Occupation Rough Cut

By Maysoon Pachachi

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Reflections on Ramallah


I’m an Iraqi film-maker, living in London. For nine years, I’ve travelled to Palestine to give short film courses and in June, I taught for a month at Birzeit University outside Ramallah. I arrived in a fragile mental state, more traumatized by the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath than I would have expected. I wanted to try and make a film in Iraq, but I couldn’t imagine what would be worth doing. Faced with the reality, I was stunned into silence.

Surda checkpoint, between Ramallah and the university

Every morning I climb out of the service taxi, squeeze through the concrete barriers, climb over a mound of rocky earth and then walk the three kms to the cars on the other side. There are no settlements close-by and this is nowhere near Israel. Even within the tortured logic of occupation, there seems to be no reason for this checkpoint.

A river of people trudge up and down the road all day long. I watch and listen, trying to get beneath the surface of the surface. A young boy with a broken foot on crutches, women from the villages with bundles on their heads, a man shielding his baby’s head from the sun, a small boy carrying an industrial size drill, a group of girls from the university, a medical volunteer pushing on old man in a wheelchair, a teenage girl shooting on her handicam as she walks from one end of the checkpoint to the other.

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Fragments of talk: “No, it’s over. I told her to take what she wants and leave me the rest”. “You can’t blame everything on the Israelis. She needs to see a shrink”. “No one gives a damn about anyone else. Everyone just looks out for number one”.

There’s a market down both sides of the road. You can buy any size of screwdriver or monkey wrench, shoes, yellow, pink and blue satinette curtains, football shirts, plastic cheese graters, toy cars, sweets, cold drinks, ice cream, Marlboro cigarettes (although the politically conscious all seem to have switched to Gauloises), watermelons, figs, cucumbers for pickling, tomatoes, meat.

The half-carcass of a sheep nearly slips out of its plastic wrapping as a man negotiates the barrier. Two men manoeuvre eight foot planks of wood onto a cart. A boy carries the front of a car – lights and everything – on his barrow.

All these people and no soldiers in sight.

But then, coming around a bend… an army jeep parked to one side. A young man kneels on the ground emptying out his carrier bag; a pair of jeans, t-shirt, book, cigarettes… A soldier the same age, desultory in the passenger seat, gun in his lap, can hardly be bothered to look. Across the road, hundreds of young men stand, waiting, shading their eyes with their orange and green identity passes. Three soldiers wander about in front of them, armed to the teeth. Nothing is happening. The sense of humiliation and emasculation is palpable – this is what it’s all about – but how do you make this ‘invisible’ reality ‘visible’ on film?

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I taught Saed in ’94 and now he’s a documentary filmmaker. We fantasize. “Suppose we film a checkpoint for a whole day – from dawn to dusk – and then project the finished film on the side of a building in Tel Aviv”. His brother joins in. “We could shoot on five cameras, linked to an OB van and connected by satellite to the outside world. We could transmit live to anywhere. Imagine…”

But would it show how the checkpoints are now inside people’s heads?

When I was last here, Ramallah was under curfew and Arafat’s compound was being shelled. This year, the city’s quiet; you can go out for a drink and an argila (water-pipe), do yoga classes, try to carry on a romance – as long as you stay in the city. As Saed says, “the physical and political space we’re allowed to live in shrinks everyday and the space inside our heads has also become smaller”.

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I sense that it has become too difficult and painful for people to examine their situation and to try to imagine an alternative. Everyone just tries to survive. This is what’s been going on in Iraq too, with 35 years of Ba’ath rule, 13 years of sanctions, three wars and now a military occupation. I begin to think that the film I make in Iraq will explore this question. How do people repair and ‘reconstruct’ themselves and their society? Where do they find the resources to imagine change?

Kasim, another Iraqi filmmaker living in London, teaches the course with me. We discuss how to contribute to ‘reconstruction’ in Iraq. A film training centre in Baghdad? A small film festival bringing together Iraqi directors from inside and outside the country? DV workshops for young people?

Our students finish their short films. Mostly they’re simple observational pieces, but they open up a space, a different way of looking at things. The students begin to understand the difference between news, which has been their work and their world, and documentary. We urge them to carry on after we leave.


Maysoon Pachachi’s latest film Bitter Water, about life in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon, screened at the ICA in July’s Palestine at the Pictures II season. She is a founding member of Act Together – Women Against Sanctions and War on Iraq.