Interview: Keith Walsh, Co-director of ‘Apples of the Golan’

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Keith Walsh talks to Film Ireland about Apples of the Golan, which documents the precarious existence of the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the occupied Golan Heights.

Apples of the Golan, Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth’s fascinating documentary, attempts to tell part of the complex story of the village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The opening narrative tells us that before the 1967 Six Day War, there were 139 Arab villages in the Golan Heights region. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria during that war – and now only five villages remain. All of the others were destroyed. Over 138,000 Syrian Arabs were forced from their homes. The documentary tells the tale of the Druze community, the people of a ‘forgotten occupation’, that live in one of those five remaining villages, Majdal Shams,

Keith Walsh explains how the film was born out of a chance encounter with human rights researcher Gearóid O Cúinn, who became the film’s executive producer. “He had just came back from the Golan Heights after having spent 3 month out there. He saw that there was a story to be told  – and after telling us about his experiences there, the idea of making a film was sold to us.”

A heartbreaking aspect of the film is that the people in the village have family in Syria they have been separated from – family they cannot visit as they are not allowed cross the ‘ceasefire line’. There is also the phenomena of the Syrian Bride (the subject of Eran Riklis’ 2004 film), whereby Druze women from one side of the border can cross to the other to be married to other Druze. But once she crosses she gives up her identity and can never return. It is personal stories such as these that were the crux of the film for Keith. “The human story was absolutely the most interesting aspect and the idea that these families were separated, divided by the border shouting messages across a minefield, known locally as the ‘Valley of Tears’. The tragedy of having a wedding or a funeral and shouting across a valley with mines to convey your condolences or congratulations is pretty striking.

“In terms of the politics, it’s an area that’s laden with politics –  there’s something political in everything there. So that was one of the challenges – to try keeping to the human stories but also to convey some of the politics, some of the forces that are impacting on the particular situation.”

Another key facet of the documentary is the evolution of a difference in opinion between the older and younger generations towards their identity, as the youth question the reality of the allegiances to a place they’ve never been. Keith explains that “here you have 2 generations that have been born and grown up on occupied Syrian land and they can’t go back to their home country. The more and more it goes on, the more and more they don’t belong in Syria in a way because they’re growing up in a different space.”

I ask Keith how this affects how they see themselves and their future. “Up to a recent point in time they still felt Arab and still felt Syrian so they would have seen their future ideally in Syria. But I think now that’s beginning to change with what’s happening as the civil war starts to deepen and the country starts to fracture. The homeland that they have been taught to love is no more. 90 per cent of the border that borders the Syrian side of the Golan Heights is controlled by the rebels – who would not be very accommodating to them – so there’s a sense of hopelessness among the younger generation. There’s been reports of a big uptake in the amount of Israeli citizenship; so anecdotally, I suppose the evidence is pointing to young people turning away… giving up hope of going back to Syria and trying to establish a life for themselves.”

So, sadly, as Keith points out, the conflict in Syria succeeded in doing what the Israeli occupation couldn’t achieve – “it divided the community. You might have had some dissenting voices prior to the conflict but for the most part they put on a public face of unity and loyalty to Syria. But now things have changed. Communities and families are divided.”

And with that comes another difficult chapter in the history of the Madjal Shams community – a community on the point of massive change.

 

Apples of the Golan is being shown on Thursday, 22nd January; Sunday, 25th January; and Monday, 26th January at the IFI. Click here for details.

The documentary will also be screened at the Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny on 22nd January; the Garter Lane Arts Centre, Waterford on 4th February; and The New Theatre, Temple Bar on 28th February, with more dates around the country to be announced.

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Irish Film Review: Apples of the Golan

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DIR: Keith Walsh, Jill Beardsworth

 

Can a people maintain their national identity when they are no longer part of the nation that created it? It’s this question Irish filmmakers Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth examine in Apples of the Golan. Since its annexation by Israeli forces in 1967 Golan Heights, unique for its apple exportation, has seen its number of Syrian Arab villages shrink from 139 to just 5. It’s the inhabitants of one of these remaining villages, Majdal Shams, who are the central focus of this documentary. Divided from loved ones left behind in Syria, their resources being siphoned exclusively for Israeli citizens, and with civil war simmering just over the border, these ‘undefined’ citizens cling to the dream that they will soon be reunited with the ‘motherland’. Beautifully shot and with a straightforward approach, this is a thoughtful insight into the lives of those existing between two worlds.

As the title suggests apples play a core part, both economically and culturally, for the people of Majdal Shams. At one point an Arab apple farmer cuts the fruit in half to reveal it has five seeds in its core to reflect the five pointed star on the Syrian flag. He also claims that the apples that grow on Israeli farms contain six seeds to reflect the six points of the Star of David. Later on in the film an Israeli farmer cuts open his apples to reveal that there are, in fact, only five seeds in all the apples that grow in Golan. Walsh and Beardsworth employ this symbolism to the degree that it begins to feel a bit forced; apples appear in shots where it’s clear that they were strategically placed there to make up the frame.

Overall, however, the two director’s style remains unobtrusive and they allow their subjects to speak for themselves. Put together like an odd patchwork quilt we are given shreds of individual lives which, though each separate and unique, are intrinsically interwoven with one another. There’s a distinct difference in opinion between the older and younger generations. The older residents of the region, who recall life before Israeli occupation, believe the situation to be strictly black and white. This is most evident in one particularly memorable character that continually pops in the film who holds President Bashar al-Assad in an almost religious reverence. Given what is reported of Assad’s regime in Western media it’s fascinating to watch him being practically worshiped by virtue of being the president of Syria, ethics be damned.

The younger generation, who have never known life outside Israeli occupation, tend to appreciate more so the greyness of politics that rule their lives and question whether re-joining with Syria would actually be for the better. One particularly jaded young man points out that the only reason apples are so important in their community is because they are the only thing that lends their region a distinct identity. These people are musicians, dancers, rappers and academics but the shadow of occupation hangs heavy over them all as they strive to form identities independent from their unclear national one.

This is a very humanistic film, un-judgemental in its observations and finding the extraordinary in ordinary moments. However, the film was also made on the idea that the viewer would already have a relatively well informed knowledge of Syrian/Israeli politics before watching. The directors do not hold the viewer’s hand throughout and provide only the most basic historical context. Basing their film on this presumption means that its content will lose a lot of meaning for those who did no research before heading to the cinema. But, to give Walsh and Beardsworth their due, this is a film that is first and foremost about people.

A skilfully crafted film, Apples of the Golan sheds light onto a subject that more people need to know about. Recommended.

Ellen Murray

82 minutes.
Apples of the Golan
is released 16th January 2015.

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Tips: Documentary making

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Filmmaker and editor Jill Beardsworth gives Film Ireland some personal insight into making documentaries.

Coming up with any number of tips on documentary making is a tricky task, as it is such a dynamic medium to work in, where boundaries are constantly shifting and the genre ever evolving. Almost every tip you give has a counter tip that is just as valid. However, here are some guidelines from my experience making documentaries, both shorts and features:

 

1.

It might seem obvious but the initial idea is key. Work on your idea and then work on it again and then do another bit of work on it. Think of why it is relevant and why it should be made now, or ever.  Why should it be you who tells this story? Why should somebody want to watch it? And what do you want them to leave the cinema with? These are all questions that you should be asking yourself at the idea development stage. You have to be a little bit ruthless with yourself at this part of the process and really, it is worth the cruelty.

 

2.

Proposal writing and pitching are like the dark arts of documentary making, and if you want to make films and get paid to do it or get anybody to invest in, or fund, your film, you are going to have to master them. Practice pitching your idea to your friends in the pub, your Mum, your neighbour – anybody who will listen.  You may be surprised at the challenging questions they come up with. One of the best questions I was asked when describing a documentary that was at the editing stage was “but do you have a point?”

 

It can be a good idea to bring a prop into a pitching environment. That could be the main character from your film, it could be a piece of fruit, a pair of shoes, a sod of turf, a packet of cornflakes, whatever. It will make you memorable and bring your idea to life for those listening to your pitch.

 

As for writing proposals, keep it simple, keep it about the film (not about the background story) and stick to whatever word count or guidelines you are given.

Write well and write visually. Be detailed when describing characters, say what they look like, describe a scene with them in it, give a line that they might say. All this brings your documentary to life on the page. Remember you are writing a documentary proposal so write what you will see on the screen, why you will see it and why you should be the one telling this story. Do not be afraid to show your passion (assuming you have it in spades).

 

3.

Work hard. Learn as much as you can about technical stuff, so you can become as self-reliant as your circumstances require you to be. But don’t get bogged down in it because what you are doing is trying to tell a story with some kind of truth and humanity and that is what is most important, not being an expert in resolutions or software applications.

 

4.Be open. Trust yourself. Make sure to live life as well as work, as it is here, in the abundant meadow of existence that you will find stories, characters and ideas.

It is important to become as good as you can at listening to, talking to and reading people. Be humble, empathetic and kind. Read the newspaper.

 

5.

Be ready to adapt. You are dealing with real life when you make a documentary and real life doesn’t stay the same for long, or turn out as you expected, or wait around forever. So it’s important to be able to work with spontaneity and not to be too prescriptive. Have a well worked out plan, but do not be afraid to deviate from it if it feels right for your film. And wear comfortable shoes.

 

6.

Trust your audience.  Spoon-feeding an audience with information, over prescribing how they should feel about an issue, ‘manipulating’ their emotional responses with the likes of music, voice over, etc., is to underestimate your viewers. Present them with something, a story, an idea, a character or situation, and give them the respect to do some work themselves. If they leave your film with questions, that might just be a good thing.

 

7.

Give lots of time for editing. I believe that all documentaries can really benefit from spending a long time in the edit room. If you can give yourself space to view cuts, leave some time to let things sink in, go back and make changes, watch again and wait, your film will be better crafted as a result.

 

8.

Get feedback before you finish. I always enjoy this phase of documentary making.  When the film is ready to let go to some chosen people to view, but not yet ready for the rest of the world. It’s a twilight period and I look at it as the last chance to listen to questions, suggestions and advice and really consider your film, before you unleash it to the wolves.

 

9.

Know when to let go. It’s always difficult to know when to finish but sometimes it just has to be done. Over a five-year period I’ve had a death, a birth and a marriage in my life while one feature documentary was being made and it just felt a bit long to have a project around.

 

10.

When you think it’s all over, it’s not. Keep lots of energy for the arduous task of trying to get your film seen. Endless festival submissions, choosing artwork, organizing a trailer, creating an online life for your film; there’s a lot to do and it can feel like an uphill struggle when you would be forgiven for thinking that the hard work has all been done. Or better still, get a distributor to do it all for you.

 

Embrace your regrets. They are inevitable but will teach you valuable lessons that you can use for your next film.

 

And, finally-enjoy it, embrace it and mean it.

 

Jill Beardsworth is an experienced filmmaker and editor who has made documentaries for RTÉ, TG4 and the Irish Film Board in Belarus, Kosovo, Ireland, India and Syria. Jill has had her films officially selected for several international film festivals and her most recent feature, Apples of Golan, which she co-directed with Keith Walsh, won the Jury Prize at the 2013 Baghdad International Film Festival and was chosen to tour universities of the UK & the US in 2013. Analogue People in the Digital Age, Jill and Keith’s recent short made under the IFB Reality Bites Scheme, is currently touring festivals.

 

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