Everyday heroes: filmmaker Dahna Abourahme interviewed

A scene from The Kingdom of Women

Born in Amman, Dahna Abourahme is a Palestinian filmmaker based in Beirut. A graduate of the New School for Social Research, she has worked on a number of films. Her first feature film, Until When, is set in Bethlehem during the second intifada and follows four Palestinian families living in Dheisheh refugee camp. Abourahme’s latest documentary, set in contemporary Lebanon is titled The Kingdom of Women: Ein El Hilweh. It focuses on the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein al-Hilwe in south Lebanon, and on the women in particular as they reminisce about their roles during the Israeli attack on the camp in 1982-1984. The Electronic Intifada contributor Amany Al-Sayyed interviews Abourahme about her work.

Amany Al-Sayyed: Is your initial training in sound recording, given that you have worked with director Annemarie Jacir on a few shorts?

Dahna Abourahme: I was trained in audio-video production which included theory and production. But I did work on sound. I did some sound recording in films including 500 Dunam on the Moon. I have also done editing in terms of working in the field. At university I did a few short [films]. The first feature I directed was Until When, which was a bunch of filmmakers getting together and coming up with the idea. It included Annemarie Jacir and Suzy Salameh. We were active around Palestinian issues in the [US]. It was around the time that the Right of Return/Al-Awda coalition was starting up and it was very active around the right of return. The second intifada had just broken out so there was a lot of the image of the Palestinian as “terrorist” going around. We were trying to address that and do something more of the everyday experience of people living in Palestine, Bethlehem and the Dheisheh refugee camp, specifically.

AS: Why and how did your work start in the Dheisheh camp in Bethlehem?

DA: I was working in youth media for social justice in New York. We did workshops with teenagers on issues that they think are important in their lives but through a social justice framework. A lot of the places I worked with are related to lower resource communities and communities of color. We encourage them to create dialogue and change in their communities. So from New York I had a connection with a youth organization in Dheisheh called Ibdaa. They had come to New York on a dabke tour. So I worked with them, did a video with the youth and so I knew the people and the kids and I basically had an “in” this way. But once we started to learn about Dheisheh camp and the people there it made most sense to focus our project there.

AS: How did the documentary The Kingdom of Women come about?

DA: It evolved through what I was doing. It is produced by Al-Jana Arab Institute of the Arts which has an oral history component to it. I was doing editing/video work through them in Nahr al-Bared and Baddawi [refugee] camps and the youth there. This documentary on women of Ein al-Hilwe is part of a larger project which started in 2005 as a combination of some women who got together from Saida and from the Al-Jana office and voluntarily started coming up with questions to document the experiences of women in Ein al-Hilwe from 1982 to 1984 by doing interviews. But then [the Israeli invasion of Lebanon started] in 2006 and so they stopped. Then, in 2009 they picked up the interviews and they contacted me to work with them. The field coordinator, Ibtisam, from Ein al-Hilwe got on board again. We interviewed around 29 women, different age groups — mothers, daughters, sisters — and people active in rebuilding, or people doing some sort of political work, or people imprisoned, we went to different neighborhoods in the camp, you know, different experiences.

I got the chance to get introduced to their stories. We did this in 2009. There will be by the way an archive of these interviews, of the 29 women, available to the public online to be put to use towards other educational/cultural spheres even in other countries and their own communities.

AS: The style of the film includes segments of animation inserted while the interviewees speak. Why the choice of animation?

DA: You know it can get to the heart of the feeling, the raw simplicity of it. Also there is this thing that it goes towards imagination because it has a playful element to it. The animation can make a serious subject sort of lighter to get. But the play between reality and imagination is important because it is like imagining a kingdom of women and the possibilities that can exist for them, especially now during these times of ours when there is lots of conservative elements, a lot of factionalism, a lot of unemployment for Palestinians and so on. I think the appeal of the film to me is its ability to create a space for positive empowerment and I think the animation helps in achieving this.

AS: Can we call animation, in terms of documentary-making, a new language for the experience of struggle and empowerment such as the Palestinian experience?

Dahna Abourahme (Fadi Abu Ghalyoum)

DA: Visually maybe, yes. Even for the younger generation. You know we have the scene of the women appearing like superheroes when burning the tents as an expression of disapproval against the [sub]-human conditions of living offered to them after their homes were destroyed. So yes, animation takes from something like the language of the action superhero comics. But also what we did that was interesting with the animation is that Lena Mehrej our animation artist had to work from something visual. So we asked our interviewees like Khadija, Umm Amer and Amal to bring personal objects that told a story about that period, whether photos, letters or newspaper clippings. Like when Amal was released from prison, that was on the newspaper and her own photo was in there, she kept the clipping. So Lena drew from these memories — there are scenes of letters and photos if you notice in there.

AS:Speaking of spaces, how was it like filming in Ein al-Hilwe as a director with a crew?

DA: Ein al-Hilwe is a dense place, again returning to how the visual language is developed. We as a small crew would see the story through the eyes of the women as they live and create their own spaces and places in the camp. Like Umm Amer — we follow her to her kitchen as she talks to us. The dabke by the children is another example. Generally we did not have any problems and we had someone from the camp working with us so he knew what to avoid in terms of shooting spots.

AS: For you as a cultural producer, is it easy to choose what to represent on screen as an image of a Palestinian experience, given that there is no one universal Palestinian identity or image?

DA: This is definitely what Al-Jana was thinking about when they were working on this project. This was an empowering image of Palestinian women working in their communities as opposed to being victims. This very much attracted me to the project because generally in my work I think it’s in the everyday people stories where you find real change. It is really in appreciating the person in front of you, the human element.

AS: Again, on the idea of who is a Palestinian, is this a method to avoid stereotypes?

DA: Yes, I think our stories should not always be on the image of a refugee struggling all the time. There is the history of occupation and the consequences of it, and that is a reality, but there is also the day-to-day level of things, so I don’t think we should box-in the image of the Palestinian. The Palestinian living in Beirut, or Canada or wherever, each one has a different issue that they are dealing with so there are varied experiences. But more so the experience of the strength of women, or the idea of creating something out of nothing like the women in the documentary do. Or a love story. So Palestinian cinema does not need to limit itself to the issue of struggle or occupation. There are different kinds of stories that can be told.

AS: Of women-empowerment, can The Kingdom of Women be described as a narrative on gender equality or rights?

DA: The film is an appreciation of what women do. Their role was heightened in this narrative because their homes were destroyed and they needed to do what they did. But outside of that, in their everyday work, they continue to be inspiring and empowering to their communities after 1984 until the present. More generally, women have not changed but what did change is the way society views them and the laws related to women in places like Ein al-Hilwe and beyond, in Lebanon and the world.

AS: How do you feel the women from Ein al-Hilwe have inspired your future educational films and documentaries?

DA: Yes, those everyday heroes, the inspiration is definitely in the humane ways where I see change happen.

AS: There is a scene where Umm Amer tells her son about the Palestinian “right of return” or al-awda. He is invited to go to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank through his school and his mother says, “yes but you go as a visitor not as a citizen.” Can the film also be described as a narrative on al-Awda?

DA: Yes, even though the child did not go through the same political and military struggle as the mother, they can still connect through this element of the right of return. They try to connect in everyday real ways even though the physical return is a dream. This is what makes the story concrete and what keeps the struggle alive.

AS: What future projects do you have planned?

DA: I don’t know, there are lots of small beginning ideas. I have some stories with my grandmother who lived in Jordan and a great aunt who lived both in Jordan and Bethlehem — the sisters, I’ve been thinking about this. I hope to work more with Al-Jana here in Beirut, too.

Amany Al-Sayyed is a Palestinian-Canadian writer and cultural activist based in Beirut, Lebanon.