Breaking Walls, a documentary written and directed by Jonathan Ben Efrat, opens with a scene of deceptive tranquility. In the early morning hush, Mus'ab Salameh prepares himself for the day's work, kisses his sleeping child and steps into the pre-dawn glimmer to board a bus bound for Tel Aviv.
The bus takes Salameh and his fellow workers away from their quiet villages and dusky fields. As the sun begins to mount, the metropolis appears through the windows. Towers of glass and shining steel rise above the Ayalon Highway. Models gaze down from giant billboards. It is a picture of confident growth. This is a city that has experienced terrible acts of vengeance against Israel's policies, pulling through, nonetheless, with most of its illusions intact.
The bus arrives at the construction site: a multi-story project of Solel Boneh, one of Israel's largest building firms. With the whole of Gush Dan spread at their feet, the workers begin the day's labor.
Meanwhile at Ben Gurion Airport, Dani Ben Simhon, a coordinator for the Workers Advice Center – and an artist himself – greets Mike Alewitz, an American painter known for agitprop murals in support of the working class. Alewitz is visiting Israel/Palestine in order to paint three murals, one of them at Kufr Qara, Salameh's village.
Alewitz started out as a sign and billboard painter (see Challenge No. 81). After turning to art, he realized that he did not want to confine his work to pictures on living-room walls; his art would be more influential and vital as agitprop. He has searched the world for places where it could be most effective. Mural painting has taken him to Iraq during the first Gulf War, to Ukraine, to various South American countries and of course all over the United States. As Ha'Ir, a Tel Aviv local, put it, "When Mike Alewitz comes to visit, it's like the minister coming to your bedside: you know things must be bad."
When Alewitz contacted WAC for help, the organization saw this as a chance to involve its members in a new cultural experience. If the mural was to be about working-class solidarity, then surely the painting should be a joint effort. Video 48 (see box) decided to document the project.
Breaking Walls began as a simple record of Alewitz's visit, but during the filming, Ben Efrat and his colleagues understood that the real story was in the workers and their response to the project.
But why should Arab construction workers bother themselves about a mural? Haven't they enough to keep them busy? "Why paint?" asks WAC member Salah Athamneh. "What does it have to do with you? You should work to provide for your family."
"Art is foreign to the Arab community in Israel today," explains Ben Efrat. "It was hard to find people to hang posters around the village. Those that did got teased by the villagers, and they had a hard time explaining what the project was about." On hearing about Mike Alewitz, one village elder said, "I thought he was a singer."
"When Mike came to paint," says Ben Efrat, "the workers had to grapple with the fact that they belong to a class that extends beyond the village. The Arabs in Israel have little history of unionism. The society is concentrated around the family and Islam, which does not recognize the reality of social classes. Therefore, the workers don't tend to see themselves as part of a broader class. They don't see how workers elsewhere can be relevant to them. When they do experience such workers, it's usually in a negative light, as when they have to compete with migrants for jobs in Israel.
"It is important to put the subject of workers in a wider context, including migrants, who are treated terribly. Every worker understands the wall between himself and his boss – in this sense he is no different from his companions at the Liverpool docks. He doesn't need WAC to tell him this. But an organization like WAC can help him see himself within a global context. It can offer him tools to understand his role.
"Given our responsibility toward the world in which we live, we at Video 48 cannot stand aside. We try to influence not only the viewers, but also the people in the film. We want to tell a story in common – us with them. The very act of filming raises awareness."
The result is a film that appears as part of the action in front of the lens. Breaking Walls raises important questions about the role of art in society: the role of the film itself, the role of Alewitz's murals, and Dani Ben Simhon's role as artist-turned-organizer.
"Most artists shirk their responsibilities toward society – a position of neutrality is comfortable," Ben Efrat says. "We say, however, that in the present social and political chaos, artists have a vital role. They must ask, 'Who will I cooperate with? Who is my work directed to?'"
Dani Ben Simhon comes from the Tel Aviv art world. Like Alewitz, he understood the need to break out of his "conservative bubble" in order to give of his knowledge and skills. "My art, today, is to organize Arab workers," he tells a journalist beside the evolving mural.
The common man as hero
The film presents a hopeful picture in which walls between workers crumble. Beyond that, it shows a conservative society whose internal walls are being breached.
Salameh, the film's protagonist, belongs to a team of construction workers organized by WAC. He began working full time at the age of 17, when his father passed away, leaving him as his family's breadwinner. Originally from the West Bank town of Tulkarem, he married a woman from Israel so that he would be allowed to work inside the Green Line. "What about love?" Ben Efrat asked him. Salameh blushed, explaining: "In our society we don't talk about such things on television."
The mural shows a wall being breached by workers. While Alewitz and other volunteers were painting it (everyone worked on a voluntary basis in making both the mural and the film), another wall was going up: the "separation barrier" that Israel claims will improve its security. Israel is occupying not just a land and a people, but the people's chances of livelihood. When the camera accompanies Salameh to the checkpoint at Baqa al-Gharbiyyah, which he must cross each time he wishes to visit his family, we see workers desperate to cross into Israel.
Salameh seems an unlikely hero for such a film. At first, he is little more than a curious onlooker. Then he notices that the bricks in the mural have not been painted properly, and he goes to correct the mistake. "When I held the paintbrush I felt like I was laying bricks," he says.
His story is not unfamiliar among the Arabs in Israel. Theirs is a daily struggle for work, in which basic rights are trampled underfoot. Each worker must learn many skills to survive. Many have family on both sides of the "fence," whose gates are opened or shut by Israeli soldiers at their whim. Yet Alewitz's picture spoke to Salameh personally: he understood the idea of breaking walls.
Salameh's gradual participation in the project, and the intellectual Salameh's gradual participation in the project, and the intellectual awakening caused by the mural, are a reflection of how important and powerful art can be. "We wanted to show how a person's intellectual needs can be met in the framework of a manual job – not just at the university," Ben Efrat says.
The mural project helped increase the workers' self-esteem. Ben Efrat continues: "In Israel there is no way for Arab society to advance as a whole, although individuals can succeed here and there. The society as a whole remains one of manual laborers. The word ‘worker' has negative connotations. WAC's aim is to help people see this term as respectable, to help workers take pride in their status.
"The sinking of that status, especially since globalization began, has led to a strange situation: one family member is sent to study, financed by the others. When the student returns, he regards his brothers as inferior, even though they put him through college."
Breaking Walls offers striking images to match the bold colors of the mural, as well as an effective original score by Ron Klein.
"I'm happy that, despite the social and political situation, the result of our efforts is optimistic," Ben Efrat says.
Or, as Salah Athamneh puts it, the most important thing is for people to see that the wall in the mural is broken. "Today I'm looking through the fence at the future."
Breaking Walls will be screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on January 24, 2005.