Children’s hope of a better future

A new film looks at Palestinian youngsters and how their lives are impacted by the continuing Israeli occupation of their living and breathing space.

SIX-YEAR-OLD Dareen, from Silwan in east Jerusalem, gets a lesson in Palestinian national identity.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
SIX-YEAR-OLD Dareen, from Silwan in east Jerusalem, gets a lesson in Palestinian national identity.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We all have our challenges in life, the things that bug us or are even capable of causing us a degree of grievous damage. We may have a moan, for example, about our freezer malfunctioning or, God forbid, losing all our contacts on our cellphone. But, let’s face it, they are hardly existential problems, certainly not of the kind faced, for example, by Syrian refugees living in appalling conditions in some makeshift camp.
The same could be said for Palestinians living in the West Bank – aka Judea and Samaria. For simplicity’s sake let’s go with “the territories.” What do you do, as a Palestinian kid, when the only recreation space you have at your disposal is the street in front of your home? Apparently, you just get by and make the most of the circumstances. But what happens when the goalposts are shifted, and even that makeshift play area is taken over by IDF soldiers, some of whom may not be much older than you, carrying out some military exercise or mission, and behaving in a definitively unneighborly manner?
That is just one of the issues at the forefront of Children, directed by Ada Ushpiz, which will be screened at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival (December 10-20). The film, one of eight works that make up the Israeli Documentary Feature section, is actually called Yeladim in Hebrew – the generic male form of Children – which is something of a gender misnomer as the three principal characters are girls aged six to 12. There are, however, also two boys in the thick of the documentary plot, so the translated gender “inaccuracy” can be forgiven.
A veteran journalist, Ushpiz has accrued a couple of decades’ worth of documentary work as a scriptwriter, producer and director, winning a slew of awards from film festivals around the globe in the process. There is clearly a steady seasoned hand on the camera throughout Children, which runs to just over two hours.
There are numerous talking points in the movie, which primarily focuses on six-year-old Dareen, who lives in Silwan in east Jerusalem; 12-year-old Dima from Halhul near Nablus; and 11-year-old Jana from Nebi Saleh near Ramallah.
There are all sorts of subplots woven into the fabric of film, which, as the title infers, basically looks at Palestinian youngsters and how their lives are impacted by the continuing Israeli occupation of their living and breathing space.
There is another important issue here, that of parental responsibility and, indeed, the ability of any parent across the globe to protect their offspring from some of the more injurious aspects of contemporary life. That goes doubly for those living in situations of constant duress, when their freedom of movement and expression is largely forcibly constrained.
Ushpiz does not spare us the cold hard reality of what it means to be a child growing up in the territories. The opening sequence is pretty horrific on various levels. There is the painfully crass intrusive presence of the media as the preteen Dima is released from an Israeli prison and is reunited with her parents near an IDF checkpoint. The youngster and her parents are not afforded the “luxury” of a little privacy, to cry and rejoice at the reunion. But we quickly learn that it is not just hyped media interest that disturbed the natural familial flow; politics and the political capital to be gained from the child’s incarceration and release on the Palestinian side soon rear their Machiavellian unfeeling head.
“The occupation has turned all Palestinians into activists,” Ushpiz explains. “That’s a fact.” I don’t live with Palestinians, and I rarely cross the Green Line anyway, and the filmmaker is definitely more au fait with events in the territories and their impact on the inhabitants. So at this stage I will take her word for it, albeit with some reservations.
ELEVEN-YEAR-old Jana and 12-year-old Dima share a moment of happinessELEVEN-YEAR-old Jana and 12-year-old Dima share a moment of happiness
IN YEARS gone by I used to visit a friend on a weekly basis in Wadi Fukin, which is wedged between the rapidly expanding settlement of Beitar Illit and Tzur Hadassah, which has now become a small town. I got to know Khaled and his family and neighbors pretty well and, notwithstanding the tough time they had with the IDF and other Israeli security authorities over the years, they never expressed anything that remotely suggested an activist position. That said, I am no longer in touch with Khaled, and possibly the mood in Wadi Fukin has changed in the meantime.
So what I, as a parent, construed – or misconstrued – as Dima’s parents’ failure to protect their daughter from being used as a pawn in a regional political chess game, is viewed very differently by Ushpiz. Presumably that also goes for Dima’s parents.
“The parents didn’t ask for all the media to be there when they met Dima. The media scrambling to make the most of such events is not just a Palestinian thing, it’s the same all over the world,” says Ushpiz. “But it’s true that the parents are very interested in Dima getting recognition for everything she did.” We are told Dima was arrested by the IDF for threatening to kill an Israeli soldier, to which she freely, and happily, admits.
Ushpiz appreciates the problematic nature of the brouhaha kicked up over the 12-year-old and the need to protect the youngster’s tender soul, but points to the trying circumstances in which Dima and her family live.
“You have to relate to all of this in the context of a society which, day by day, is becoming increasingly mobilized to defend itself, protect its narrative and fight against the occupation.”
The historical narrative of the Palestinians is clearly a strong focus of the educational system in the territories too. We are shown footage of Dareen’s classroom in which the teacher takes great pains to bolster the children’s patriotism, and longing for an independent Palestinian state. Ushpiz does not see that as brainwashing or subversion.
“They [Palestinians] are looking for ways to protect their nationality. We are living in an era when nationality and nationalism are considered to be important.”
There are further-flung historical reasons for that.
“Nationalism did not come out of nothing,” Ushpiz continues. “It grew out of the French Revolution, as a means of protecting nations.”
Like Dima, Dareen is exposed, even at her very tender age, to the harsh reality of life around here, which also leaves its rough imprint on her own refuge, when her family’s home is subjected to a none-too-gentle nocturnal search by Israeli soldiers. The older members of her family, particularly her father and older brothers, one of whom has been arrested by the IDF on several occasions, discuss the situation openly, in Dareen’s presence.
Jana is a completely different kettle of fish, and adds a welcome ray of light and youthful innocence and insouciance to the documentary. The 11-year-old is a budding journalist and even has an interview session with Dima, whom she befriends.
Children is not all doom and gloom, and does not present a black-and-white one-dimensional picture of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. There are some touching scenes in there, too.
Despite her sadness and frustration at the way things are, Ushpiz says there is hope.
“The Palestinian children have absolutely no faith [in the possibility of peace with Israel]. But I believe in historical processes. I don’t believe things can’t be changed. I saw that during the course of making the film. My interaction with the characters constantly corrected their outlook, and I got the same from them.” Hope springs eternal.
Children will be available online from December 11, and will be broadcast on the HOT 8 channel on January 17.