by Fredrick Stein
and Mia Gonzalez
Raed Andoni’s docudrama, ‘Ghost Hunting’, focuses on the detention and interrogation of Palestinian prisoners, incarcerated inside the infamous ‘Al-Moskobiya’ Israeli detention center in West Jerusalem, which is reconstructed by former inmates, hired by Andoni through an advertisement placed in a Ramallah-based newspaper.
Through the building of the set, the director emphasizes the raw and emotive memories of the former detainees, which take the form of their former cells. By focusing on the issue of administrative detention, Andoni uncovers a large part of life in the Palestinian community, as a quarter of the population has been imprisoned at one time or another (which means, at least a member in every family). However, the producer’s focus on the individual stories of the former inmates enables the conflict to regain its human dimension. In fact, the crux of the movie is that it is about normal people, who have, through the extended context of the conflict, become dehumanized and are victims of their own denial. Therefore, drawing on the personal experiences of these individuals by literally rebuilding their former incarceration location and honestly confronting their detention, ‘Ghost Hunting’ provides a real and fresh look at the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.
The humanizing power of the film
The film was presented at the El-Hakawati, the Palestinian National Theater in East Jerusalem, by the Educational Bookshop and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, and it included a Q+A with cast members upon the conclusion of the screening. It is in this occasion that we got acquainted with Andoni’s production, which struck us in several aspects.
Although the movie relates to the conflict, the occupation is not mentioned in explicit terms. Instead, the personal experience of the detainees is emphasized. This is significant as it humanizes those who have traditionally been marginalized by a polarized discourse; this struck us as somewhat unique from other productions in which the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis have not been explored on a personal level.
‘Ghost Hunting’ actor Ramzi Maqdisi
The Role of Memory
The personal level strongly emerges through the use of memory as the map to reconstruct the Al-Moscobiyeh detention center. This, we found, has two main implications. The first is somehow therapeutic. In fact, the use of memory allowed the cast to be confronted with the trauma they had faced and attempted to progress with their lives by reliving their story. The second implication, is that memory, not being composed of objectively processed facts and images, but, rather being deeply influenced by the emotions and feelings experienced by the individual, opens a window on the human dimension of the conflict, shedding a light on the fact that, despite the deep stigmatization of individuals in binary categories (terrorist vs hero, traitor vs activist etc.), this conflict is about normal people on both sides.
Strictly interconnected with these two main implications is the theme of the “vicious circle” created by administrative detention coupled with what we will refer to here as the “duty of resistance”. In fact, Andoni by focusing on real human beings and their memories uncovers the degree to which violence has penetrated the Palestinian civil society through the mechanism of action (occupation) and reaction (resistance). This is evident in the words of Mohammad Khattab (the member of the cast whose story is at the center of the movie) as, in an interview published by the Middle Eastern Monitor, he states that “[…] it becomes our [Palestinians] duty to strive, knowing we will end up in these prisons”. Furthermore, at the very end of the documentary, some members of the ex-prisoners’ family are invited to the set, and among them there is Mohammad’s daughter, who had just come out from several months of detention, thus somehow highlighting the circular nature of the violence, which must be broken in order to achieve peace.
The Circle of Occupation
Inside the cell
In a nutshell, what we are arguing is that the occupation translates into the systematic activism of the Palestinian youth, which is irreversibly followed by administrative detention at a certain stage of any Palestinian activist’s life, which in turn has a profound impact on the family of the detained, becoming a sort of legacy and triggering, therefore, the circle.
The reason why these two elements, in particular, caught our attention derives from the fact that they respectively reveal a different face of violence. For what concerns the regained human dimension of the Palestinian struggle through memory and the traumas within it, the psychological component of violence is uncovered, which, contrarily to the visible physical violence, manifests itself as a form of slow violence, “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight […]” (Nixon 2011), that is the violence carved in the prisoners’ memory.
The mechanism of action/reaction, on the contrary, reveals the form of structural violence which is imposed on the Palestinian society by the occupation, where structural violence should be intended as an injury that is not immediately attributable to an acting subject, but it is ““built into the structure” and manifests itself as inequality of power, resources and life opportunities” (Galtung 1969, 171; as cited in Winter 2012, 195).
“Ghost Hunting” hopes to break the cycle
These are the ‘ghosts’ that haunt those that experienced detention/imprisonment. By ‘hunting’ them, hopefully ‘Ghost Hunting’ will be able to exorcise the demons of the former inmates and break the cycle.
In conclusion, ‘Ghost Hunting’ illustrates the extensive presence of the occupation in civil society, specifically, the very personal effect which it has on individual lives. Through dramatic, cinematic devices, Andoni was able to focus on people, as opposed to the broader Palestine-Israeli conflict. This bottom up approach is important in considering a pathway to peace which facilitates cooperation between the two sides in the face of a long socio-political and economic schism. The dramatized experiences of the former inmates highlight the importance of the individual human experience in the wider context of the conflict. Moreover, the emphasis on memory and how this informs one’s actions in the future is equally significant. This may take the form, for example, of the vicious circle and the ‘duty’ of resistance – how violence has penetrated Palestinian civil society, which is reproduced throughout the generations. Overall, Andoni’s award winning film is certainly a new perspective from other viewpoints on the subject matter.
Galtung, Johan. 1969. “Violence, Peace and Peace Research” Journal of Peace Research Vol. 6, No. 3. pp. 167-191
Winter, Yves. 2012. “Violence and Visibility”, New Political Science Vol. 34, No. 2. pp. 195-202.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. “Ecologies of the Aftermath” in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard: Harvard University Press