Palestinian voices reach a global audience in a film showing the harsh reality of living under the illegal Israeli occupation.
Visiting family members for a cup of tea, commuting to work everyday or going to school, all of these are simple, mundane tasks for many of us; we simply get up, walk out of our front doors and get into our cars or head to a metro station or simply walk a few blocks.
However, for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, a 200 meter separation wall and numerous checkpoints make these simple journey’s a daily nightmare. If Palestinians want to see their loved ones, they will have to put their lives on the line without knowing whether they will arrive at their destination alive or not.
This reality is reflected in “200 Meters”, an award-winning film which featured at this year’s annual Ajyal Film Festival and was funded by the Doha Film Institute (DFI). The feature was so moving it won the Audience award as well as the Bader Best Feature Film award.
Directed by Ameen Nayfeh and produced by May Odeh, the film focuses on the arduous journey of Mustafa, a father who struggles everyday to see his wife, Salwa, and their kids.
The father of three lives with his mother, separated from Salwa and their children by the Israeli built wall. While fathers around the world are able to kiss their children goodnight, Mustafa is instead forced to phone his; those calls end with the children switching on and off their lights for Mustafa to see them in an attempt to create some sort of intimacy albeit symbolic.
And while Mustafa reflects the reality of Palestinians, his character was born based off of Nayfeh’s personal experience with the occupation.
Nayfeh was standing at an Israeli checkpoint when his grandfather died and was not able to pass without an Israeli permit. Similarly, he could not see his dying grandmother without the eight-hour permit that was finally granted to him.
“Because the film was coming from personal experience, I wanted to share the reality of Palestinians by covering many perspectives, whether it is the Israeli barrier or politics and I did not know which specific angle to focus on,” said Nayfeh.
The plot climax begins when Mustafa receives the news about his son being taken to hospital following an accident, which was the moment the audience began to follow his journey to simply be with his family.
He joins a group of Palestinian men on a minibus as he sets out to go and see his son.
To their surprise, a German filmmaker, Anne, joins them on their journey.
Her character’s appearance raised eyebrows and was seen by some of the audience as another white savior, especially when she takes the lead in driving an Israeli vehicle to talk her way past the checkpoints.
However, the German character reflects the reality of many Palestinians, who would require a foreigner, non-Arab to help them safely through the man Israeli military checkpoints, scattered across their land.
“She was not the savior,” said Nayfeh, in response to the question about Anne’s significance in the plot.
Odeh added that she needs her foreign friends to get from one point to another to move in their own, Palestinian lands.
“We have been living under occupation for 70 years, we continuously face racist laws that disrupt our daily lives. Unfortunately, we are in the constant need of either having israeli permits or for someone to smuggle us,” she said.
The logistical process of creating the film took seven years and the filmmakers were able to complete the filming in the occupied lands within 22 days. According to Odeh, they learned to work around the limitations through their previous works, including The Crossing, which was another film about the illegal occupation of Palestine.
When asked about the repetitiveness of Palestinian films about the occupation, Nayfeh said that it would be difficult to detattach the issue from his work.
“If I want to make a film about a love story, the occupation will still be present in the plot. This is our daily life, there isn’t a moment where the occupation does not affect me personally. So as Palestinian filmmakers, we do not want to just talk about the occupation, but this is our daily life,” said Nayfeh.
On the choice of Mustafa to play the leading role instead of Salwa, who was clearly carrying the heavier burden throughout the whole film, Nayfeh said that he wanted the film to be more character-driven.
“I want the viewer to be able to keep up with Mustafa’s journey by seeing it from his perspective,” he said.
To Nayfeh, additional scenes, like showing the child being taken to the hospital, would have weakened the plot and would have created distractions to Mustafa’s long, arduous journey to see his family as he does not own an Israeli permit.
“The initial focus was on the journey, but then I realised the significance of the characters’ role, the family, because there would be no journey if there wasn’t a purpose behind it,” said Nayfeh.
Questions about the significance of Palestinian cinema and the challenges the filmmakers face continued to emerge during the discussion with the directors.
According to Odeh, the lack of funding and prioritisation of such films are some of the main issues they face.
“The Arab world and governments haven’t been prioritising the Palestinian culture and cinema and utilising it as a tool to tell the stories of Palestinians,” she said.
Odeh said that films do affect future generations’ perspective on the occupation of Palestine and are crucial in preserving Palestinian culture, which Israel has been trying to erode and diminish as part of its ethnic cleansing efforts.
“We are in a daily battle on our own,” said Odeh. “Cinema is our lasting weapon to face oppressive regimes.”
Moreover, there is now an even greater threat to Palestinian culture, especially amid the series of normalisation deals by Arab regimes with the Israeli occupation.
“We are in a constant battle against a well-supported system that is in the process of erasing our history, so we should also be more vigilant and smarter. Right now, we are in a critical situation with the wave of normalisation with Arab countries, soon Israel will begin to use the Arabic language to tell stories from their perspective,” said Odeh.
The 200 Meters producer added that a lack of effort by the Arab world to support Palestinian filmmakers adds to the “seven-to-ten” years that they face in order to produce one film.
“We do not have distributors, we do not have theatres that show independent Arab films for people to purchase tickets to view, that would in turn give films producers the financial support to begin creating more films, we do not have film schools, or Arab television channels that show our films,” said Odeh.
When asked about the ability to amplify Palestinian voices by placing their films on the world map, Fatma Al Remaihi, DFI’s CEO, said: “It gives us such an amazing feeling and pride, we love to be part of these films.”