Documenting the Occupation: Director Yahya Barakat discusses working under Israeli military rule

Yahya Barakat (EI)

To conceive a film or video and execute it successfully is a challenge for any experienced director. But add a military occupation into the mix — with its checkpoints, invasions, and violence — and the difficulty is increased exponentially. Yahya Barakat, who has seven documentaries under his belt and spoke with The Electronic Intifada during the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, has met the challenge of working under an occupation and and tackles its stories in his work.

In his film In God’s House, which recounts the siege on Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity through interviews with three different priests and others involved in the church, presents a different perspective of the event than what the Israeli media would have one believe. Barakat said that the media made it appear that the Palestinians, who actually sought refuge in the church, were holding the priests hostage. But in the video, one of the priests describes the Palestinian men as respectful, although another priest jokingly lamented that the men ate several days’ worth of food in just a few meals.

Barakat, discussing the challenges that Palestinian film and video makers face, said that In God’s House was “made with my money … costing around $4000.” He added that because a lack of funding is a primary setback, he had to not only be the director, but had to work on the sound, shooting, and writing as well. He said during the video’s closing credits, “If you read the names [there are] around seven persons. In European films, [you see] 30 to 40 names.” For his next film, a documentary about the death of Rachel Corrie, Barakat hopes “to do it with a big crew — with a cameraman, an engineer … and an editing professional.”

And although the equipment necessary for such a production can be found in Palestine, getting the money to obtain it is another story. Barakat said, “Here in America I try to find some funds for my new films. … I hear some people they are talking, but in the end nothing happens.” Barakat added that because of money woes, feature films are nearly impossible to produce.

Barakat conceptualized a feature film in the early nineties about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. He wanted to tell the story of “those people who don’t have an Arabic passport. At that time we didn’t have Palestinian passports but we had the haweeyah (identity card)” The movie would have given voice to the six to eight million Palestinian refugees who, at that time, could leave countries like Egypt on their passport but weren’t able to return. Costing $2 million, Barakat “couldn’t find anyone to produce this film,” which he ironically titled Normal Things.

As if financial difficulties weren’t problematic enough, military checkpoints have also burdened Barakat. During the production of In God’s House, Barakat said “[I had to] take my large equipment from Ramallah to Bethlehem … around three checkpoints.” He added, “I walked in the mountains for one kilometer to two kilometers” in order to evade the checkpoints. Commenting on the contradictory attitudes of Israeli soldiers, he said, “they don’t give us permission [to enter Bethlehem.] … The soldiers say, ‘bring me permission.’” Considering that they refused to issue a permit in the first place, Barakat asked the soldiers, “ ‘How can I?’”

Barakat mentioned that after shooting video in Bethlehem he was stopped at a checkpoint. “They took from me all of my material and they asked me, ‘What is this?’ They said, ‘Where are you working?’” Barakat showed the Israeli soldiers his I.D. from a European agency but he was detained. He said, “After three hours [the soldier] said, ‘Take your material and go.’” Getting back his video that was 30 hours worth of work, Barakat said he took it and ran.

After taking his work to an editor in Nablus, Israeli soldiers seized the city. Barakat said “everything closed. I stayed three days in the hotel. After three days I find 30 minutes to leave the hotel to find my way out of Nablus back to Ramallah. … After two days I came back to Nablus. This time I said I will continue my film. And we continued my film during their shooting and bombing.”

To get his footage out of Nablus without allowing it to get confiscated by Israeli soldiers, the director gave it to a European journalist to take to an Israeli Arab in Jerusalem, who then returned it to Barakat in Ramallah. He laughed at the situation, joking, “I need an American director to make a film of my story.”

However, Barakat experienced a tremendous loss when he permanently lost a completed film during the Israeli invasion in Beirut during the 1980s. After leaving his finished film, which chronicled the colonization of Palestine in the years 1922 to 1948, in his studio, he said, the “Israelis entered the studio and take everything.” The film disappeared before Barakat even had a chance to showing it to an audience.

But after screening his latest work at the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, Barakat can feel vindicated that he is getting his message out despite all of the roadblocks in the way. Regarding In God’s House, he said, “I try to make a film to say the true story about what happened in the church. I believe that any person around the world, when he sees the film, he will understand the true situation.”

Barakat stated that, “We need the Americans and Europeans to understand … what [the Israelis] do to us. They don’t understand that the Palestinians are under the occupation of Israel. Some … believe that we are coming from Arab countries and trying to push them out.” He added, “When they know the true story they will come to Palestine and they will come to help us … Rachel Corrie … she believed in the Palestinian people and she believed in peace.”

Like he set out to dispel the myths perpetrated by the Israeli media during the siege of the Church of the Nativity, Barakat hopes to counter the ineffective coverage that American journalists gave to the death of Rachel Corrie.

When asked whether the Israeli occupiers try to suppress Palestinian artists on purpose, Barakat said, “Yes, they want to … arrest our work and culture.” He discussed that theater troupes, artists, and filmmakers alike have been suppressed by the occupation. “They don’t allow us to travel when we [want to] go out of Palestine” to exhibit and screen work, he said. However, Barakat seems to remain optimistic about the impact of Palestinian work, and added, “You and me will understand what the culture means to the world.”

Maureen Clare Murphy is the editor of F News and lives in Chicago.