The Palestinian – Israeli conflict continues to be one of the most highly contested issues of modern geopolitics. In Washington this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met for the first direct talks about the conflict in nearly two years.
Meanwhile, in Melbourne this week, I met with Maltese-Australian filmmaker Inka Stafrace at the European cafe.
In August 2006, Inka travelled to the West Bank to film the everyday experiences of Palestinian and Israeli people she met there. She spoke with Palestinian women and men, peace activists, Israeli soldiers, lawyers and aid workers.
Her two month journey became the film, Hope in a Slingshot. The film explores the issues of dignity, identity and the role of human rights in settling conflict. The film was released in 2008 by Ronin Films and has been shown at Parliament House, as well as being accepted at international peace conferences and film festivals.
Hope in a Slingshot was initially accepted by the ABC for broadcast but has since been rejected this year. Inka hopes the film can be publicly broadcast to offer all Australians an opportunity to understand the experiences of Palestinian people.
What sparked your interest in making a film about the Palestinian people?
I’ve always been an activist about different issues. In 2002, I met a woman who was Palestinian. When I met her I didn’t really know what Palestine was, I was very vague. The process [of deciding to make the film] was an incredible passion or furiousness towards what was happening and the way it was being depicted. The war on terror was pissing me off, I felt like it was a war on our civil rights and I couldn’t understand why everyone was getting involved. I was weary of what felt like a systematic process that was being funded by the government to incite racism against Muslims and Arabs. That scared me. So it was a combination of all those things that made me feel like I had to be an activist again.
There are many different terms used to describe the areas where you made Hope in a Slingshot. Can you tell me, in your own words, where you travelled?
I feel I went to the West Bank. I tried to go to Gaza but I didn’t make it. I was pretty blown away by how locked in they are. I spent some time in Israel and ironically I felt I could be a bit more myself. It’s westernized; the lights are on at night. In the West Bank, when the sun starts to go down you need to be home – unless you live in Ramallah.
Can you describe some of the daily activities and experiences of the Palestinian people you met?
The pressure the Palestinians are under to accept what is unacceptable, in terms of the injustice of who controls them, is enormous. The thing that blew me away more than anything was the imprisonment of the men. It was so hard to find a man who hadn’t been to jail. Also, people seem to be under the impression that checkpoints are about stopping you and then letting you through, but checkpoints are used to close people in completely for months at a time. Imagine doing that to an 18-year-old boy who has fallen in love with an 18-year-old girl in the other town? That is the most torturous part of the occupation. It interferes in every fibre of their existence.
Where you prepared for what you saw before you went?
I had a breakdown in Balata camp when I was interviewing some young Palestinian boys. You see all these people in jail and they also are born in jail. Each time they do anything they are so unfairly treated, their consciousness keeps having to be raised so they can forgive, move on and stay alive.
I want to take you to the point in the film where you are walking towards a closed checkpoint and Israeli soldiers were calling out to you. What were you feeling and thinking in that moment?
I felt a strong sense of conviction, I felt like I was it and people like me are the only people who can tell the truth about this situation. Paid journalists don’t go to the West Bank or only when the Israelis allow them to. I felt like I was in the middle of some great truth and I was damned if I was going to stop. But I did get very scared.
What was your experience of the Israeli soldiers? How willing were they to discuss their views with you?
The Israeli soldiers are there to follow orders. On every other level, you have a million different types of personalities and the conversations and attitudes reflect that. Some of them wanted to make sure I showed Israel in a friendly light, so they were extra friendly to me. At the time, I wasn’t impressed because I could see they weren’t being very friendly to the Palestinians. Some of them clearly preferred to be somewhere else. In general, they were well behaved with me and very badly behaved with the Palestinians.
How aware do you believe the Israeli people are of the situation in the West Bank?
Sometimes it seems like the whole Israeli society was affected by a kind of cognitive dissonance. While on one hand they are completely sane people, but when it comes to the Palestinians they seem to be sort of insane. They don’t recognise Palestinians as people and they don’t recognise international law. Very few seemed to recognise what they are doing and what is going on there.
In the final part of your film, a young Palestinian woman says she has seen so much death, so she knows how to love life. Did you see moments of hope and joy in during your time in the West Bank?
You see exhaustion and tired smiles, you see patience and acceptance. I can’t say I remember moments of joy.
What have been the reactions to the film since you have made it?
I didn’t set out to make something controversial for the sake of it. Quite simply, I was saying the truth. I’ve had Palestinians come up to me and thanking me for making the film which is nice. People think I am brave, but I reject that a little because I went there, but a child being brought up in the West Bank doesn’t have a choice to be brave or not. I want people to see what I am showing rather than be too involved in the fact that I did it.
It has been difficult to get the film screened on mainstream television stations such as the ABC. Why do you think that is?
Because this conflict is old, it’s kind of not ‘sexy’. It’s not new and people want to know some kind of new angle. I’m not Jennifer Hawkins – maybe if it was ‘Jennifer Hawkins goes to the West Bank’ they would want it.
For people who know about the occupation, it looks like I am spoon-feeding them by showing maps of Palestine and comparing them to other countries. But I made the film deliberately for people who have no idea about the Palestinian situation. I want the film to be shown on the ABC because otherwise if it’s just on the internet, I feel like I’m preaching to the converted.
Are you working on any new films?
Having people in the West Bank look at me like I could help them had a profound effect on me. I have one more film to make, which will be about the spiritual significance of Jerusalem.
Please note all photographs used in this post, except that of Inka Stafrace herself, are stills from Hope in a Slingshot.
For more information about Hope in a Slingshot, you can visit www.hopeinaslingshot.com.