A round-table conversation with members of Video 48

By: 
Roni Ben Efrat
A round-table conversation with members of Video 48

Participants:

Shiri Wilk. Studied four years at Camera Obscura, a college for the visual media. High school teacher in Communications, specializing in Video Documentary, Photography, and Editing.
Nir Nader. Artist. Graduate of Camera Obscura. Major in still photography.
Yonatan Ben Efrat. Completed program in Digital Media at the Open University.
Yoram Amuyal. Studied Directing of Documentary Films and Video Photography at Camera Obscura. Conducts workshops with children.

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Roni: Video '48 was initiated by Hanitzotz Publishing House (HPH), which till now has kept to the printed media. Why then video? And why Video '48?

Yonatan: We want to document the situation of Palestinians who remained within Israel after the war of 1948. When it comes to documentation nothing surpasses video.

Nir: Video doesn't require the language skills that other media do. The camera puts the subject matter you are talking about right smack in front of you. This also enables you to reach the illiterate. There are many illiterate still, especially in the society we're working with.

Shiri: But our interest at Video '48 is not just in making documentaries. We also want to communicate the know-how. We want to start workshops, so people can learn this new technique for making themselves heard.

Yonatan: Hanitzotz has already done a lot to document the life of the Arabs in Israel, and here we want to do this on a visual plane. We want to show the situation not only to the outside world, but also on the inside, to the Arab communities - so that they'll get a broader view of their condition. We live in a reality where many of the Arab "intelligentsia" ape the Israelis, taking on their materialism and egoism, their lack of solidarity with others. We want to put a spoke in the wheels of these people. Many hold key positions in the Arab media. We don't want to let them go on prettifying and sanitizing the situation.

Nir: Video '48 wants to take up some of the space that has been taken, till now, by the Arab department of Israel Television. This department is merely an arm of the authorities, and for many years it has helped them oppress Palestinian society in Israel both culturally and politically. Not only that, it's also become Israel's propaganda station to the Arab world - an Israeli Voice of America. Every Palestinian working there had to be approved by the General Security Services (Shin Beth - Ed.). The programs did not give expression to people's needs. In the field of cinema too the gap is enormous. Take Camera Obscura, where most of us studied. In a class of 200 you might find one Arab student.

One of our aims at Video '48 is to get to the point where we can all work in Arabic. This is necessary if we are to open our ranks to more Arabs. With us they won't have to subscribe to phony formulas committing them to preserve "the democratic and Jewish character of the state of Israel."

We want to free Arab youngsters from the feeling that they're crying out in the wilderness. When our films get shown in the villages or on the commercial channels, this will open a way for many of them to join us.

Yoram: On Land Day the members of Video '48 invited me to take part in activities for about a hundred children at Ramya. The work and what I saw that day really attracted me. The place attracted me, the life of it, and the children's eagerness to learn. I very much wanted to know their story. Both Shiri and I want to see people at close range. When we work with a camera, it may seem like there's this object in the way, but we really connected to the place, the people and the children. There's something very restful there. It gave me a kind of peace.

Shiri: Me, I've never felt peace! (Laughter) I've always felt there was something in me that wanted to oppose and criticize. This past year, though, I started to work with Nir in a youth video workshop. In the midst of that, I also saw the Garden of Dreams that the artists are making with the kids of Jaffa. I really made a connection to this kind of work. It's always very frustrating to see folks who are in great difficulty and you don't quite know how to approach them. I think this is why many people end up doing nothing. But the kind of approach we're taking, I think, is the right one: to come and do something together, not to sit up above and dictate. Not philanthropy. So I'm finding answers here to all kinds of questions that have long been bothering me.

Yonatan: Whatever the original plan may have been, our group has become a cultural body that is trying to give creative people an alternative, whether they are Palestinians or Israelis. We are also ready to work with foreigners who share our view of the world. Just as Israeli artists have to make a switch in order to take a critical look at where they stand in relation to their society, so do Palestinian artists, because in the present reality they have to sell their souls in order to get any sort of work in their field. So we come and say, With us you can work without selling out, without tamping down your ideas or diluting them with a "drop of Zionism."

At the summer camp (see article, p.20) we organized a group of participants to document what they'd learned and experienced. The result is a ten-minute video clip that we want to show to children elsewhere this year. This summer camp is the kind of thing that I mean by "cultural alternative". It was a great success.

Roni: The first major film you've chosen to do is "Not in My Garden!" - a film about Ramya, an unrecognized village. Why?

Shiri: Because the plight of the Arab population shows up there in its most extreme form. What could be more extreme than people living in tin shacks right next to people living in palaces of stone? Also, the legal limbo is extreme. Everything's gone to an extreme at Ramya, and it's easy to bring this out in a film.

Yonatan: We chose Ramya not only because of its predicament, but also because at HPH we've accompanied this case for nine years. The choice was very natural. It reflects all that preceding work, in which some of us took part. Nir, for example, helped create the playground two years ago. The research was in our hands. So the film belongs to an ongoing process. Since this is our first attempt, we thought we should start with something we knew well, something other members of Hanitzotz could help us with. Apart from which, it really is quite a story.

Shiri: The research on Ramya was so comprehensive, I found it quite riveting to read. I was there on Land Day with Yoram, and after that I sat down and started reading about the place and couldn't put the material down. I saw the drama arising between the pages. There was simply a film there. Many, in fact. We only needed to choose one.

Roni: What are the elements that make this story dramatic?

Nir: There are many. Here you have the State of Israel in 1991 trying to push these people off their land, telling the court, in writing, that it needed this land in order to build homes for Jewish immigrants. (For a full chronology of the Ramya story, see Challenge # 46, pp. 11-12. - Ed.) The story is very representative. Above all, it represents the central conflict in Israel, which sees itself as a state of the Jewish people - with the inconvenience of having Palestinians within its borders. What we see is a village that had been there since the British mandate, which Israel refused to recognize - refused, therefore, to provide with basic infrastructure and services - a village that no one outside the immediate area had even heard about until 1991. After Hanitzotz took up its cause, Ramya became known in Israel and the world. (The New York Times and The Washington Post carried the story.

The report of the US State Department on Human Rights also singled out Ramya. - Ed.) In the meantime, around it arose the Jewish city of Carmiel, which didn't exist thirty-six years ago. Today it almost completely surrounds Ramya. That's a very dramatic basis. When Carmiel was founded, expressly for the purpose of "judaizing" Galilee, the Ramyans were just making the transition from their Beduin tents to tin shacks, and since then they've had to stay in those shacks. As if time has stopped for them. In contrast, Carmiel has been growing in leaps and bounds. It's become one of the centers of hi-tech in Israel. This city has all the power and governmental backing to do whatever it pleases. It has the law and the bulldozers.

Yonatan: For me there are several stories. It's a story of popular struggle. It's a story of one type of person expanding and prospering for racial reasons at the expense of another. It's a story of Arab society in general, but it's also a story of what it's like to be an outsider within Arab society. It's also a story about the Arab leadership: how these leaders in effect swindle this Arab outsider, thanks to their distorted relations with the Zionist establishment, how in this case they cooked up the swindle in the so-called "Ramya agreement." Everybody got his hands in the stew, the purpose of which was to move the outsiders out.

Roni: Could you describe the Ramya agreement?

Nir: The premise of Israel's land establishment was that the Ramyans should all move to another Arab village in order to make room for Jewish immigrants. When the campaign of Hanitzotz sidetracked this plan, the authorities, with the help of the Arab leaders, persuaded the Ramyans to sign an agreement in 1995: they were to move 150 meters to the west, where they would receive the infrastructure for an Arab neighborhood within Carmiel. They would lose a certain amount of land, but they would gain the elements of civilization, such as a paved road, piped water and electricity.

So what was the catch? The agreement failed to specify the timing. There was no commitment by Carmiel to build the new Ramya neighborhood before taking over the land. Now the villagers are still in the same tin shacks, but the high-rises of Carmiel are popping up out of Ramya's ground. Meanwhile, the prospective neighborhood is just a dark spot on the map. Of course the moment the agreement was made, you could tell it was fishy: If Ramya is to be a neighborhood within Carmiel, why not leave it where it is and build the Jewish neighborhood 150 meters to the west? This would have shown the Arab population that Israel is becoming less racist. Instead, in our film you hear Adi Eldar, the mayor of Carmiel, telling us, "I'm humanitarian. I gave them a water pipe, and I also arranged transportation for a crippled girl." But he didn't fulfil the promise made in the agreement. Here the authorities have gone and built a huge new neighborhood - one thousand apartments - some of them on Ramya's land. Why couldn't they have thrown in, while they were at it, the tiny bit of infrastructure they'd promised the Ramyans? They could have, of course, with no trouble at all - if they'd had any intention of allowing an Arab neighborhood in Carmiel.

Yonatan: The Ramya agreement epitomizes the drama of the last nine years. In the film we were able to show what's happened to the two sides in the conflict since it was made: how far Carmiel has gotten and how far Ramya hasn't.

Roni: A tale of defeat?
Yonatan: No, because it isn't over.
Nir: If it was a tale of defeat, the Ramyans wouldn't be there today. Despite the constant clashes with the authorities, they're still on their land.
Shiri: We thought it important to stress that Ramya's very much alive. We see the people going about their everyday tasks: washing dishes, cooking, hanging laundry, cleaning, the kids running over the dirt roads to the school bus, the men herding their flocks. Life goes on. Not that they don't need a solution, but the force of life in them gives them the power to endure.
Nir: Although I knew how deep the racism goes, it never ceased to astonish me. There was the Jewish shepherd we interviewed. Here the Ramyans are struggling over their few hundred dunams, and the government gave this guy 7000 to herd his goats in! He's involved in disputes with the shepherds of Ramya. It was amazing to hear him mouth the Zionist beliefs so casually, as if they had the force of natural law: the unquestioned conviction that everything belongs to you and you deserve it. Or to hear the mayor, Adi Eldar, who finds it preposterous that anyone should think there was ever a thing called Ramya. "Just a bunch of Beduin," he calls them.

Roni: Yoram, as I understand it, you helped conduct a video workshop for the Ramya children. They put on a play and filmed it, and that film is woven into the larger one.

Yoram: The idea was to have the children make a little film that would be part of the big film about the place. We took a folktale that's extremely relevant. Two brothers inherit a goat. They argue, because each wants the goat to himself. At last they decide to go to the king and let him judge between them. By the time their trial date comes, the goat is dead, but that doesn't stop them: they argue about who should get the skin. When they stand before the king and he hears their story, he says: "God took the goat. And since I'm God's representative on earth, I'll take the skin!" Then he dismisses them.

We put on this show with lots of fun and festivity. We worked hard on the costumes, which are full of color. On the other hand, I think the kids understood through the whole production that this is very much their story, a story of disunity inside and domination from outside - a very hard story, despite all the color. They were extremely conscious of joining in the struggle of the adults to remain on the land. They understand that it will be their task to continue the fight.
I worked with Khitam Na'amneh, a member of our team who lives in Haifa. My role was to offer the children new means of expression: how to build a film from start to finish: acting, music, setting, costumes. They were involved in it all. The day of the screening was very special. We did it in the evening. Everybody gathered in a courtyard. I think we showed it three times and the kids wanted more. The adults had already left and the children wanted to see it again and again.
Yonatan: As in that folktale, Ramya today is divided. It started out united in 1991, when the struggle began, but the "agreement" divided it in two. The village consists of a few extended families. One only has refused to give up, the one we're working with. This happens to be the family whose land the bulldozers invaded. When that happened, the other families did not come and join in resistance. HPH did, and some of its members went to jail for 24 hours with the members of this family.

Roni: Wasn't it a kind of culture shock to introduce video into a place that doesn't even have electricity?

Nir: They have to start a generator to watch TV, but they do have TV. They see very well what modern life offers: at the end of their dirt road a paved one begins. The children know what they lack. And because they are children like all children, the minute that school lets out - they go to school in a recognized village - they have a tremendous thirst for something out of the ordinary. At the beginning of the year, Hanitzotz members from the Baqa Center in Majd al-Krum opened up an after-school tutoring center for the children of Ramya. Until then there hadn't been anything at all. The kids used to play with stones or spend the afternoons trapping birds. Of course, to someone from Tel Aviv whose kids go from one hi-tech club to another, this may seem nice and authentic, "back-to-nature", but playing with stones and trapping birds is not enough today. So the thirst was tremendous. When Yoram went to work with them, I think he found it very easy.
Yoram: True. They'd be waiting for us at the entry to the village. It was always a very emotional moment.
Shiri: There was no culture shock. But the girls were very interested to see a woman working with a video camera. There was a really good connection. Maybe it opened something new for them.

Roni.: What plans do you have for the film?

Nir: We want to screen it wherever we can. We want to sell it to the TV networks in this country, in the Arab world and abroad. We want to show it at festivals. But we also want to work with it inside the Arab and Jewish communities. This is a film that opens up a great many questions for discussion.
Roni: How will you use your films within the Palestinian community? This one about Ramya, for example?
Yoram: I'm sure a great many people in Arab society don't know the story of Ramya. The Ramya community is very different from those of recognized villages. From conversations I've had, it seems there are tensions of social class between the inhabitants of recognized villages and those of the unrecognized, whose great grandparents were nomads. This story may foster empathy and bring these groups closer together.

Roni: Does anyone want to sum things up?

Yonatan: At the start of the film, Intisar, a girl from Ramya, tells the children the story of David Ben Gurion, who visited Galilee in the fifties and asked the people accompanying him, "Am I in an Arab country?" The founding of Carmiel in 1964 was part of the Zionist attempt to outstrip the Arab majority there. Carmiel is very proud of its cultural work. It hosts an international dance festival every year. We end the film with shots from this festival. We see dancers carrying oddly shaped pieces of Styrofoam, which they put together on stage into a monstrous bust of Ben Gurion, while his profile shows up in lights on the backdrop just to make sure you recognize who it is. Then we cut to the screening of the children's film in Ramya, with a string of colored lights and a generator overcoming the darkness. Maybe there you have the cultural alternative of Ramya.