Jeremy Hardy talks about his partner Katie Barlow's new film about occupied Palestine
I HAVE to declare an interest from the outset, because Visit Palestine was made by my partner Katie Barlow. I first met Katie in July 2002 when she worked as a camera operator on the documentary Jeremy Hardy v the Israeli Army, a jovial film depicting my attempts to take part in the activist of the International Solidarity Movement.
I had already decided that the West Bank was not a place I wanted to hang around in for long, but Katie seemed to be shocked and smitten in equal measure. When I returned to England, she stayed on. She started to get to know families in Dheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem and made two short films there.
She also heard about an activist in Jenin called Caoimhe Butterly and saw images of her blocking the paths of Israeli tanks as they fired over her head. Katie was determined to meet and film her.
Caoimhe was different from most of the activists Katie and I had me, in that she lived full-time in Palestine with no plans to go anywhere else. She had integrated into the life of the refugee camp and was pretty much fluent in Arabic. All of the activists I knew were brave, committed and intelligent people but most would come to Palestine for a few weeks at a time and then return to their countries, to get on with jobs or college courses and to rejoin their families.
Most of Jeremy Hardy v the Israeli Army was filmed in April and July 2002. April saw the beginning of the big onslaught when the army swept through the whole of the West Bank to crush the Intifada. In Bethlehem, where I was staying, I was with a group of ISMers who became trapped in the Star Hotel.
It was there that I got to know Mary Kelly who was later one of a group of activists that managed to get inside the besieged Church of the Nativity, where they stayed for several weeks. The next year, Mary was part of the peace camp at Shannon airport where she was arrested for damaging a US plane bound for mayhem in Iraq.
It was perhaps because there were hundreds of foreign activists in Bethlehem that the Israeli Army was comparatively restrained there. Jenin suffered very badly. Fighters in the camp resisted for two weeks, but the battle ended with a whole section of the camp being bulldozed, women and children crushed to death in the rubble.
This is the point at which Katie's film begins, Caoimhe recounting the horrors she encountered when the tanks pulled out. Footage of the aftermath of the battle was supplied by local journalist, Ali Samoudi who features in the film and who supplied some other footage, as did activists; although the vast bulk of the film was shot by Katie over two and a half years of trips to Jenin. It was edited on a laptop in Katie's flat in Brixton, Caoimhe taking part in the process and sleeping on the sofa. Caoimhe, like many international activists, is now barred by the Israeli authorities and cannot go back to the West Bank.
It was necessary to include Caoimhe in the process of selecting material because she was very particular about what was to be kept in and left out. There were arguments and the final edit was a compromise. Because she could no longer get back into the country and there were things she hadn't covered in interviews, Katie decided that Caoimhe should narrate the film. This is one of the factors that makes Visit Palestine unusual. It's about Caoimhe and Caoimhe is also the presenter.
That might make it sound as though the film is a vanity project, but in fact, it isn't ultimately about Caoimhe. A number of people speak about her in the film. Without them, it would have been impossible for Katie to convey how much Caoimhe is adored in Jenin, how intense is her involvement with its people and how much authority she has to speak about them.
But it is those people who are the stars of the film. They are mostly women and children, for the simple reason that their men-folk are in prison or in hiding; but the fact that the voices are young, or female, or both, does not soften the film.
These are angry, defiant, articulate and politicised people. Some are, to use a word that has become dirty, radical. But there is also a very clear yearning for peace. Even when teenage girls speak about "martyrs" and their will to prevail, it is obvious that these are not people who thrive on conflict.
There is also a recognition that Israelis suffer too because of the conflict, but as Caoimhe points out and the film makes clear, this is not an equal battle between two warring tribes; it is a fight between occupier and occupied.
The issue of civilian Israeli deaths is not dodged, however. As Caoimhe arrives back in Jenin - one year after being shot in the leg and leaving to recuperate, then doing an international speaking tour before heading to Iraq - Hanadi Jaradat blows herself up in Haifa, taking 21 people with her.
We meet Hanadi's mother and her sisters. We hear how her brother was shot dead in front of her for no discernible reason a few months earlier. We see the ruins of the family home, which is immediately destroyed after the bombing in a routine act of collective punishment. We wonder if any of her beautiful and articulate sisters will undertake suicide missions as well.
Above all, we listen to ordinary people, given space express themselves without being steered or censored. So often watching a documentary one feels that the film-maker has already decided what he or she wants people to say.
Human beings, especially in conflict zones, are reduced to appearing as tragic victims, ranting fanatics or chic, gun-toting heroes with fashionable headgear. If this film is partisan, it is because it champions humanity. It is a beautiful film, to watch and in spirit, and I am proud to have made the tea.
For further information about the film visit www.visitpalestine.info
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Copyright © 2006 Jeremy Hardy