Israelis and Palestinians make very different movies about water
Nine jointly made films show the eyes of beholders can see very different things.
By Nirit Anderman | Jun.03, 2012

After 30 years in America, Kareem Hamid went back to his roots.

He and his wife returned to the small, luscious green meadow fed by a nearby wellspring that his grandfather had discovered. In the heart of a lemon grove in Aboud, a village in the West Bank, Hamid built a pool, turning the place into a modest “country club” for the locals. Visitors pay a symbolic NIS 10 entry fee to frolic in the cool waters and forget their daily travails.

In one of the scenes in the documentary “Kareem’s Pool,” directed by Ahmad Bargouthi, the pastoral image is shattered. A group of yarmulke-wearing settlers refuse to pay the entry fee and break into the grounds. Some are armed. “It’s too expensive,” the settlers tell Kareem, then turn their backs on him and proceed to splash in the pool.

More and more come. By now there are a few dozen of them. None have paid. They act like they own the place. A group of gun-toting IDF soldiers escorting the settlers look on passively.

This scene, filmed with hidden cameras, is at the end of the film, without subtitles or voice-over narration. Those are made redundant by the power of the imagery.

Water, water everywhere, now try to share nicely

The documentary “Kareem’s Pool” is one of nine films participating in the “Water” project which premiering Monday (June 4th) in the International Student Film Festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. All nine films were made by joint crews of Israelis and Palestinians – or in some cases, Israeli Arabs.

Students from the Department of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University were invited to participate alongside filmmakers from the territories. Palestinian directors worked with Israeli camera and sound people; Israeli directors, with Palestinian or Israeli Arab crews.

All filmmakers were given complete independence and funding for their projects. The only condition was that the film had to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and involve the theme of water.

The project was modeled on a similar endeavor two years ago which brought together Israelis and Palestinians to make films connected somehow to coffee.

Because of the success of the “Coffee” project, which was shown in roughly 90 festivals worldwide, says project initiator and artistic director Yael Perlov, she scored more funding for this year’s festival. Whereas “Coffee” was produced with NIS 70,000, the budget for “Water” was NIS 600,000.

While 25 filmmakers had submitted their candidacy for “Coffee,” Perlov received about 120 proposals this time.

“About 70 students took part in the production of the films and came to the meetings we set up with the Palestinian participants in Tel Aviv and Bethlehem. Besides the cinematic interest, it’s important to me politically, because when you participate in a project like this something inside you awakens.”

The choice to focus on water was originally motivated by cinematic considerations, Perlov says. “Water is nature, and that’s what I wanted, to put nature rather than the city in the movies,” she says. “It was only later that I discovered that this was also the United Nations’ International Year of Water, and that it’s a hot topic politically. When I told Bargouthi that that was the theme of the project, he laughed and said ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what the next intifada is going to be about.'”

Bargouthi, 35, was born in Beit Rima in the West Bank, and currently lives in Ramallah. He works as a producer and editor on Palestinian television, and teaches editing in the college in Ramallah. He hails from a prominent Palestinian family whose best known member is Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah commander and initiator of the second intifada who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail.

“As a Palestinian, water is one of the things we are most concerned with,” Bargouthi explains in a phone interview. “This is in part because of the occupation and Israeli control over our water sources, which causes frequent interruptions in the water supply to our towns and villages.”

Dropping out because they can’t get in

Out of the seven Palestinians who submitted scripts for the project, Bargouthi is one of only two who got to the finish line and actually completed a film. The others dropped out for various reasons, among them, the difficulty in getting entry visas to Israel. There was one young woman from Gaza who submitted an excellent proposal, but had to quit because of the bureaucratic hardships, notes Perlov.

Bargouthi says that the project gave him the rare opportunity to present Israelis with the Palestinian point of view.

“It was important for me to make that film because I wanted to show you the reality we live in, the fear. As Palestinians, we document our lives and we show it mostly to our own people, to people in Europe and people in the world, but this project was an opportunity to present the situation, as it’s seen through our eyes, to the Israelis as well,” he says. “These are two populations that since the erection of the separation barrier don’t know anything about one another. I decided that I wanted Israelis to know that there are people here living, suffering, that they have a story [to tell].”

The Israelis’ cooperation is what enabled Bargouthi to prepare for the settler raid on the pool, the cornerstone of his film.

Maya de Vries, who produced the “Water” project with Kobi Mizrahi, conducted Internet research. She found settlers’ websites, where some posted remarks about the pool’s location and coordinated their visit there. That enabled Barghouthi and his crew to prepare for the invasion, to station the hidden cameras at the right time, and prepare the owner for the situation in which he was forced to face 70 settlers and armed soldiers on his own.

When nothing happens and it still hurts

While the Palestinian filmmakers preferred to make documentary films on the hardships wrought by the Israeli occupation on West Bank residents, the Israeli directors chose to make feature films. Of the more interesting ones is “Still Waters” by Nir Sa’ar and Maya Sarfaty.

The film shows a Tel Aviv couple from Tel Aviv on a nature hike to an isolated, pretty spring. Their passion is soon interrupted by a group of Palestinians.

They examine the Israeli couple, and the two Israelis, in turn, tense up at the sight of the invaders.

Almost nothing happens throughout their meeting, but the encounter in itself manages to create a wrenching tension, the kind well known to everyone who lives in Israel.

The plots in the Israeli films are all based on real events that happened to the directors, Perlov says. She didn’t plan this in advance and didn’t tell the young directors to look for such stories, but was nonetheless happy when this happened. “I wanted them to create out of passion, and I knew that if it came from their experience, they would soar with it, it would burn in them,” she says.

“Two years ago we were hiking in a little spring near Beit Shemesh,” recounts Sarfaty. “And then some [Palestinian] guys showed up. Later we realized they were illegal migrants. At first there were two, and then three more showed up, and then four. At the end we found ourselves surrounded by about 30 people, all male, from the ages of 15-60, and most spoke no Hebrew. We could only speak with one of them, who spoke Hebrew,” she recalls.

The thoughts and sentiments brought about by this encounter served as the basis for the film they created. “The two of us think of ourselves as liberals. We’re not racist, we have no prejudices,” adds Sarfaty. “Still, in this situation we were scared, worried and on our toes. Very quickly we started debating whether to stay or leave. At the end we chose to stay. This little minor, human encounter became for us [a symbol of] a meeting with the ‘other’ — with the ones whose existence we are aware of, but never really meet.”

The couple’s fear and tension is relayed through subtle body gestures, slight expressions and mostly through exchanged looks. When the conversation between the two sides starts to heat up, it’s not clear whether things about to explode.

“There was something very typical of Israel in the encounter,” says Sa’ar.”In one second you go from an ordinary, relaxed, romantic spot to being in survival mode. After all, our choice to stay there could have turned out to be a huge mistake. The Palestinians came to the spring to drink [water]. It was a hot day; they were in the middle of a long walk from Bethlehem to Beit Shemesh, and after a few hours of walking got to the place, finding the water to be polluted. So both sides changed in an instant to survival mode, like two tribes meeting by a water basin.”

A common vision

After the films are shown in the student film festival, the project will head to Jerusalem for presentation in the international film festival in July. From there it will begin its tour abroad.

An international distributor has already purchased distribution rights and plans to show it across cinemas in France, and release it on DVD. Both the Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers are due to make an appearance in many of the screenings in Israel and abroad, to introduce their films and engage with their colleagues and the audience.

“If every side stays in their own corner, we will never be able to resolve the conflict between us. To me, getting to know the conflict and the other side is already halfway towards finding a solution to the problem,” says Bargouthi. “It’s important to prove that we can work together, live as neighbors, as friends, and work as a team. After all, we have a common vision: My dream is to end the occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state and your dream is to live safely in a state of your own. This project may be a very small step on the way to a solution, but I believe that doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing at all. We’re not going to resolve the conflict, but at least we’ll create a landmark of dialogue.”