beloved bridge over the Tigris River during the First Gulf War. This bridge held great emotional significance for him: he had gone over and under it many times; he had first kissed his fiancée on that bridge. As he watched it break up under the bombing, he said, “I felt like a Bedouin looking at his best horse that had just been killed.”

Because Samir sometimes overlaps so much visual material on the screen, it can be difficult to take it all in and read the subtitles as well. The film perhaps attempts too much. It succeeds admirably, however, in evoking a specific period in time and recording an experience often submerged in the larger Israeli narrative of the Promised Land. For the Iraqi Jews forced to migrate to Israel after the nation was established, Israel was ironically a place of exile.


The Devil’s Bargain

About Baghdad

Producer and Director: Sinan Antoon

Arab Film Distribution, 2004

90 minutes

In July 2003, three months after the “fall of Baghdad,” Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi now living in the U.S., returned to Iraq to record the Iraqi reaction to the American removal of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent occupation of their country. Antoon had fled Iraq in 1991 because of Saddam’s repressive regime. This film not only documents the views of Iraqis from a wide variety of backgrounds, but also shows Antoon’s very personal relationship with those who suffered the oppression he had fled.

What Antoon finds is that most Iraqis are grateful that Saddam was removed from power, but few have patience with the U.S. occupation, which has failed to live up to its promise of economic recovery and stabilization.  We hear the voices of many, but the comments tend to fall along these lines: there is little electricity and water; sewage systems are still broken; there is no security –looting is widespread; unemployment is extremely high; there are shortages of medicines, hospital supplies and gasoline; and most Iraqis resent America’s presence in the streets and its position as a governing power. They see the U.S. action as a grab for Iraqi oil.  Because such opinions were expressed so many times, the film could have been improved with some cutting.  It also, of course, suffers somewhat from being “old news” now – the intervening years since the interviews have seen the reiteration of these views even in the U.S. media.  On the other hand, it is unfortunate that the U.S. public didn’t hear more of these reactions two years ago. 

“Baghdad did not fall.  Baghdad was occupied,” says a schoolgirl.  “It used to be Saddam around the clock on the three TV channels.  Now it’s Paul Bremer,” says one woman.  A common refrain is that Iraqis don’t want an Iraqi émigré to lead their government; they want someone who stayed and suffered with them.

Antoon does a good job of presenting the Iraqi view of the reign of terror under Saddam. Too often this perspective is slighted by critics of the sanctions and the invasion.  Iraqis talk of mass killings, imprisonment and torture that did not spare women or children.  Particularly harrowing is the testimony of Laheeb Nu’man, a female lawyer who has been imprisoned and tortured since 1982 for calling Uday Hussein a criminal.  After recounting some of her experiences in prison, she says, “It would have been better if I had been executed.  I withstood torture no man could have endured.”

Though some Iraqis blame the U.S. for supporting Saddam’s regime in the past, most are more critical of other Arab governments, who also knew about the mass crimes but did nothing to help the Iraqis. “No Arab newspapers wrote about Iraqis in mass graves,” says one man.  “Arab governments create slogans to fool their citizens – Arab leaders are illegitimate.”  Why didn’t an Arab country come to “liberate” them? they ask.  “Who do I hold responsible [for the state of Iraq today]?” one man in a café asks Antoon, and then answers himself, “First Saddam and then the other Arab countries.”  But, he adds, “This occupation is not easy. I will not live a life of humiliation.” 

Footage of Baghdad’s streets, mosques, educational institutions and hospitals show the effects of the extensive U.S. bombing campaigns and tank attacks.  This is the landscape of war in Baghdad today.  We see American soldiers close to their tanks in the streets, and Antoon talks with some of them.  For the most part, they come across as well-intentioned “employees,” as one Iraqi describes them, who either believe in the U.S. mission or seem confused by it.

A taxi driver challenges Antoon’s blaming of Bush for the mess in Iraq: “As Iraqis, who is responsible for us, Bush or Saddam?” Antoon asks. “Had you been in Baghdad these last 10 or 12 years,” says the taxi driver “you’d say if the angel of death came here it would be better than Saddam Hussein.” Another ex-soldier concludes, “The one who made it all possible is Saddam.” But it is a nameless man in a café who most eloquently describes the bargain Iraqis made to rid themselves of Saddam: “My brother, listen, the pressure we’ve endured for 35 years has knocked us off balance.  We are only human. We are a mass of nerves. This could only lead to a breakdown. . .You could say all Iraqis are schizophrenics . . . We lost our balance, so we’ll take anything, even if it’s from the devil or the enemy.”

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 52 (Summer 2005)

Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid

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