Sparked by the bombing of her childhood home, and fueled by unjust imprisonment and the exile of her husband, Naila’s political ideals become essential to her identity. Rather than choose between family and community, she instead recognizes the inextricability of self-determination for Palestine, Arab women, and herself.
As men of the occupation opposition are deported en masse, women step into leadership roles, bringing innovative, peaceful tactics to the movement. A surreptitious network of daughters, wives, and sisters secretly distribute leaflets in loaves of pita and bags of spinach, and buttress the inseparability of women’s rights and national sovereignty. The nonviolent precepts of community education and resistance weave together a vibrant, steadfast mobilization.
In addition to traditional interviews and archival footage, Bacha employs phantasmagoric animation to fill in historic context. Its fable-like aesthetic and featureless faces invite the viewer to imagine yourself as a player in this ancient strife. The timeless theme of liberation echoes a parable, both Biblical and Quranic.
Director Julia Bacha on films for change,and going beyond the festival circuit
Julia Bacha didn’t predict the last 14 years of making films to support the peaceful movement in Palestine and Israel. After co-writing and editing Control Room (2004), about the inner-workings of the Arab satellite channel, Al Jazeera, the Brazilian-born filmmaker assumed she would turn her attention elsewhere. But a chance encounter and more exposure to regional dynamics revealed a trove of everyday champions in the shadows, dust-covered histories, and a local urgency to fill under-documented truths.
Bacha is the creative director at Just Vision, an organization that supports, amplifies, and galvanizes grassroots, nonviolent efforts of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation. Through digital media, documentary, and direct programming, their diverse scope inspires action on the global stage and among rooftop audiences in the communities where they film.
Bacha’s most recent work, Naila and the Uprising, chronicles the tumultuous life and resilience of Palestinian Intifada organizer, Naila Ayesh, as her personal experiences and political efforts dovetail in the 1980s.
Can you talk about the process of coming to the story of Naila, and what it was like getting to know her, and gaining her trust?
I’ve been working together with a team at the nonprofit Just Vision for 14 years in Israel and Palestine. This is the fourth documentary film that we made, all of which focuse on the civil society leaders that are using nonviolent resistance to end the occupation. And in the process of all these years, all the activists on the ground that we’ve been documenting have been urging us to talk about the first Intifada, and to really uncover the history of what’s in place, particularly in terms of the women’s leadership, which has been hidden from the sight from most of the international community, and Palestinians themselves. The younger generation has not heard what happened during that time. So we started a research process about 4 years ago. We interviewed dozens of women and men on the ground who were part of the uprising. And gradually we were really drawn to Naila’s particular story because of the arc of what she experience encompasses so much of what it feels and looks like when women join a resistance movement. We really wanted to make sure that the full scope of what Naila and her colleagues did there, as well as the aftermath of what happened during the negotiations phase, became part of how we understand Israel and Palestine today.
How did you approach her about starting the project? What was her reaction to being featured?
Because we’ve been working for so many years on the ground, we know a lot of the activists. Our producer, Rula Salameh, was a very young woman—she was 15 years old—during the Intifada, and was very active herself. So, she knew Naila, and she knew most of the women we interviewed already. There wasn’t a lot of work needed in terms of gaining trust because the trust was already there. Unlike some teams that parachute in and then out of conflict zones to make films, we have teams that are in the conflict—they live there, and their families are there. So the storytelling is very much embedded with the production team itself.
Your films Budrus and Naila and the Uprising emphasize the women who have been at the vanguard of Palestinian resistance. Why do you focus on, and return to the women who have been involved in these movements?
I think that, similarly to what happens in other parts of the world, women tend to be either written out of the history of the protest movements, or sometimes not written into them in the first place. But in fact, women tend to really form backbones of sustaining movements because of the role they play in their communities and in their families. And erasing them really does a disservice to all of us, because there’s plenty of anecdotes and social science research that prove that when women are actively engaged in protest movements, and when there is a focus in gender equality as part of the ideology of these movements, the protests tend to lead to more democratic and peaceful societies in the long term. So what we’re doing by erasing women from these protests movements is really preventing us from building communities that can be peaceful in the long term, and that can avoid conflict in the long term. So, writing women into the history is a really critical first step if we want to build a future that is pluralistic and inclusive.
There are conflicts happening all over the world at any given time. What is it about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and Middle Eastern politics, that continues to hold your attention?
The truth is that I did not grow up thinking that I would be dedicating my life to supporting the peaceful movement in Israel and Palestine. I grew up in Brazil, and it was a coincidence how I ended up there in the first place 14 years ago. What has kept me there, over the years, and one film after another, is the sense that we’re making a difference. If I felt that we were telling the stories and it wasn’t having any impact on how people were talking about Israel and Palestine, or how people were acting in relationship to Israel and Palestine, I would probably have moved on. I have lots of interest, like anybody else, and there are a lot of things that I’m passionate about, and that I would love to make films about. But, I do make movies to make change, and the team at Just Vision that we have created over all these years, makes it possible for the films to work beyond the film festival circuit, beyond the broadcast date, and deep into communities. And I really love that. That’s what keeps me going.
What happened 14 years ago that you first encountered the Israel/Palestine conflict?
The first film that I ever worked on is called Control Room, and it’s about the Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera, and how they covered the war in Iraq in 2003. And when that film came out in the U.S, a human rights activist saw it in the theaters, and called me and said that she wanted me to work with her on a film she was doing in Jerusalem. My first reaction was no way. I didn’t want to get involved in that! I felt there was too much attention being given to Israel and Palestine, and there were other stories that were invisible, and that needed more attention. I didn’t understand the dynamics yet, and what was happening on the ground. So the first time I went there, I was astounded to meet incredible Palestinian and incredible Israelis who were risking their lives and their livelihoods in order to build a peaceful future for both societies. People were really incorporated and acted on values that I think most people around the world also share, and they were invisible. So I became very passionate about making them visible.
Can you talk about—especially now in this era of manic and fake news—what you see as the role of documentary film as a strategy for fostering productive conversations about violent and divisive issues?
Documentaries hold a special place on the continuum of art and journalism. And I think it’s a really wonderful place that human beings respond a lot to. There’s something in our psyche that makes us attuned to narratives and stories. There’s plenty of scientific research that says if you want to change someone’s mind, don’t tell them facts, tell them a story. Documentaries are very good at that—we tell stories. What we do differently from fiction films or other forms of art that involve storytelling, is that we have a journalistic ethic as well. So, we feel that it’s very important to tell the truth. We combine storytelling with the truth, and that’s really powerful because the human brain responds to story, and with true stories, you can help people have a better grasp of what the world looks like around them. I think the more documentaries become a popular medium, and the more people can see documentaries, the better off we will be for building a global community and building empathy for each other.
I was really struck by the animations in Naila and the Uprising. It made the film feel like there was a universal moral to it. Can you share what your intentions were with the animations, and how you developed that style with the animator?
It’s my first time working with animation, and I’m absolutely in love with it. I was afraid of using animation—I didn’t know how it was going to combine with the archival footage, and whether it would feel complementary with all the different styles that were going to have to be brought together. We were very lucky to find the team of animators that we found. We did an open call a couple years ago, where we provided a scene of the film, and asked animators from around the world to suggest styles of animation to tell that particular story. And the moment I saw Sharron Mirsky and Dominique Doktor’s work, I knew right away they were the ones I wanted to work with. It was clear. I just looked at it and it clicked—nothing else would work. We talked about what were the key themes that we needed to have animated, and what were the most important moments. And it was a really exciting, creative process going from the rough drawings and doing the designs for the different characters, up to adding the final color—it was a really thrilling experience.
What was it about their style that you knew the fit was right?
It was the dreamy nature of it. It allowed you the put yourself in those scenes. It gave you just enough information to understand what’s happening, but not too much that it separated you from the images. I felt that that was what we needed to make people identify with the stories we were showing on screen.
Naila and the Uprising takes place chronologically before Budrus. Did documenting these moments out of linear historical order inform how you see the politics of the conflict?
At first we wanted to look at activism in contemporary terms, and then based on feedback from the activists, it became very clear that unless we corrected history, it would be very hard to move forward with a new narrative for Israel and Palestine. And the first intifada became the key historical time that needed a corrective. And that’s what made us decide to go there.
Your films span rural and urban communities. Can you talk about unification and the separation of Palestinian countryside vs cities, and how the politics spans those different settings?
I think in different historical times it means different things. Currently, unfortunately, the West Bank is divided in 3 different areas by Israel—area A, B, and C. And Palestinians in these different areas have limited ability to move between the different areas. They’re frequently separated from their families by the wall that cuts across the West Bank and divides communities. Villages tend to be in Area C, which is completely controlled by the Israeli military. People there live on full-on occupied areas. Area A is very urban, and has heavily populated areas. Those cities have some degree of self-management—Palestinians perform the daily functions of sweeping the streets and running the hospitals etc, but they can’t leave the city. They’re prisoners inside their little enclave, which really reminds you of apartheid South Africa. So that’s the biggest challenge right now for Palestinians to unite—there are so many artificial divisions that have been created—that were created in the Post-Oslo period, as a result of Oslo, in fact, because of poor management of the negotiations, and because women were excluded. Now we’re in the situation we’re in.
What are the dynamics you experienced of being a female filmmaker in the Middle East?
The big advantage is that you have greater access to places that are more female spaces. And the disadvantage is that you are subjected to the Israeli army, which uses sexual harassment and all those things.
What did you do in situations when you were harassed by Israeli military?
There’s not much to do to mitigate it. The main thing is that they’re trying to use interrogation opportunities for intelligence gathering. You just shut your mouth and don’t say anything. But it’s very hard. I’m completely traumatized by it. But it’s very small compared to what Palestinians go through.
Have you received resistance to your films from Israeli government officials or citizens who might see them as anti-Israel?
Yeah, the issue is highly controversial, and divisive. We’ve been incredibly lucky—and that’s the result of the fact that we work with both Palestinians and Israelis at the grassroots level—working with people who are basically asking for democratic pluralism. It’s harder to attack our storylines because they’re so inclusive of the future, that attacking them goes against values that people like to say they agree with. In terms of whether the Israeli government is happy with the films we’re making, they’re obviously not.
What are some other specific examples where you’ve seen your films serving to bring Israelis and Palestinians together?
Budrus was used a lot by Israeli activist groups as a recruiting tool for more Israelis to join in resistance activities. We saw a very clear link between the film Budrus and the film My Neighbourhood, which was about a resistance movement in Sheikh Jarrah, the neighborhood where we have an office in Jerusalem. And that movement was heavily attended by Israeli activists. And, part of the recruiting strategies that they use was they were doing rooftop screenings in people’s buildings across Jerusalem and Tel Aviv of Budrus. They would show the film and would say ‘by the way, there’s a movement just like that happening just ten minutes from here. Do you want to go there next Friday?’
I was really struck by the female Israeli soldier in Budrus —we see her on the ground expressing these reservations about using force, especially with Palestinian women. She was such an interesting character because she was right on the intersection of many different social dynamics. What was it like talking with her?
Our Israeli producer did the interview with her in Hebrew. She was very clear that she wasn’t regretful about anything that she did. I think her main point was that if she were on their side, she would be doing exactly what they did. She completely understood what was going on, but felt that she had a duty. She can’t quite see how she gets out of that position, but she was very clear eyed about how just the cause of the population of Budrus was.
I just kept thinking she represents the quagmire that the region is in. People on both sides might see the perspective of the other side, but they might still be stuck in one camp.
I think there are different levels of support in different communities to take a stand. I think for her to take a stand would be in opposition to the mainstream way of behaving, and she wouldn’t have any support. And that would be very isolating. I think people are able to take stances that are more challenging to the accepted behaviors when there’s some degree of support. That’s why movements can grow so fast when they reach a tipping point. The growth can be very very slow at first, and feel like it’s not going anywhere. But as soon as you reach a certain amount of people that allow hundreds of thousands of others to feel like there is now community to take that stance, then that growth becomes exponential.
What’s Naila’s attitude toward the future?
It’s a very difficult reality on the ground. But overall, you see individuals who are activists in their nature and in their blood. I think there’s a strong commitment and belief that we’re going to keep fighting, and eventually we will get our independence.
Who are you favorite or most influential female documentary filmmakers?
I love Sarah Polley and her film The Stories We Tell. That’s definitely my #1. She’s an extraordinary artist.