The Mall: A Film by Video48 on Illegal Palestinian Workers

Sharon Horodi

“In the dark you can’t see far…”

"Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." (Constitution of the World Health Organization, 1948)

This is the central claim of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the motive for a unique film project produced by it. Maria Restrepo, the project’s director, explains it this way: “People who live in a state of chronic conflict are affected not just directly by threats to life, but also by the shaky economic situation and the collapse of the social structure. We thought that the possibilities of cinema could serve best to bring out the problems of health, in the wider sense, which the citizens of Israel and Palestine are going through.”

The Louis M. Rabinowitz Fund in Israel and the Municipality of Turin in Italy are co-financing the project. A joint committee, representing both, chose four films, two by Israelis and two by Palestinians. It was important to the committee that the topic of health should include a wide range of phenomena – not just individual cases.

Video48 was among the four. This group of young filmmakers focuses much of its documentary work on the Palestinian laborers from Israel and the Occupied Territories. Its film for WHO is called The Mall.

Half a year before the Oslo Agreement of September 1993, Israel closed its gates, shutting out more than 100,000 Palestinian breadwinners whose dependence it had cultivated for decades. Now it tries to cement them out with the separation barrier. The workers must sneak around its unfinished parts in any way they can, because Israel remains their only chance for a livelihood.

To live without light, with little air, in suffocating stench, is the lot of about 400 of them. They spend each weekday night amid the six subterranean floors of an unfinished shopping mall.

The mall is hidden from the eye, but it’s located just outside Tel Aviv at a busy intersection – right where you’d expect a mall to be. Cars whiz by. Most of the drivers choose not to see the workers crowding by the roadside. They are Israel’s invisible men.

Two groups of Israelis do pay attention: bosses seeking cheap day labor and the police. Police harassments occasionally end in jail or in the temporary confiscation of identity cards.

“It’s a game whose moves are known in advance,” explains Jonathan Ben Efrat, director of The Mall. “They’re forbidden to be here, but here they are, standing outside, plain to see. If Israel were serious, they wouldn’t make themselves so visible. Israel needs workers who are unorganized and vulnerable, who will come in glancing over their shoulders in fear. It needs workers who’ll be willing to take any job they can get.”

The film focuses on life in the subterranean structure. The mall is the “hero” of the film. The men live in it from Sunday through Thursday, sneaking home for the weekend. Most don’t manage to find more than two days’ work per week. For every driver that stops with a job offer, there are numerous applicants.

They reveal their lives to the viewer. They talk about their feelings, their expectations or the lack of them, and about the circumstances that brought them here. There is a strong sense of being caught in a “no exit” situation, abandoned by society.

“The workers feel they are condemned to live in the mall forever,” says Ben Efrat. One of them, Abu Naji, remarks in the film: “Someday when I’m old, a young man will come and take my place. If the political situation doesn’t change, the mall won’t either.”

Ben Efrat first met the mall and its inhabitants while writing a piece for Challenge (No. 92). They were understandably suspicious, but after a while they came to trust him and let him into their lives.

“I asked them for permission to film them in the mall,” he says. “We sat with them and explained the importance of the project. Their feeling was that they had nothing to lose.”

It is dark in the mall. It is no easy thing to photograph the dark. In this short film, the viewer goes through something like a widening of the retina. The eyes begin to pick things out. Figures that at first seem blurry, without specific identity, take on flesh, become human. Ben Efrat: “We tried to use the natural light that enters through the holes in the concrete. We didn’t want to give the false impression of a well-lit place. These people live in darkness. We used two small spotlights in order to suggest the mall’s enormous void. But the main lighting came from their candles and flashlights.”

An additional, important element, which compensates for the lack of light in the film, is sound. It enables one to sense the size of the place. Muffled voices penetrate from the highway or from the depths of the mall itself, intensifying the impression of being in the grave, evoking the trace of an ancient dread.

The physical difficulties are not the worst part for the men in the mall. The worst is the pressure they are under to accept any job, the pressure of being the only breadwinners for their families. Nevertheless, the film shows how they keep their sanity, finding ways to clean up, to take care of one another, and to turn the dark corners into something like home.

The WHO project is in the process of completion. Three of the four films, including The Mall, were screened as part of an event that the City of Turin put on beside the Winter Olympics. In the coming months, all four will be shown at various places in Israel, Palestine and the wider world. Each presentation will be followed by a discussion on the ways in which conflict affects the health of a society.