Scene Afresh

By Osama Qashoo


For a Palestinian studying in London, the possibilities of documentary film can only help in understanding the brutalities of occupation and the dignity of resistance

I come from the village of Qalqilya in the West Bank, and grew up within a story which was too close, too fierce, painful and present to tell. Only now, from the privileged distance of the National Film and Television School (NFTS) am I learning the technique and art of storytelling in images.  

My primary school was under the military administration of the Israelis. Teachers were deliberately displaced to obstruct our education– English to sport, history to science – so the staff abandoned the curriculum and told stories from life, although those who strayed into Palestinian history, like my uncle, were immediately sacked. There was a complete gap between what we learnt at school and the reality we lived. We used to rely on the radio for information because the TV channels were either Jordanian, focused on the habits of the Royal family, or Israeli, giving only their version of the news in Arabic. We never saw our own streets, our products, cultural and political leaders, our principal cities. We were invisible. This made it harder to be critically aware of what was happening to us. Another important influence were the stories of my grandmother. Friends and cousins gathered round. We would close our eyes and lose ourselves in tales of magic and monsters, and the people she remembered, who had struggled for what they believed in, until the last breath of their lives. These characters were as vivid as the heroes we watched on television, film fantasies we carried with us long afterwards and even later, when the only films we could see came from America, the world of James Bond and Star Trek.  

I first took up a camera in reaction to the unbelievable scenes going on around me each day – humiliation, killing, punishment – and for no reason. We were treated as less than human, made to feel like exiles in our own land, imprisoned inside ourselves and within our own families. Sometimes I managed to get rid of the negative energy with pen and paper, but there was no-one to complain to. Frustration was the only result. Then I observed how the soldiers would act differently at check points, facing demonstrations and during curfew, if journalists were there with cameras. I realised that the soldiers’ fear of being recorded could prevent violence and death and I began to search for a camera. The first one was broken but once I had it, it became a necklace round my neck. I never went anywhere without it. Then I got hold of a working camera and began to document what was happening but still I never thought of myself as a filmmaker or of making films. The camera was simply an extension of my body – a physical reaction to what was happening around me and an emotional response to injustice.  

When I was forced to leave Palestine, I managed to get 75 out of 100 tapes out through international carriers. I contacted the BBC and other channels but was told that they were only interested if the footage involved killing and death. This made me very angry. Since 2000, when the current Intifada began, I had worked with many foreign volunteers and realised the limitations of their knowledge of the situation. When it was difficult to communicate across the language barriers, I could explain using the images I had on record, and I hoped to be able to use this evidence to inform a wider audience outside of Palestine. It was only when I was accepted by the National Film School to study documentary that I looked at my material from a distance and, for the first time, as a document which existed outside of me. Far away from home I saw so many things which I hadn’t seen before. The detail and power of the images was a revelation to me, urging me to translate, to make them speak out loud. In the environment of the Film School, surrounded by people with specialist skills and given unlimited help, I began to develop a new critical awareness. I learnt through intensive screenings where the instruments used to tell stories on the screen – sound, camerawork, rhythm, montage and editing – were constantly analysed. I was encouraged to look at films shot by shot. Students worked together from the different specialist departments bringing their own perspectives and giving the impression that we were all part of a large production company. It was not always easy to understand the many films in different languages, from cultures foreign to my own, but it was a very important learning process. In particular I learnt about the observational documentary mode and recognised its power to reveal experiences from around the world and bring new understanding.  

Starting out on my first documentary, the difficulty was to find a structure, to draw out one story from all those scenes I had been part of. I had grasped the importance of placing the audience in the film space to involve them in the story from beginning to end using character, location and time. I knew I wanted to tell a human story but using more than one character and it came to me that I should use the olive tree. I had footage from my own days harvesting alongside my uncle and family, of the collective happiness of the people tending the groves, and of the arrival of the dreaded diggers, uprooting ancient trees and livelihoods in minutes with cold, metal fingers.  

With few words, and using painful scenes of people resisting the soldiers’ invasion, the olive tree became a powerful symbol, not of peace but of resistance. It became a universal subject expressing a poetic experience of injustice which could be understood by diverse communities within and outside of Palestine. Ironically, I also came across a shop in London where doves carved from the wood taken from these uprooted trees were being bought unwittingly as mementos of peace. After hours spent finding our way in the edit, this sequence gave my story its ending and I had begun to learn the language of editing, the importance of the editor, and the need at certain moments to let the images lead, how to trust and to follow.  

My Dear Olive Tree, completed last year, was screened at solidarity events round the country and later I was able to take the film back to the first Palestinian Film Festival to be held in Ramallah. The reaction was overwhelming, particularly from the people who had been recorded in the film. Exhausted and dispirited by the struggle, the film gave their actions a new coherence, and the experience empowered them. They could see the significance of events which had consumed them at the time. I felt the power of film, its political significance, and at first hand. I had been aware that the emergence of the Palestinian Cinema Movement, after the defeats of June 1967, was an act of resistance in itself – that these films reflect the political and cultural values of the Palestinians, and document the history of our fight for justice and independence. They are a statement of our refusal to disappear from the picture, to be written out of the story, communicating our own experience and perspective on events. I had been aware of the importance of this movement, but ironically it was only when I left the country and came to England that I had the possibility of seeing many of these films. Now, far from my homeland, learning the language of cinema with the support of many new friends and teachers, I realise that making films is like writing books, just as important but using a different ink.

Osama Qashoo studied at Al-najah University and for some time at Birzit University. He worked as a freelance journalist and organised resistance to the illegal Israeli occupation. He is currently studying documentary at the National Film and Television School.

The images of Palestine shown are by Carol Archer, whose exhibition of photographs ‘Within These Walls’, taken during an extended stay, was shown in October 2004 at London’s Campbell Works Gallery ( Thanks to Holly Aylett for her assistance with this piece.