Alaa Ashkar: “I Wanted to Tackle the Heritage of Fear from One Generation to Another and Its Consequences”

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Portrait de Alaa AsharYou Reap What You Sow is a personal documentary exploring the identity of the Palestinians in Israel through the lens of one family, its collective memory, and the residual effects of those experiences on how the family defines and sees itself. Filmmaker Alaa Ashkar spoke with us about the film—how his experiences growing up as a Palestinian in Israel motivated him to make it, how completing the film affected him, and how he believes the next generation will be different than his.


BPFF: When you made this film, you originally set out to make a film about the collective memory of the Palestinians in Israel, right? What inspired you to do that?

AA: In the beginning, I had a personal issue in making the film. The question of identity preoccupied me, because I was born in Israel and I did not have an education about my Palestinian history and identity. I discovered all that as I was growing up, and also through my travels in Arab countries where I could visit, namely Jordan and Egypt. During those travels, for the first time I met Arabs from different countries, and it opened my mind to different things. One day I thought to myself, I have been to all these countries abroad, but I have never been to the West Bank to see the lived reality. I had been there as a child as a tourist during Christmas, but I never went there to live under occupation. So my first film was called Route 60. For that film, I lived in the West Bank in order to understand what occupation is. And this was how I learned that I [living as a Palestinian citizen of Israel] was also under occupation, but in a different dimension—namely is in our heads, especially in my head. And my head is that of a whole generation that doesn’t know their history and cannot identify themselves without any complexes or complexities of being a Palestinian. Because you are raised to fear this identity—from the state; from your family; from everywhere. In You Reap What You Sow, I spoke about this heritage of fear with my relatives.

I was living in France at the time, so I started going back to visit my family once a year. I am always fascinated by the changes in the landscape of the region—how you have these Israeli neighborhoods growing and connecting while at the same time they are increasingly isolating the Palestinian cities of the region, which is part of the project of Judaizing the Galilee. So I started filming as a naïve way just to witness the change. And each time I went home, I encountered these obstacles from my family saying that I should not do this; that I am implicating myself in politics, and I should not.

I wanted to film them to understand the two dimensions of the heritage of fear—the intimate one, through the family, and the global one, through the politics of Israel. They are effacing the Palestinian memory from the landscape and also from the minds of people. For example, in the Israeli education system, Palestine and Palestinian history is never mentioned, etc.

This is a film about growing up. I thought if I say how I grew up, maybe people will understand my situation, which is also a generational situation of many people, through an intimate story. I always think an intimate story can reach the emotions of the viewer. He can identify himself within the scenario, even if he knows nothing about Palestine and Israel. The heritage of fear anyone can relate to—and also to family relationships. The questions of figuring out who you are in life and what you want your history to be—these are questions that interest many people.

BPFF: Through the making of the film, did your understanding of this collective memory change?

AA: I made the film not to understand, but rather to express. I understood the history, which is very important to understand. You need this to make anything. Otherwise it will be difficult to tackle any subject. I came to understand all this during my life experiences—my travels, and my studies, later on—not in Israel but in France, where I did my Masters in Middle East History and met a lot of Palestinians from the diaspora. All this process made me make this film. The fact that I made the film was a relief. When something irritates or agitates you, if you express it and give it a form, it becomes independent and that is a big relief. I said what I had to say about identity. I have done it.

BPFF: It must have been a big relief because of the heritage of fear that you mentioned.

AA: I wanted to tackle the heritage of fear from one generation to another and its consequences. The consequence is that you live only partially who you are, as if you are half human, as if you are ashamed of being Palestinian, because the image that the family transmits to you about Palestine is their fear of living under the military regime of Israel until 1969, as well as their earlier memories of living as refugees. My family had the chance to come back, but some members of my family could not come back. There are so many bad memories—and they transmitted these life experiences to us. I wanted to tackle this and say the context is different today. We cannot live this fear. However, I respect and understand their fear—it became a part of me, because this is my life, but you have to become aware of that to live your own life.

The fear is transmitted because you don’t know the story. And you don’t know because they don’t teach you about Palestine. The school I attended was run by the Israeli Ministry of Education. There is a blackout on Palestinian history. In the Israeli media, they intimidate you about being Palestinian—for example, you saw in the film how they contextualized the guy from the Galilee (a Palestinian from Israel) who competed on [the Arab talent show] Arab Idol. In the film, I showed how the media ran a clip about Hamas before a report about the singer, and they say, “Hamas wants to kill us and throw us to the sea” just before they cut away to the singer. So in the subconscious of the Israeli mainstream viewer, Palestine is an entity that wants the extermination of Israel and the Israelis. So this perpetuates an atmosphere of fear. Add to that the security situation.

However, I stress that my film is a personal story, which is a generational story. Not everyone is like that. A lot of people are proud of being Palestinian and they grew up feeling that way. What I am saying is that the identity issue is very at the center of the lived experience of the Palestinians in Israel. Which is different from the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, because they live their Palestinian identity without any problem. They live in Palestine, it is called Palestine, they speak Arabic… for them, Israel is the occupier. But I was born in the state of Israel, I speak Hebrew, the Israel culture is part of me, whether I want it or not. I went to Israeli university… the identity issue is much more present for my community than in other places.

BPFF: Do you see a change in the next generation?

AA: I don’t know what will happen, and I don’t want to impose on anyone. I don’t seek to change the world. I seek to understand first and foremost myself, and then maybe others. I am sure Miral, my niece—she answered my questions as a child in the film. She still does not understand what I said. But when she went at the end of the film and started to ask the questions—“Who are these people? Why did they leave?”—I am sure that when she grows up, these things will come back to her. I think there are a lot of people in my generation… There is a whole generation that wants to end this generation of fear and end the complexities. Rather, we want to say it loud and proud: Yes we are Palestinian—I don’t have a problem with that! It is the other [the Israeli Jew] who has this problem, and he should resolve it. This is not my problem.

I think there are two young generations. On the one hand, there is a generation that is very aware and proud of its heritage. When I was growing up, no association came to my school to explain who I was to me. Now you have a lot of such associations, demonstrations, etc.

On the other side, there is a universal problem of youngsters who are increasingly disinterested and disconnected from the questions of origins, of politics, and larger issues—they have the consumer mentality—they are only interested in consumption and once they have everything they want, and they don’t want to go further.

And the young generation in Israel is becoming more and more right wing. There is no opposition against this right wing who are in power. It’s horrible for the left wing, let alone for us. But even with all that, I am trying to be positive. I think everyone wants to live. We should foster encounters between ordinary people. In Israel, everything is done to prevent and sever these encounters—through the walls (both the physical ones, and the walls they put in people’s minds). People grow up lacking a sense of humanity towards the other. The establishment does this deliberately.

BPFF: What has been the response to You Reap What You Sow?

AA: I have not been to Israel since the film was completed. I am going back this Christmas, and I would like to screen it at least in Nazareth. It has been shown in the West Bank. I think it went well, but I could not be there unfortunately—although I would very much like to see how Palestinians in the West Bank react. Here in France, there are Palestinians who saw it—they laughed; they were surprised. But the thing that comes back the most is this question, how come Palestinians in Israel forget who they are and deny their history? But the film is about that. It is a great opportunity to explain their context, their environment, in order not to judge them but rather to understand their reality.

When I screen the film in France, I am usually present and it generates great debates. What I like is that they interpret the film again according to their own life experiences. A lot of people say, “Your film reminds me of my life, even though although I have nothing to do with Palestine.”

My family has not seen the film yet. Only my mother—I sent her a link. My mother does not like this kind of cinema. She thinks it is me—“Alaa who asks questions all the time.” She said, “You are happy, you did what you wanted, can you please do something else now?” I will show it to the others when I return. I tell my niece Miral, “You are a star now in France.” When I go back, I would like them to come to a public screening.

BPFF: What is your next project?

AA: I will not do a film about identity. But I would like to make a film without talking about myself. No voiceover. You Reap What You Sow was very personal, and I am done with that. Now there is a Beduin family in the West Bank that I am following. I was always fascinated by the desert—I love the desert. This family lives between Hebron and the Dead Sea in a deserted area. They have a house but they prefer to stay in the caves and tents with animals. They have a very simple life, but they are in Area C, so there are a lot of things going on—the Israeli army training, the settlers, and so on. The film is still in development. I already lived there with them for a week last winter, and will spend one more week in the spring.

BPFF: Do you have any final comments?

AA: It is important to have festivals like yours. I feel like BPFF is like the Palestine festival in Paris. It is very plural, inclusive in that you show all types of films—intimate stories, funny stories—not just the hard-hitting documentaries about the occupation.

BPFF: Thank you for speaking with us today.

You Reap What You Sow screens Saturday, October 28, 2016 at 1:00 pm at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

View the full festival schedule and buy tickets here.