Power to the people

A film to be screened at the EcoCinema festivals follows the quest of six Israelis to provide eco-friendly resources to Palestinians in the southern Hebron hills.

Danny Varta (photo credit: Courtesy)
Danny Varta
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is an old Chinese proverb that claims that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
In the context of Danny Verete’s award-winning documentary The Human Turbine, that saying should read something along the lines of “those who want to protest, should; those who’ve given up taking to the streets for change, should get a camera out and start filming life as it is.”
“I did all that stuff for 20 to 30 years, attending demonstrations and all that, but you could say I’m disillusioned or just tired of that,” says the 50-something director. “If you want to protest, that’s fine; but these guys are getting out there the whole time and actually doing something about the situation.”
The “guys” Verete is referring to are six men and women, all past their chronological prime, who have for some years been working to help the lot of a community of Palestinians caught in a political vortex in the southern Hebron hills area. Verete’s substitute for stretching his vocal cords at political rallies is documenting this work.
The protagonists of The Human Turbine, which will be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on October 30 as part of the EcoCinema Festival, are several dozen Palestinian families who lived at the ancient site of Sussiya for centuries.
“They lived on top of the site of the ancient synagogue there,” explains Verete. “The problem was that they didn’t know the ruins were there, as they were buried deep in the ground. Other civilizations that passed through this part of the world didn’t know the synagogue was there, either. Then the Israelis came along and turfed the Palestinians out, to the nearby valley, and destroyed their houses. Now the Palestinians are scattered around the region, each living near a well for water for their flocks, living in caves and makeshift homes made out of sheeting.”
The demographic change started in the 1980s, when archeological excavations began there and a group of Israelis decided to renew the Jewish presence in the southern area of the Hebron hills. During the Byzantine period, the area was home to a large and thriving Jewish population, and the famed synagogue of Sussiya dates from that time. Today, on the other side of the valley from the archeological site, there is the modern settlement of Sussiya, where several dozen Israeli families live.
Verete says he did his best to skirt round the political aspects and to focus on the human and “eco” side of the project and the film. “It’s funny in a way. There are these people, all mature professionals, who are helping the Palestinians to manage in difficult circumstances and bringing them all these environmentally friendly solutions. But it is the Palestinians who have a pure ecological lifestyle. They don’t talk about it, they live it.”
One of the problems at Sussiya that required a green solution was the issue of electricity which, in fact, led Verete to the documentary. “I at was Noam’s house – at the time he was a neighbor of mine on Moshav Srigim – and I saw that he had a wind pane that generated enough electricity to power a light for the family’s nameplate. I asked him what that was, and then I noticed all these larger wind turbine units around the place. He told me he was helping produce electricity for the poorest people in the world, at Sussiya.”
For the past eight years Noam – almost no surnames are given in the film – has been helping the Palestinians at Sussiya, along with other Israelis, including 84-year-old retired agricultural consultant Uri Finkelfeld from Kibbutz Revadim and Arella from Kibbutz Shoval.
Noam, who used to work in hi-tech, explains his motivation for getting involved in the Sussiya project in succinct terms. “I don’t want to be part of the conflict, I want to be part of the solution.” Today the Palestinians at Sussiya have a refrigerator and are able to keep their goat’s milk fresh for marketing. Before they had electricity, they had to throw out most of the milk.
“These six people, all well educated, decided to give the people at Sussiya electricity, water, education, help them to realize some of their dreams and strengthen them as a community,” says Verete.
The timing of Verete’s revelation about Noam’s electrical endeavor was fortuitous. “That was just before submissions had to be made in the Best Offer documentary section of the 2008 Haifa Film Festival, on environmental issues,” he recalls. Varta hurriedly put a trailer together, submitted it, won the category and with it some funds that helped to kick-start what was to become The Human Turbine. The film was produced by Yehuda Biton and the music director was Abdullah from the Algerian Sahara.
Verete, who won the Best Feature award at the Haifa Film Festival 10 years ago with his Yellow Asphalt drama about troubled relations between Israelis and Beduin in the Arava, has an impressive track record in the industry. He first came to notice in 1981 with his debut as director-scriptwriter of Wall within a City, which was screened at the International San Francisco Film Festival and later shown on French TV channel Arte. In the interim, his comedy-drama Metallic Blues, starring Moshe Ivgi and Avi Kushnir, also won kudos abroad as did Yellow Asphalt, which was subsequently adapted and shown at the Toronto Film Festival. “I didn’t like the longer version, but the pay was good,” says Verete with typical candor.
Verete evidently enjoys his work and chooses subjects that interest him and give him a lot of satisfaction. The Human Turbine maintained the director’s run of success by winning an award at last month’s Haifa Film Festival, although Verete says it was something of a bittersweet experience.
“We brought as many people from Sussiya to the screening and award ceremony in Haifa as we could,” he says. “We couldn’t get permits for everyone. When I got onto the stage to say a few words, I almost choked with tears. I thought about the wonderful things those few Israelis are doing at Sussiya and how the life of the Palestinians there has improved, but I also realized that it is just a drop in the ocean. There are so many people who need help.”
Even so, Verete says he found making the film a rewarding experience. “It does make me happy to have been part of this work and to try to get the message out there to the world. That’s my job.”
Verete says he and the other Israelis are planning to arrange a private screening at Sussiya. “They have some electricity there now, and I want everyone in the community to see the film. They deserve it.”
The Human Turbine will be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on October 30 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the EcoCinema Festival (October 26-30). For more information visit www.ecocinema.org.il or call 565-4333.