Reflections, Reviews – Document Film Festival 2015

The Document Film Festival runs each year for a weekend in October, showcasing a variety of films on human rights issues. On Sunday, I saw Irit Gal’s Fading Valley which dealt with the contentious issue of water in the Jordan Valley. The Jordan Valley is an area of fertile farmland in the north of the West Bank, the majority of which is in Area C and therefore under full Israeli control. Palestinians are further restricted as much of the area is designated a military zone, a tool in the Israeli arsenal of terminology.

We are introduced to the huge disparity of circumstances in the area at the very beginning of the film: 10,000 Israeli settlers in the area receive 80% of the water, whilst 80,000 Palestinian residents receive 20%. Deft camera work simultaneously captures the dramatic landscape and documents this inequality. Palestinians look on at Israeli settlements using water for landscaping and leisure whilst they struggle to access enough to survive. One man comments, “They can’t say it’s a military zone for our grapes and not their flowers.” As the film continues it further demonstrates the daily struggles of life under occupation, aspects which seldom make international headlines: inability to access schooling; house and building demolitions; unemployment; as well as water shortages are depicted by various locals and Israeli activists.

One of the most powerful aspects of the film is how it portrays the dilemmas and difficult decisions locals are forced into. Several men are forced to take work on settlers’ farms for extremely low wages, whilst others turn to illegal methods to access water for themselves and fellow Palestinians. Families despair of what the future holds for them, but one father reminds his son that, above everything else, he must not sell their land. For a people who have been suffered generations of humiliation and provocation, their enduring presence is at times the most powerful resistance.

Next up was Superior Orders, a film which looked at the Hungary-Serbia border and the reactions of communities to the influx of refugees seeking a better life in Europe. The film centres around two characters: a Serbian pastor, who brings food and supplies to refugees camping out in harsh conditions before they try and cross the border into Hungary and the EU, and a member of the Hungarian Civil Guard Association, a voluntary organisation which tries to intercept refugees crossing illegally along the border.

As the film follows the two protagonists along their daily duties, they delve into their motivations. The pastor, Tibor, opens up about his own experiences of moving to a new place as a child, leaving him like an outsider ever since. He envisages the refugees as people who have never been loved or cared for, and he wishes to remedy this (though the refugees themselves express their loneliness at the very fact they have been separated from loved ones).

István explains to his grandson that he is “catching the bad guys”. He later expresses a more nuanced and sympathetic opinion, talking about how he wishes life was better for the refugees in their homelands. Nevertheless, he maintains that there is simply not enough room for them. You can’t but wonder why this basic reasoning wasn’t conveyed to his grandson, instead of placing the seeds of xenophobia in a child’s mind.

The film provides an interesting insight into the narratives of two people in separated by a border and by attitude. Released in 2013, it’s poignancy has only increased as issues around immigration become more polarized – complimented by stunning aesthetics. Night shots still manage to pick up interesting details; the scenes of refugee campers lit by sunrise and camp fires manage the same feat. One of the most memorable moments of the film is when we witness the capture of 3 Malians and 1 Ghanaian on the border during night. The tension leading up to the moment is palpable, as is the fear and surprise of the refugees when they are caught. It exposes the harsh reality of what is actually involved in the daily to and fro across the border, a reality which has only grown harsher since.

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This is Exile: Diaries of Child Refugees was nominated for the International Jury Prize award and it was not hard to see why. The most powerful and memorable film of the day, it told the story of Syria’s war and the upheaval and trauma endured by refugees through the eyes of its youngest victims.

We are exposed to the physical reality of the conditions they face in Lebanon – leaking tent homes, no education, injuries, attacks on their refugee camps – and also the mental impact of their situation on both their families and themselves. Particularly moving was Nouredine, the youngest child interviewed, left with a stutter after his house was bombed during the siege of Homs. His fear of Assad is near hysterical and when their camp is bombed by the Lebanese Army he is convinced that is ‘Bashar’ following them wherever they try to flee.

Nouredine’s feelings toward Assad demonstrate how the complicated and fraught politics of the Syrian civil war intersect with the children’s lives. 13 year old Layim is reprimanded by a parent for referring to Islamic State as ‘Daesh’ whilst he battles with his own desires for revenge against the torture he has seen, and is able to show to the camera via recordings on his dad’s phone. Another young boy proclaims his undying faith and loyalty to Assad and even tells his older brother, Mustafa, that he would shoot him if he cursed Assad. Mustafa’s story is tragic in itself, but all the more so because it is the fate of so many Syrian children; as the film develops his hopes for a bright future and education deteriorate in tandem with the reality of his situation. He gives up his schooling to work in construction to help his family, simultaneously relinquishing his own dreams.

The children are divided on whether or not they wish to return to Syria. Some channel all their hopes into the prospect of return whilst others would rather forget. Conceptually, an identity formed around homeland emerged in each film I saw. The Palestinians of the Jordan Valley are treated like outsiders in their own home, but their connection to the land is what keeps them resilient. Tibor’s own experience as an outsider led him to empathy whilst István remained resolute in his attitude towards refugees as outsiders, as different, and as a threat. István’s attitude is, sadly, not uncommon. Fatima, an injured Syrian girl, comments, “Some people are dying and others just don’t care about it. There is no compassion.” At the end of the film, Fatima and her family move to Switzerland and she finds the happiness and care that eluded her in Syria and Lebanon. She works hard at learning German and is enthusiastic about her new life, leaving her difficult past and identity behind. Her story shows us how important it is that people take notice and prove her words wrong.

Susannah Fitzgerald

http://2015.documentfilmfestival.org/