Coming clean

Irit Gal’s ‘White Night,’ to be screened at Tel Aviv’s DocAviv, follows Arab cleaning women who cross into Jerusalem during the night from the Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem.

Irit Gal 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Irit Gal 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
While our film industry has picked up in recent years, our documentarists have been churning out quality products for some time now, as evidenced by the standard of material presented in the annual DocAviv documentary film festival throughout its 14-year history.
This year the event takes place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and the Tel Aviv Museum from May 3 to 12 and, as usual, offers a wide range of engaging themes and issues.
Ask any documentary filmmaker what they need to fuel their craft (besides financial backing, naturally), and they will simply say a good real-life story. That is available, in abundance, in this part of the world – often in the documentarist’s backyard.
That was certainly the case with Irit Gal’s new film, White Night, which will be screened at DocAviv on May 8. “The film was spawned by the fact that I live in Jerusalem,” says Gal. “I noticed that there are a lot of Palestinians who knock on people’s doors asking for work. I saw that they generally arrived at dawn, and they did not have a permit to work in Israel so they must have, somehow, found their way here at night.”
White Night looks at the female side of the illegal Palestinian worker equation. “The film is about women who come from the Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem, who are second- and third-generation refugees,” explains Gal. “They are all the breadwinners in their families – divorcees, widows, or have husbands who are unable to work.” According to Gal, the women have numerous obstacles to overcome – physical, political and cultural – in order to keep the wolves at bay. In Arab society, traditionally women do not go out to work, but the subjects of Gal’s film have no choice. “There is no one else to bring in money in their households,” says the director, adding that in recent years, the nominally short trip from the Palestinian Authority to the Israeli side of the Green Line has become an increasingly challenging odyssey.
“All their lives, for these people, Jerusalem has always been their metropolis,” the director continues.
“It is the place they always came to for medical treatment, for various supplies and to work. Now, with the security wall going up, it has become very difficult for them to get into Jerusalem.”
This is amply portrayed in White Night. Over a period of about two years, Gal and her experienced cameraman son Daniel joined a group of about 10 women as they searched for new ways to get into Israel and to make it to their cleaning jobs in the capital. “The women leave home at 2 a.m., and that’s after they’ve got food ready for their children and cleaned and done other domestic chores,” says Gal. “And they work all day cleaning other people’s homes and buildings. I don’t know how they keep going.”
Gal says she soon discovered just how tough it is to keep up with the cleaners. “There was a long climb up Mount Gilo and I really had a hard time getting up there. The women had mikes on them, [and they forgot] I could hear everything they said, but later in the recording I heard one of them say ‘let her [Gal] suffer, so she can see what we have to do every day.’ That was funny.”
Considering the undercover nature of the women’s daily treks, it is not surprising that it took a while before they agreed to be filmed. “I didn’t just turn up and say ‘Hi, I’m Irit, I want to film you’ – I had to gain their confidence,” says Gal, who understands Arabic.
With the help of a number of contacts and go-betweens, the women gradually became attuned to the idea of the documentary and Gal began to make regular trips to Dehaishe to do preparatory research work and get to know the women. “I’d get in my car and drive over there, as naturally as I pop over to Azza Street [in Jerusalem, just down the road from Gal’s home]. It takes me about seven minutes to get to Dehaishe; mind you I drive very fast, but it takes the women all night to get to Jerusalem.”
The documentary is not just a story of doom and gloom, and there are many touching and even comical moments in White Night, as the women share stories of their tough lives and pepper their accounts with humor. There are even moments of “normality” as, on one trek over, the women discuss fashion and how much Israelis spend on their clothes compared with the average Palestinian. The women’s sanity, in a seemingly insane situation, comes through in vignettes, such as when one woman jokes about how clothes made in Bethlehem carry “made in England” labels. “Who do they think they are fooling?” she notes with a laugh.
Gal says she gained insight into how things really work and, despite the security fences, barbed wire and IDF presence, into the tacit delicate balance that exists between the authorities and the infiltrators. “I spent so many nights on the security fence that I learned to read the game plan of how things work in reality. The IDF and the authorities all know the Palestinian workers come in without permits. Har Homa was built by Palestinians, and most were illegal, but the IDF allows them in because, quite simply, Israel needs that source of cheap labor, and they are better workers than the Chinese or the Turks or anyone else.”
Mind you, IDF complicity is not a given. “There are jeep patrols, and chases which sometimes involve dogs and sometimes horses too. One of the women was caught by an IDF dog,” says Gal. “But I don’t think all that is really to stop them getting into Israel, but more about scaring them.”
The women’s lot is further compounded by social mores. “The men cross over once a week,” explains Gal. “They sleep over on building sites and other places, but Palestinian society does not allow women to spend the night away from their homes. So they have to go through the same ordeal every single day just to get to work. Anyway, they are considered by Palestinians as rebels, rebelling against the rules of society. It’s a very complex situation for them.”
Gal says she discovered a lot about how “the other side” lives, and that’s the message she wants to convey primarily to the Israeli public and also to the outside world. “Most of us go about our business as if nothing is happening very close by, on the other side of the Green Line. Our Israeli way of life has such a strong impact on the lives of other people.”
At the end of the day, she says, it is a very human story and she hopes viewers can set their politics aside.
“I hope that even people who have strong anti feelings will, for a short while, see how these people live. I think that can only be of benefit to us all.” •
White Night will be screened at DocAviv, on May 8 at 8:15 p.m. at Tel Aviv Cinematheque 3, and there are plans to broadcast the film on Channel 10 in the summer. For more information about DocAviv: (03) 624-1797 or