A confused and contradictory film on how foreigners “help” Palestine

3 February 2014

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The film questions the roles of aid and international intervention in Palestine.

(Roast Beef Productions)

As a child, Chloe Ruthven declares in the opening moments of this film, she hated the Palestinians. It’s a strong statement to make, especially against a backdrop of newsreel from the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing ahead of Israel’s establishment.

Her emotion was the reaction of a child who idolized her grandmother Pamela Cooper and would probably have liked more of her grandmother’s attention. Instead, Cooper was working in refugee camps across the Middle East and establishing the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians.

But as an adult, Ruthven obviously began to wonder what had driven her grandparents’ passion for Palestine. The outcome is The Do Gooders, a film on the question of aid and international intervention in Palestine.

The result, unfortunately, is a confused narrative, with different strands bumping uncomfortably up against one another. There are some important points made — mostly by Lubna Masarwa and other Palestinian speakers — but sadly they are often lost amid a lack of context and sometimes contradictory messages.

The first half hour focuses on volunteers and solidarity activists in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. We witness meetings at Project Hope in Nablus, the opening of Cinema Jenin, human rights observers and a demonstration against the siege in Gaza.

In this section, Ruthven’s voiceover raises some significant issues. Yes, an increasing number of Palestinian (and non-Palestinian) voices are questioning the way in which the West Bank has become the latest fashionable place for Western twenty-somethings to spend a summer “helping” those less fortunate.

Yes, there are deep ethical questions about why a seemingly unqualified, unaffiliated international is “interviewing” a victim of Israeli human rights abuses — especially when the victim is a sobbing minor, unaccompanied by parent or guardian, just released from detention to an empty home which has been trashed by Israeli soldiers.

Some of the volunteers we see are indeed patronizing or uncomprehending of the values and norms around them. But the film’s narrative never seems to grapple with what exactly is wrong; all we hear is that Ruthven is “uneasy” or “uncomfortable.”

Hazy

Sometimes, indeed, the link between Ruthven’s narrative and the action on screen is hazy. When she heads to Gaza, for instance, we’re told that only “serious aid professionals” can get in — but she then spends her time with activists from the International Solidarity Movement.

Part of this incoherence seems to come from Ruthven’s own lack of knowledge. At the start of her journey she films her Lonely Planet guidebook and her grandmother’s autobiography, and admits to surprise that she’s not seeing the Nakba-era refugee camps depicted there.

Of Ramallah, she “expected tanks” but finds instead “a five-star hotel.” It’s a valid description of the “Ramallah bubble,” but we get no information as to how concentrations of aid money and credit have created this economic and social anomaly.

There is also, one senses, a slight disappointment that Ruthven hasn’t found a crisis. “I couldn’t see what Fassbinder had to do with the people of Jenin,” she comments of the cinematic library there. Perhaps arthouse movies aren’t top priority. But why shouldn’t Palestinians have access to global culture?

Breath of fresh air

It is therefore a breath of fresh air to hear the activist Lubna Masarwa’s cogent critiques. As she emphasizes, there are deep problems with some international involvement in Palestine, when foreign activists dictate agendas and enforce discourses of “nonviolence” which deny Palestinian ownership of their struggle.

Why aren’t these activists, Masarwa asks, demonstrating at home, resisting their own governments, instead of coming to a place where they don’t understand the issues or the language?

Masarwa’s prominence in the film coincides with a shift in focus, to the multi-billion dollar world of USAID and European Union funding, rather than solitary activists and volunteers (although Ruthven doesn’t seem to articulate how she sees the two as linked, if indeed she does).

Ruthven is whisked off with “her own private PR woman and a jeep with tinted windows” to visit USAID programs. The water projects each cost US taxpayers $45 million, yet, says the “off-script” engineer to alarm from the PR woman, USAID is fully aware that restrictions on Palestinian water use enforced under the Oslo accords render the expensive pumps useless.

In the Jordan Valley, meanwhile, a shepherd named Abu Sakr makes the most telling statement of the entire film: “I don’t want [World Food Program] flour and the lentils,” he says. “I want the international community to pressure Israel so I can use my own resources on my own land.”

Simplistic

Ruthven’s naivete is a major aspect of her narrative device, but as she is the film’s main voice, it also means that the conclusions are frustratingly simplistic. “I’d had no idea how dependent the Palestinian economy was on aid,” she states. The obvious question is why, when making a documentary on aid in Palestine, she hadn’t done such basic homework?

She draws dichotomies between “aid” and “political action” without clarifying who she sees as being guilty of separating the two. Later, she says that she has learned that “the people at the top can’t change anything” — which seems to contradict her earlier call for political rather than humanitarian action.

“I was beginning to feel frustrated about how stuck it all seemed,” she declares. “What the fuck is all this non-violent resistance? Just get violent!”

In making such statements, she is guilty of the same agenda-dictating she earlier criticized, as well as ignoring the dangers which Palestinians have to weigh up when they select their tactics.

As often with critical narratives, the final problem is the failure to propose answers.

We get a brief view of the work of Dalia, a community-based organization, held up because of its independent stance and refusal of funding which comes with strings attached. But again, the wider context is absent — for instance, the attempt by an entire network of Palestinian non-governmental organizations to boycott conditional funding, and the tough decisions that has meant.

It is depressingly typical of this film that it ends not by grappling with the moral and political bankruptcy of Western “aid” but with a passing thought from Ruthven on what her grandparents might have said, followed by a day on Jaffa beach.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.

Comments

there's a basic principle that should dictate documentary creation anywhere in the world, and its one that I've found particularly instructive here in the west bank: make work WITH the people you meet, not ABOUT them. I haven't seen this film yet, but it sounds like its suffering from the same problems of every outside-looking-in doc created in the last 40 years. that isn't to say that its an easy rule to adhere to. the difficulty it demands is exactly the point. chloe, i suspect, would have benefited from a bit of self-doubt at the moment she began making her piece.