Kalandia – A Checkpoint Story

Qalandia_Norah_OrlowBy Sameh A. Habeeb

Ramallah, September 11, 2009 (Pal Telegraph) – I think that anything is worth writing about if it is filtered through an aware consciousness. I learned this from reading Billy Collins; I learned this from hearing the work of our former local poet laureate who is ageless and energetic in his eighties. He wrote a most amazing poem from observing life around him while waiting in line at a copy shop.

If Jenny Orvino’s observation holds for the written word, how much more so will this apply to the genre of the documentary. The Carl Rogers, author of Becoming a Person, wrote that it was not therapy in and of itself that helped people, but rather the personal relationship established between the therapist and the patient. In other words, we can only become fully human through our inter-relationship with other people. This documentary, Kalandia: A Checkpoint Story, serves as a path way to the viewer’s heart and mind through the sensitive “aware consciousness” of Neta Efrony. Engaging with the Other, she reveals their humanity amidst the unalloyed reality of life for all Palestinians living in captivity under the Israeli military forces. Efrony’s genius lies in actualizing the Chinese maxim equating one picture to a thousand words with especial clarity and poignancy.

Neta Efrony is an Israeli filmmaker born and raised in Jerusalem. She is thoroughly Israeli, having lived in her entire life and her background, training and culture is both a product and expression of the Israeli Jewish establishment. Yet it is out of this comfortable social setting that on retiring, she joined Machsom Watch, (Checkpoint Watch), an Israeli Jewish women’s organization which set as its goal the documentation of the treatment of Palestinians at Israeli army , four hundred or more of which desecrate the landscape.

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She has made it her duty to film there on a weekly basis and this documentary is the result of filming between the years 2002 and 2008. Efrony’s film work puts her beyond what is called the Jewish “consensus”, and it is only people who are willing to risk social approbation who have a chance of breaking through the tissue of official lies which permeate the Israeli body politic, as in all countries.

One is struck by the sparseness and starkness of both the style and the content – not one frame too many for a particular incident, not one word too many for an expressed comment. She tells us that she discovered compassion for all sentient beings through Buddhism, and in her art she seems to have absorbed both the detail and the discipline of Zen Buddhism. This documentary employs no pyrotechny to jump-start one’s emotions; no comments that send one reeling off-balance, either in anger or in despair; no special camera angles or chiaroscuro to manipulate images; no accompanying musical theme to tug at the heartstrings and no conjuring up of contrasting memories or images to lessen the devastating effect of the ordinariness of a daily event which creates so much obvious human suffering.

She allows the unimpeded eye of her camera to record the reality in front of it and from time to time the thoughts she shares with us seem to echo those very same thoughts in the minds of the viewers. Without fanfare, the daily tribulations of Palestinians are caught on the screen: the elderly and the sick, men and women, mothers and fathers struggling not be separated from their children, the herding and the pushing and the shoving, barriers appearing suddenly from nowhere, and the disembodied voices of Israeli soldiers barking out orders to people seeking to pass through the checkpoint, sending them scurrying from one locked and barred steel gate to another, like rabbits in a warren, unable to make head or tail of these commands.

These shots were nothing so much as exemplars of George Orwell’s Big Brother in his novel, 1984. An unmoving camera catches the bewilderment in children’s eyes when their parents were told to abandon them and enter another line, leaving their children unprotected and exposed to the loaded rifles of the soldiers. In one scene, on the first day of the Fast of Ramadan, the crowds are corralled behind an impromptu barrier, exposed to the heat of a merciless sun, after having being informed that it was forbidden for them to go and pray at the Haram al-Shariff, the Great Sanctuary of the el-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Neither the camera nor her voice hide behind any gimmicks: everything that appears on the screen is precisely what anyone going to a checkpoint can see and hear for him or herself. The greatness of this documentary lies in the respect for the reality it records and for its viewing audience.

Since Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the Israeli government has been absorbing more and more of the conquered territory into Israeli life: it has built settlements and connecting roads on Arab land for Jewish use only. It has expropriated agricultural land cultivated by Arabs for its own use while making extensive grazing areas inaccessible to Bedouin shepherds under the pretext of calling them “closed military areas”. The Palestinians have been distanced from their land, and their living space has been turned into Jewish Lebensraum. One of the means of controlling the population during this continuing dispossession has been the curtailment of Palestinian movement using the system of checkpoints. The West Bank and Gaza have been fragmented into non-contiguous areas whose overall pattern resembles nothing so much as shattered glass reflecting, with no irony nor metaphor, their shattered lives.

Kalandia checkpoint gives us only a sliver of the daily suffering borne by people separated by checkpoints from their work, hospitals, schools, families or houses of prayer. It would not be an exaggeration to say that at least one million people each day confront this traumatic and often frightening reality. I am not sure that we were shown more than fifty faces in close-up and yet the knowledge that this is only a tiny part of a much larger reality is emotionally overwhelming. What is stunning, though, is the dignity of these people under these tragic conditions, conditions which should serve as a profound rebuke to all of humanity. One of the men standing in line wondered aloud whether the Israelis knew that Palestinians were also human, and whether it was appropriate for one group of human beings to treat another group of human beings in such a manner. This question should challenge all those holding the power which makes such a situation possible in Israel and abroad.

A turn of phrase describing the documentary which arose in my mind spontaneously was “Black and White – in Color”. I looked it up to discover that it is the name of a French anti-militaristic movie made in 1977. The title is the first line of a song Le Chant du départ, a song of departure (don’t I wish!). For me the title conveys the clear and unambiguous nature of the checkpoints: there is absolutely nothing to commend or justify them and at least by my standards, and I would argue by the standards of Neta Efrony as well, they stand utterly condemned for their inhumanity and in their humanity. What is even more frightening, is that there is no special machinery or magic on the ground: it is all so banal, embodying Hannah Arendt’s unforgettable observation of “the banality of evil.”

Haifa Cinematèque screened the documentary on a Friday afternoon at 14.00 hours, a most inconvenient time both for those observing the Sabbath as well as for those who ordinarily prepare the de rigeur traditional Friday night dinner. One gets the feeling that this showing time was deliberate in order not to offend anyone’s political sensibilities. A great pity! But yet it was an almost full house. I have no hesitation in pressing for further showings both in Israel and abroad. Turning our heads away from the truth cannot liberate us. Only the truth can set us free.

“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you have seen it, keeping quiet , saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence.
Either way, you are accountable.”

Source: The Telegraph