Getting behind the camera

Insightful new films that record Bedouin life have been produced by Israeli filmmaker Uri Rosenwaks, the head of the Israeli Documentary Forum.

Yusra Abu Kaff 521 (photo credit: Daniella Cheslow )
Yusra Abu Kaff 521
(photo credit: Daniella Cheslow )
LIKE MANY GIRLS WHO grow up in the shantytowns dotting the Negev desert, Yusra Abu Kaff seemed destined to cut her education short and tend the family flock. When she was in tenth grade, Abu Kaff’s mother locked her schoolbag in a closet so her daughter would not be tempted to go back to class. But the high schooler was determined to graduate; she stole her bag and sneaked off to class several times a week until her parents caved in months later.
Other girls were less lucky. Abu Kaff heard of two who committed suicide in desperation and she explores their bitter fate in “Burned Notebooks,” a nine-minute film she directed about the frustrated young Bedouin girls of the Negev.
In “Notebooks,” Nura, wearing a long black dress and a black headscarf, explains how her parents forced her to stop school despite her protests. Abu Kaff’s footage shows Nura gathering tinder for fire, coaxing ashen embers to life, and walking with mottled white and brown sheep across the flat, barren land of the Negev. An older woman concedes that girls today want to study, but says of her daughters, “There’s no way I would send them to college.”
Abu Kaff’s film and three other shorts (all directed by Bedouins) make up “Back and Forth,” a documentary released in July that provides an inside view into the lives of these poverty-stricken and under-educated people. “Back and Forth,” screened at cinemas around the country, on Israeli television and at international film festivals, has brought the plight of the Negev Bedouin, who number about 155,000, to national attention.
Abu Kaff is a soft-spoken woman who chooses her words as though she will be punished for any mistakes. She is slow to smile and reserved. In an interview on the grassy campus of Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University, she quietly rages at what she sees as the impossible choice – between rebellion and ostracism or utter submission to men – that Bedouin women are forced to make.
“Our society is patriarchal. Men always rule women,” she says. She looks at her long denim skirt; her head is wrapped in a purple lace scarf. “I really don’t agree with tradition at all. These clothes are also tradition and I don’t like it.”
Besides, she says, herding sheep for hours in the sun quickly loses its novelty once a girl realizes that she is missing her education. Her work aims to show that frustration, she says, and maybe even bring about a change.
“I want to let women be freer,” she says.
“I want them to have hope. There is always a way.”
“Back and Forth” is the second documentary about Bedouins produced by Israeli filmmaker Uri Rosenwaks, who is head of the Israeli Documentary Forum. Raised in the southern city of Beersheba, Rosenwaks has fond memories of wandering the desert with friends and stopping at Bedouin encampments for coffee and companionship.
Since 2004, he has frequently driven the hour and a half from his home in Ramat Gan to teach aspiring young filmmakers how to shoot and edit in Rahat, a Bedouin city in the desert, near Beersheba.
In addition to Abu Kaff’s film about girls in school, the other works deal with a local election campaign, a British animal lover married to a man from Rahat, and the dangers faced by Bedouin who love to plunge into the waves of the sea even though they don’t know how to swim.
AWKWARD SHOTS, SPOTty lighting and uneven story lines mark some of the films clearly as student productions. However, the short pieces capture the poverty, paternalism and rigid social norms of the community. At the same time, they also show the moments of joy: a child’s first day at the beach or kids petting a fluffy white rabbit.
Rosenwaks, 46, is one of Israel’s most celebrated documentarians. He works systematically and quickly, the product of a long career working on tight schedules. He studied film at Tel Aviv University and is now pursuing a master’s in Near East studies.
Rosenwaks spent 15 years directing investigative reports for “Uvda” (Fact), a “60 Minutes”-style television news program. In 2008 he won the Pratt Prize for Environmental Journalism for “State of Garbage,” a look at why Israelis litter. He has also directed lighter fare, such as “The Food Trail,” a 33-part TV series on cuisines in Israel and around the world.
But he wanted to do something with more impact, he explains, and that is why he became involved in Rahat. He admits times have changed since he roamed freely through the desert, as a result of what he views as the misguided government policy that settled the Bedouin in cities like Rahat, their problems further exacerbated by soaring birthrates and rising crime.
Rosenwaks first became involved in teaching Bedouins when his high school principal in Beersheba suggested that he make a film about Rahat. Rather than making the film himself, Rosenwaks preferred to teach filmmaking to his potential subjects. His high school principal lent him film equipment, and Rosenwaks contacted the Step Forward organization to find him students and a classroom.
Step Forward was founded in 2000 to improve education in Rahat through courses in reading, English and computers. They welcomed his offer.
“When you look at the documentary world, you see films about indigenous communities throughout the world,” he says.
“You find that most of the films are in some manner made by Westerners.”
The Bedouins were similarly cast in Israeli footage, Rosenwaks says. This means that as a filmmaker, “you come into a certain environment, you suck out all the emotions and scenes this environment has to give you, and then you disappear. You’re dust. You made a good film, but what have you left behind you? I wanted to do something better.”
Beginning in 2004, Rosenwaks taught his students how to operate cameras, how to frame their shots and how to edit. Week after week, Rosenwaks’s most reliable students were black women, a small minority in the Bedouin community. Some of them brought back interviews with other black Bedouins who complained of prejudice and discrimination against them in Rahat. He began asking his students about their families’ origins, and found to his surprise that none of them knew.
Rosenwaks pushed his students to interview relatives and ultimately found out that the black Bedouin were brought to Palestine as slaves from Zanzibar as recently as 60 years ago. He was able to obtain funding from Channel 10 and the New Foundation for Television and Film to take the class to Zanzibar, where their ancestors were captured, shackled, and shipped as human chattels.
That documentary, called “Film Class,” won a Best One-Hour Movie award from the Israeli Documentary Awards in 2007.
It was also a revelation for the Bedouins involved. “Over the years I knew we were black but we would always deny we were slaves,” says Kamla Abu Zeila, who studied with Rosenwaks. “We never asked.”
After “Film Class” aired, Israel’s Channel 1 TV station and the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and TV gave Rosenwaks $100,000 to produce short films by Bedouin directors.
Rosenwaks chose his most promising students, along with some newcomers like Abu Kaff, and found himself once again making a weekly pilgrimage to Rahat. He shepherded his students through the process of choosing topics and laying out a film schedule.
For Abu Kaff, the topic choice was easy: she had already written and shot a fictional screenplay about suicidal Bedouin girls. Other students struggled to find a focus.
Bader Alfrawna-Amer worked as program director for Step Forward; her sister May was a student. When May’s original topic, horse riding in Rahat, fell through, the two racked their brains for more ideas.
Alfrawna-Amer suggested their British neighbor Janice Abu Hani, a blonde 42-yearold British woman who came to Israel for love but found a calling teaching children about animals.
I know Janice well,” says Alfrawna- Amer, 26. “She is socially active, she cares, she wants to change things ... We wanted to show her as a good model for someone who comes from the outside and works to change society for the better.”
For Rosenwaks, it was a relief. He was far behind deadline and worried that he would not have enough material to deliver to his funders.
“I was really in despair, because we had a lot of beginnings, a lot of people who start- ed shooting and left,” he recalls. “Three projects started shooting but didn’t materialize.”
ABU HANI’S HOUSE IS A menagerie of ducks, rabbits, fish, gerbils, rabbits, a limping cat and a horse in the backyard. In the film named after her, Abu Hani sets a fat white rabbit on a blanket, while half a dozen children coo at and kiss the bunny.
“Look, he’s sleeping. He won’t hurt you,” Abu Hani tells the kids. “That’s why you mustn’t hit him.”
In Bedouin towns, “if it’s got four legs and it moves, the kids will just kill it, they’ll throw stones,” Abu Hani narrates on film. “You find that children who abuse the animals go on to become violent towards people.”
Alfrawna-Amer’s brother Morad was the only male director. His “Obama of Rahat” follows his father’s failed campaign to become Rahat’s first black mayor. Morad had studied film at Sapir College and his family was no stranger to the camera. His mother Nasser Alfrawna is a liberal who sent one daughter, Bader, to study law and a second, Hind, to study medicine in a German university. Morad asks his mother how it feels to send her daughter to medical school when she herself cannot read.
“Whoever wants to learn, learns,” she tells her son as she folds an endless pile of clothes, then ladles food between giant steel pots on the floor. “My job is to make food and drink, to cook and to clean and to serve food, and do housework, and your father helps you.”
In a phone interview with The Report, Morad says this was the first time he had ever asked his mother this question. The editing “was torture,” Morad says. He had far too much material and agonized over getting it into the allotted ten minutes. Rosenwaks says Morad also often lost his tapes and he would have to dig through the house with Morad’s mother to find the lost footage.
The result has made him a minor celebrity.
“During the shoot, everyone asked ‘what is this, what are you filming?’” he says. “Today everyone understands what filming is. I have even become a little famous from the movie.”
Abu Zeila’s film, called “Bedouins Drown Like Stones,” also faced its challenges.
Abu Zeila, 33, is an outspoken English teacher, quick to laugh, in Rahat, who teases Rosenwaks because he calls her several times a day. She had read a news article about Bedouins who drowned off Israel’s beaches and began searching online for more cases.
Most Bedouin do not know how to swim.
While there are swimming pools in Jewish communities, there are none in Rahat or the other Bedouin towns. Abu Zeila says Bedouin sometimes go to the free beach in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, and they go late, after the lifeguards leave. These lifeguards confirm that Bedouin account for most of the drownings.
Even when at the beach, her Bedouin interviewees are fully clothed – one in a white dress shirt and slacks, another in a black jacket and jeans. But the interviews had no cohesive story.
As the deadline approached, Rosenwaks helped Abu Zeila incorporate her own four young children in the movie. They had never been to the beach, so Abu Zeila coordinated swimming lessons at Ben-Gurion University’s pool and took them to the coast. In her film, she wades into the water in a long black cloak, while her children ecstatically splash in the water.
“Which do you prefer, the beach or the pool?” she asks. “The beach,” they reply, sitting shirtless in the sea.
THE STUDENTS DID THEIR EDITing at a neighboring kibbutz, Mishmar Hanegev. The ride between the kibbutz and Rahat is only ten minutes long but most of the residents had never met each other.
“Back and Forth” premiered in July in Jerusalem.
Rosenwaks organized a bus to take all the students to opening night.
“It was my first time seeing a movie at the Jerusalem Cinematheque,” says Abu Kaff. “I felt I was living a dream.
When I worked, I didn’t know that after they would broadcast it. The theater was full.”
“Back and Forth” is distributed by Diskin Films, a leading film distributor of Israeli and Jewish documentaries.
Since the premiere, Rosenwaks has toured the country for film screenings and often takes the Bedouin filmmakers along for discussions. He also spoke about “Back and Forth” on a recent tour of the United States, beginning with the Other Israel Film Festival in New York, which highlights Israel’s minorities and marginalized groups. Next month he will screen the film in Paris.
At an early November showing at Eshel Hanasi high school, near Rahat, Abu Zeila walked the neatly laid paths lined with luscious greenery and made her way between the tidy school buildings.
It was a sharp contrast to Rahat, where sidewalks, if they exist, are cracked and buckled and strewn with garbage. “It hurts,” she says. “The feeling is always bad, that you get discriminated against, and [it raises the question] why?” Several of Rosenwaks’s students are planning their next acts. Abu Kaff is planning a film on the murder of women under the guise of “family honor.” In September, Abu Zeila won a development grant from the Rehovot International Women’s Film Festival for a film on the custom of blood revenge. When a murder occurs in Bedouin society, the victim’s family often lays siege to the alleged murderer’s family home, leading to long days and nights spent in terror.
“If Yusra [Abu Kaff] becomes a director, if Kamla [Abu Zeila] becomes a screenwriter, and if Morad [Alfrawna] will make films, then something I did will have helped,” Rosenwaks says. “At least they got the notion that they can make it.”
He recalls an early January screening of “Back and Forth” at the Kaye Academic College of Education in Beersheba, where Abu Kaff studied art.
“There were about 100 girls, and maybe this screening will spark one of those girls,” he says. “Maybe one girl will say, ‘I can be a director.’”