Palestine Her Story Documentary Essay

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A Documentary Filmmaking Experience

Aim and Accomplishment

Renov (1993) states that there are four fundamental purposes of a documentary: “1) to record, reveal, or preserve; 2) to persuade or promote; 3) to analyze or interrogate; and 4) to express” (p. 21). In my documentary, Palestine, her story, my aim was to observe—i.e., to record, reveal and preserve—the stories of the Palestinian women who served as the subject of my film. The film is therefore an observational documentary.

Looking back on my original proposal, I can say that I have completed at least a portion of my original project. The focus of my 20-minute film is on the three Palestinian women who live a successful life in London. Each woman is of a different generation and thus each one has a different experience to share, a different story to tell. Yet they also have one thing in common, which is Palestine. The films focuses on this connection and shows how, while all of the women have been successful and now live in London, their consciousness burns with devotion towards Palestine. In terms of my original proposal End of Diaspora, this 20-minute documentary serves as one section of the larger story that I envisioned. In terms of Renov’s (1993) theory of what a documentary should do, Palestine, her story, achieves the first purpose—but still with the rest of my proposal I envisioned accomplishing the other three purposes as well.

My film opens with Laila al Shawa, an artist born in Gaza-Palestine in 1940. Laila describes her background, her travels, and her profession briefly. She is from the oldest generation of women featured in the documentary. She speaks English well but has a strong accent. The film then introduces the next generation—a woman from Nablus, who is now editor-in-chief of Al Quds Newspaper, Sanaa Al Aloul. Sanaa speaks only Arabic. Our third character is of the third generation, and her name is Judie Kalla: she is the youngest of the three and is a chef and author of the book (banned in Israel) Palestine on a Plate. Judie speaks with an English accent. She has never visited Palestine, but has a deep, personal love for the place, the people and the culture because of her family ties and the fact that members of her family are still there. She recreates the image and experience of being in Palestine through her cooking as well as through her writing.

At the beginning of the project my aim was to focus on journalists, using different genres of documentary filmmaking to tell their stories. I wanted to focus on individuals who left their homeland to become the successful journalists they are today despite their challenging journey. However, after researching my subject more, I came across the name Laila Shawa—the artist in the current film. Her story inspired me to shift my focus away from journalists and to broaden it to include the success stories of all sorts of individuals connected to Palestine and to show how each character is united to Palestine in his or her own way. During my meetings with Laila, however, I realised that there is an underrepresentation of women in the Palestinian. I began narrowing my focus to include specifically Palestinian women living and working successfully in London. I felt that this kind of focus would not only help to humanize the face of Palestine but also make it more immediate for the viewer. Instead of seeing grainy, muddy images of conflict in Gaza, I could show real women of Palestine living among us, sharing their experiences, feelings, stories, and in doing so could show to the viewer that this issue is not confined to a narrow strip of land in the Middle East where people live in hovels but rather that it is a conflict that touches many lives of many different backgrounds.

For that reason, the documentary focuses on (a) a quirky artist in her 70s, (b) a serious journalist in her 50s, and (c) a cook in her 40s. They are all very different from one another yet all share one thing in common—a love for their homeland. As my initial aim was to highlight the successes that Palestenians have achieved far away from their home, I have accomplished my task in this sense, and by allowing my interviewees to tell their stories in their own words, I have enabled these Palestinian women to use their voice and draw attention to the Palestinian cause.

Originally, I had in mind making a contemporary, hybrid documentary, with the narrative unfolding through the dual use of an observational style of filmmaking and a performative element to allow for a poetic effect to be produced.
I wanted to include concise discussions with my subjects on their views about the occupation and its effects on Palestinians, using both interviews and a studied observation of their present life state. However, as the focus shifted, I discovered an alternative way to tell this story—and, in fact, a different sort of story to tell overall. I was still able to include interlude sequences of archival material (both from the characters collections of childhood

and experiences, and from archives of Palestine and the catastrophe). The nostalgia felt by each character was revealed through these impressionistic sequences as if they reflected the characters’ internal reminiscences. So I was happy to be able to achieve this aim.

Weaknesses, Strengths and Methods

Weaknesses

Lighting, style and atmosphere are areas where I had hoped for greater consistency. I wanted the interviews to all be shot in the same style of lighting and with a similar kind of atmosphere but failed to achieve this effect because of limited time and restrictions on locations. I also wanted to obtain better quality archives of Palestine and London during the Nakba, with footage of refugees fleeing the country so that the viewer could understand the history more viscerally, but I only managed to use a small amount of footage for copyright reasons but also because this footage is hard to find. Poor quality of lighting in Layla’s house marred this section, I felt, and again the primary culprit was due to a limited amount of time to set up and spatial restrictions. I had to do all the set-up alone.

Finally, it was very difficult to fit all the material I wanted to fit into 20 minutes. I had to compromise a lot of scenes which made me choose maybe the best lines instead of what matched the story. A lot of interesting tidbits were left on the cutting room floor, so to speak—and I feel that the stories of these three women could really be fleshed out into a feature length film because there is simply so much to tell.

I also wanted to rely on less interview footage and use more footage of their daily personal lives, which this draft lacked and—what I aim to do with the film afterwards is to include more of these “daily life” shots.

Strengths

The overall narrative is the documentary’s strongest point: it is a good story to tell and the documentary is structured smoothly and evenly so that each of the three characters has equal or ample time to tell their stories. The film worked without narration, which is what I hoped to achieve, for I envisioned the characters telling their stories in their own words.

The use of archival material from Layla’s childhood as well as home cutaways made the visual experience of the film rich and romantic. I wanted the film to be personal and not so political, and I was able to achieve that effect by choosing the right questions and getting to know the subjects. I built a good relationship with my subjects beforehand and was able to guide the interviews in such a way that the personal stories came naturally to the fore.

Judie’s house for lighting and space was perfect and I really felt that this was the best location for interviewing. The environment also reflected the last generation and her character well. All in all I would have loved to have similarly-styled interviews.

Methods

I had in mind a series of interviews similar to what one might find on a TV series—very clean vignette and minimal props with smooth tracking shots entering the characters lives followed by cutaways to old archives to reinforce visually the details of the story—something like the documentary series Wild Wild Country on Netflix.

I felt that I was able to achieve this goal somewhat satisfactorily. I achieved at least a kind of balance between the beautiful and the factual, and that’s really what I wanted to accomplish—even if at the end of the day lighting issues frustrated me. At the same time, I think I gave more justice to my characters by putting each one in their own environment depending on what they do. This actually….....

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References

Bernard, S. C., 2010. Documentary Storytelling : Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films. Third ed. s.l.:Taylor & Francis group.

Burns, K., 2011. Prohibition. PBS.

De Jong, W., Knudsen, E. & Rothwell, J., 2013. Creative documentary. Second ed. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Fricke, R., 1992. Baraka. LA: Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Renov, M., 1993. Toward a poetics of documentary. Theorizing Documentary, pp.12-36.

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