A talk with filmmaker Mohammed Alatar

"Palestinian filmmakers are really demonstrating a growing maturity," says filmmaker Mohammed Alatar. We met at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, a week after the premier performance of his new documentary film The Iron Wall which was shown at the Palestinian National Theater (Al-Hakawati) in front of a very receptive and mixed Palestinian, Israeli and international audience, under the patronage of Mr. Rafiq al-Husseini, Chief of Staff of the Palestinian Presidential Office. It also had a showing in Ramallah. We spoke the day after Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now won the Golden Globe Award for best foreign language film, and before it was nominated for the 2006 Oscar in the same category. "I'm not just referring to the technical, cinematic side, but particularly the readiness to cope with difficult and serious subjects. Poll after poll has shown that the majority of Palestinians oppose suicide-bombing. Palestinian filmmakers should be able to show things as they are. And that's what Paradise Now does," he says.
The promotional flyer distributed before the showing of The Iron Wall says that "it covers the issue of the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and its impact on the two-state solution." Although the name suggests that this powerful documentary film is devoted to the separation wall, its primary focus is on the settlements and their impact on Palestinian life and the prospects for peace. The wall is dealt with in the latter part of the film, and the title comes from right-wing Zionist Revisionist leader Vladamir (Zev) Jabotinsky's theory of the need to create an "iron wall" between Arabs and Jews. The Iron Wall was produced by the Palestinian Agriculture Relief Committees (PARC).
"Most Palestinians who have seen the film have criticized me for using the settler woman Michal," said Alatar, "but in my view, she represents 80 percent of the settlers who are only there for economic reasons. If they had reasonable alternative housing at the same price inside Israel, most of them would be happy to leave the settlements. I want people to know that. At the end of the day, we each have to get into the other side's shoes, to understand how they see things, so that we can look for a solution."
I tell Alatar that this reminds me of Martin Buber's philosophy of dialogue, of "I and Thou" that has guided me in my journalistic activity.

Showing Life as It Is

Why did Alattar decide to make The Iron Wall? "When we started the peace process, it was based on the principle of land for peace. Ten years later, after thousands of lives have been lost and with more and more land occupied, we haven't reached peace. I could have continued living a comfortable life in America where I've been living for the past few years, but I felt it was necessary to come back to Palestine, to show life as it is, and to try to promote a solution."
"If there is one thing on the ground that really disturbs us on a daily basis," he continues, "it's the checkpoints, where we get humiliated the most. However, the greatest obstacle to a solution is the settlements. That's what I wanted to show in the film. People can say, 'let's talk,' but as we talk, one less slice of land is available for a future Palestinian state."
Alatar defines himself as a peace activist, and serves as the director of Palestinians for Peace and Democracy (P4PD). Last year he brought Arun Ghandi, Mahatma Ghandi's grandson, to the region to teach both Palestinians and Israelis the power of nonviolence. He believes that the development of a massive nonviolent movement is the key to ending the occupation. However, he says that everyday it becomes harder to convince Palestinians of the effectiveness of this approach, as they see negative changes before their very eyes from their windows and roofs. There are now over 200 settlements, and they affect every aspect of daily life. He met a cab driver who had his car confiscated because he traveled on the wrong by-pass road (that avoids Palestinian villages). It's also Palestinians who are building the 12-foot high wall at Abu Dis.
"What I wanted to do in my film," he says "is to show the reality on the ground. I wanted to highlight how the settlements are the major obstacle to peace. I want people to know that, out of the 600 checkpoints, there are only 24 separating us from Israel. All of the others separate Palestinians from Palestinians, and they were set up to protect the settlers." He says that the equation is simple - no settlements, no checkpoints. There would be no need for young Israeli soldiers to humiliate Palestinians. "The settlement enterprise is not the Israeli people's project, it's the government project. The polls say that the majority of the Israelis don't care about this very expensive project. So why should they continue to be built, and get financial support?"

Using Mainstream Voices

"I believe that the majority of American Jews are peace-loving people," he says, "but they lack information. That's why I decided to present many of the ideas in the film not via fanatic Israeli leftists, but via mainstream Israelis like respected Ha'aretz commentator Akiva Eldar, the very knowledgeable Peace Now settlement watch expert, Dror Etkes, Professor Jeff Halper (though sometimes his formulations are quite strong), and even the settler Michal." He tried to have decent on-camera conversations with ideological settlers, but it didn't work. Also appearing on camera are articulate Palestinian spokespeople, such as then-Palestinian Authority Minister Ghassan El-Khatib and journalist Sama'an Khouri.
He says that research for the film took a long time. "Israel says that only 2.5 percent of the West Bank contains settlement structures. True, but when you add the security by-pass roads and zones, it reaches 42 percent. I got that number from Peace Now. The main difficulty in finding out facts is that most of the figures are hidden in all the government department budgets." Alatar notes that Haaretz did a very good job when it published a special supplement about the price of the settlement enterprise. "When an American Jew gives money, they are not told it's going to the settlements, it's going to help the Ministry of Education."
Palestinians also learned things from the film. When it was shown in Ramallah, he was told by people that they didn't realize that so much settlement activity went on during the euphoric early days of the Oslo process. They remembered Palestinian children handing out candy to Israeli soldiers, while Israel was continuing to create facts on the ground.
It wasn't easy making the film. He was afraid that they were going to lose one of the crew members during a violent outburst in Hebron when they were filming some young, armed settlers. Israeli TV news programs recently showed similar footage when armed and masked settlers challenged IDF soldiers, causing a media uproar. Another time he wanted to film settlers in Kiryat Arba, and he realized that if he showed them his American passport, with the name Mohammed, he wouldn't get very far. Using his ingenuity, he tied an orange ribbon (used by the Israeli opponents of the disengagement) to his car, and that became his passport. No one stopped him.

'To Make Peace with Your Enemy, Go to War with Yourself'

Mohammed Alatar had a tough childhood, growing up as a refugee in Jordan.
He remembers watching Israeli TV, particularly the Egyptian movies on Friday afternoons. He also saw the sexy Israeli women in bikinis, something that his mother didn't exactly like. Once he saw a press conference with Moshe Dayan that took place at the King David Hotel. He thought, I know who King Hussein is, but who the hell is King David?
He met his first Jew when he went to the United States, in Chicago. He was having trouble with the immigration authorities and realized that he needed the help of a lawyer. They said the best immigration lawyer available was Jewish. Two days later he went to meet him. He usually said that he was from Jordan, but this time he decided to say "I'm from Palestine, though you call it Israel." The lawyer responded "Never heard of it." He thought, I can't do business with him, but then the lawyer said something to me in Arabic, and it turned out he was an Israeli!" He then called in four other associates for consultation about the case, all Jews. "I had always heard that Jewish men had big noses, but when I looked around me, I realized that I had the biggest nose in the room!"
"The toughest decision in people's lives," he says "is to let their cookies crumble. I soon began to realize that Jews are like everyone else. If that's how much I know about them, how much do they know about me? To make peace with your enemy, you have to go to war with yourself, with your own stereotypical beliefs - the sooner the better. I decided to read everything I could about the Jewish people, and about Zionism. I can't say I've become a friend, but I have a much deeper understanding."

Using Film as a Medium for Understanding

Alatar decided to devote his life to trying to bring about better understanding between the two peoples. And films became his medium. "I think about the Holocaust, six million people vanished. After I visited the Holocaust Museum, the thing I remembered was the empty shoes. You can tell the story of some of them in two hours of film. You can also tell the story of Moses, of Jesus and of Mohammad in two hours of film. Science says that we remember visual images 400 more times than we remember written material. I want people to understand that the Israeli-Palestinian problem can be fixed - with enough money. I also want the Israeli public and the Jewish people in general to know what's happening in Hebron. How the settlers are acting towards the local Palestinians. One soldier told me that he didn't want to be in the film. He also didn't want to be in Hebron. He wanted to be on a Tel Aviv beach with his girlfriend. At the same time, the mayor of Hebron said to me that he would have no problem allowing religious Jews to continue to live in Hebron - in a Palestinian state
He hopes the film will be shown on the P.B.S. network in the United States, and took out eight minutes to fit their guidelines. Not only film, but satellite TV is having an impact on public opinion. Alatar saw a debate on Al-Jazeira, where Bassam Al-Sarhi asked a Hamas representative, Are you ready to accept a two-state solution and to make peace? "The audience applauded," he said. "Suicide-bombers aren't resistance against the occupation. They're fighting the Jews. On the Israeli side people should say the same thing about the settlers," says Alatar.
"This is not a balanced film," he says, "but it's an objective film. It's made by an open-minded Palestinian, and I challenge anyone to challenge the facts."
Now the film is on its way to international festivals. But his primary target audience is the mainstream American Jewish community.
His next project is to solicit funding for a film that will tell the story of the Jewish people to Arab audiences, in Arabic. It will include all of the Israeli voices, from Avigdor Leiberman on the right to Yossi Sarid on the left. "We simply don't know much about each other," he says. "Can you imagine 200,000 Holocaust survivors meeting 200,000 refugees at Allenby Bridge?"