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New film puts Jerusalem activism in the frame

May 18, 2012 7:23 P.M. (Updated: May 23, 2012 5:26 P.M.)
By: Fiona Tarazi
NEW YORK (Ma'an) -- Just Vision, the organization behind the widely acclaimed 2010 film Budrus, is back with another documentary breaking new ground.

My Neighbourhood documents evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah, and the grassroots movement that has sprung up to prevent them.

The group has made its name drawing attention to what mainstream media often does not -- the non-violence movement and its leaders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Founded in 2003 by Canadian-Israeli Ronit Avni, Just Vision are film-makers with a mission. Avni and her team of North and South Americans, Palestinians and Israelis, are spreading the word about non-violent resistance.

While known for their films, the non-profit group says its real work is in the community.

Avni sees the films as merely one tool amongst broader efforts of promoting of non-violence, an ethos that she says she hopes will live on long after film festival accolades and box office successes.

Outreach Director Rula Salameh still travels around the West Bank hosting screenings of Budrus at universities, schools and NGOs.

But since Budrus covered a unique event -- the village's non-violent community organization in response to Israel's separation wall -- Just Vision has turned to a current topic.

The fate of Palestinian East Jerusalem is never far from the headlines. Sheikh Jarrah, the site of multiple evictions of Palestinian families to make way for new settlers, has attracted a broad movement of Palestinian and Israeli activism.

'Fusion point'

These activists are both subject matter and film crew in Just Vision's unique approach to documentary making.

While Palestinians, Israelis and international activists are shown protesting together on the streets, a further partnership is quietly brewing between activists and filmmakers.

Equipped with their own recording devices around the clock, activists capture footage filmmakers could not, such as evictions that often took place between 2 and 3 a.m. This raw footage, which makes up about 40 percent of the film, was edited into Just Vision’s own material.

In one scene, activists filmed 12-year old Mohammed El-Kurd as he pinned a sign reading "We Won’t Leave" onto the home from which he and his family have just been evicted. A settler now living in the house watches from the doorway -- Mohammed stands defiantly, holding his gaze.

The film's co-director Rebekah Wingert-Jabi points to this scene, caught off chance by activists, as one of the documentary's most powerful moments.

Although an activist being equipped with cameras is not something new, their footage has traditionally captured human rights’ abuses to use as evidence before courts and tribunals.

Ronit Avni believes this film marks the "fusion point" at which filmmakers merge traditional storytelling techniques with activist footage.

As director Julia Bacha explained, although a lot of footage is being shot in demonstrations, few people see it because it is posted online raw or roughly edited without a guiding narrative, so it is difficult for audiences to understand or process.

But, when the raw footage is incorporated into a documentary framework with a clear narrative it becomes a powerful tool for raising awareness, she says.

Urgency

The filmmakers wanted to get this tool out as fast as possible, as evictions in East Jerusalem continue apace.

Just the day after the documentary’s first screening in New York, the Natsheh family were forcibly evicted from their home in Beit Hanina, the first such eviction in that Jerusalem neighborhood.

As Bacha explains: "It was essential to bring attention to what’s happening in East Jerusalem quickly, while there’s still time to save neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah."

So My Neighbourhood became a 25-minute short film after just six months of editing, less than half the time a feature-length production would require.

Keeping it short is part of Just Vision's strategy for the film. As Avni explains, they do not "just hand over their film to their distributor and hope for the best," but keep working with the film long after its release.

While Rula Salameh travels the West Bank screening Budrus, other colleagues do the same in Israel and the United States. Usually, the screenings take place in community centers, faith-based congregations, universities, and schools -- hubs within communities where Salameh points out, "activism takes place."

Since these screenings are usually accompanied by a question and answer session, Just Vision hopes the brevity of My Neighbourhood will allow more time for audiences to weigh in.

They are also pushing out the film online. During the six-month editing period, Just Vision produced a series entitled Homefront: Portraits from Sheikh Jarrah, profiling two Palestinians living in Sheikh Jarah and two Israelis supporting the community's struggle.

The group hopes the availability of the series online will make it go much further, that much faster. If the documentary KONY 2012 showed one thing, it appears millions of people are willing to watch and share a 25-minute social issue documentary online.

Amid Just Vision’s experiments in collaborative film making and community engagement, their core message remains the same -- the importance of non-violence in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Just Vision is tackling these thorny issues from the grassroots, with the hope of drawing attention to the view from the ground, in this case, in East Jerusalem.
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