'On the Side of the Road' discusses colonial mentality through the lens of documentary film

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Screenshot from 'On the Side of the Road' trailer

Activist Frank Barat interviewed Israeli filmmaker Lia Tarachansky about her new film On the Side of the Road, which tells the story of the fighters who sought to erase Palestine by perpetrating the Nakba. 

This is a transcript of the interview.

Your film On the Side of the Road [premiered] in Tel Aviv on November 28 during a festival called International film festival on Nakba and Return. Can you tell us about this festival, and the subject of your film?

This [was] the first film festival in the world that focused entirely on the return of the refugees that were expelled and fled in 1948 and the Nakba itself. It [was] held in Israel, which is revolutionary on its own.

My film [opened] the festival. It’s a film that has never been done here, in Israel, before. It includes my story, someone that grew up in a settlement, deep inside of the colonial mentality and colonial project of Israel and wakes up to the Palestinians and the Nakba. It profiles the soldiers who perpetrated the Nakba who expelled and massacred the palestinians. They talk about what they’ve done and return with me to the places that they have destroyed.

The film focuses on the concept of return not from the perspective of the refugees, but from the view of the perpetrators. In that way, the film connects 1948 and 1967 to today, as one continuous project of dispossession.

 

Only two former Israelis soldiers are testifying in the film even though you got in touch with many more. So how difficult is it to talk about the Nakba in Israel?

It’s incredibly difficult. As soon as you start talking about the conflict, whether it is with Israelis or Palestinians, you inevitably end up at 1948 within five minutes. [And,] 1948 is not just something that happened, it’s an entire ideology, a mentality. The Israeli fear is based on the fact that what we did to the Palestinians in 1948 will be done to us.

When I contacted other veterans, most of them did not want to talk about it in a critical light. They wanted to talk about it as this miraculous victory in a war where all odds were against us. Now that historians have started digging up the facts of the war, we’re starting to discover that what we believed about the State of Israel is pure mythology.

The first turning point in that journey of uncovering the mythology started in 1967 with the book by Simha Flapan The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. When you talk to Israelis, if you start talking about the Nakba, it brings up this intense fear. In fact veterans tend to be a lot more honest, because they did those things, but for their children or their grandchildren for whom 1948 is just a concept, it brings this deeply embedded fear.

The strongest element of Israeli DNA is knowing what questions you cannot ask. Once you start touching these questions with 1948 and its core, everything else starts to unravel. It’s an incredibly violent and terrifying process.

 

The film shows a scary side of Israeli society -- racist and violent. Is it really that bad?

I am not sure how to answer this question. Israelis and Palestinians are incredibly politicized. The conflict is an everyday thing. Violence is a daily reality here and it's mostly experienced by Palestinians and mostly perpetrated by the colonial project. The State, soldiers, the settlers and everyone else.

The film itself shows violence against an idea. The film profiles the Nakba as a very violent process of ethnic cleansing and destruction, where hundreds of villages were wiped of the map and refugees forbidden to return. The film focuses specifically on the psychological violence against the idea of questioning. It starts and ends with Israeli independence day, one year apart.

The whole film fits into what happened within one year, when the Israeli parliament tried to pass a law that forbids mourning what happened in 1948. It tried to silence history, silence people's feelings about history, something that on its surface is an incredibly fascist move.

The film starts and ends with this one day when we celebrate this big mythological bubble. On that day when we are supposed to be celebrating our miraculous victory, our State, everything, activists from the organization Zochrot tried to question what this mythology is based on.

The response from not only the State and the Police but also from people is incredibly violent. They try to violently shut up these activists because you cannot talk about 1948 in Israel and certainly not on independence day. That’s why this festival is so important.

 

The film touches upon your own story. When did you, a girl that was raised in a Zionist family and that moved to one of the biggest settlements in Palestine, Ariel, realize that what you thought was the truth was not?

I’m still realizing it. Unlearning and decolonizing your understanding is a life long process.

The first time that I started to question things was at University in Canada. There was an Israel week organized by the Jewish student organization along with the Israeli affairs committee on my campus. These two Zionist groups organized what they thought was a celebration of Israel.

For a whole week we had israeli flags everywhere, displays showing that Israel is a democratic country, a queer friendly country….You know, I am a Russian jew that grew up in Israel. I know what it is like for a Jewish immigrant to live here, in Israel because I was born in the Soviet Union. Unless you are a member of the white elite, of the Ashkenazi elite, you were always trying to fit into something. The democracy somehow does not touch you.

I therefore remember thinking that it was crazy for them to organize such an event on campus and say such things. I then realized none of them had ever lived in Israel. They only visited on birthright trips. The same week I met a Palestinian for the first time and had a conversation with him. I think he asked me for directions or something and somehow I found out he was a Palestinian.

The first thing that came to my mind was:"Oh my god, he knows I am a Jew and he is not trying to kill me." The only thing I knew about them at the time is that they are trying to kill Israelis and Jews, that’s all they care about. This person, on the other hand, was just friendly. That unravelled an entire violent process where all that I thought was true came under question.

 

There is a very powerful scene in the film when you go back to Ariel settlement and talk about the fact that this is where you grew up, where you learned about love and your love for this place. The settlements are always presented as this obstacle to peace so what about if Ariel had to be emptied to ensure the viability of a two States solution?

First of all I disagree with the assumption. The settlements are not an obstacle to peace. Colonialism is an obstacle to peace. The actual space on which the settlements are built is one per cent of the West Bank. If we had one country from the river to the sea where everyone had equal rights, the settlements will not be an impediment to peace.

It’s the idea that we must be in control, we as Jews, must have superior rights. We must control and oppress the Palestinians that is an obstacle to peace. If you want to understand the situation here, it’s not in the black or white. You have to look into the deep grey. It’s like that for everyone.

Just today, I was looking for an apartment in Jaffa. Me and my roommate got together with the estate agent who was Jewish. She is renting out a home that is obviously built on a piece of land where Palestinian homes stood. The actual landlord, is a Palestinian. What she called an Israeli-Arab. She tried to convince me that it was ok to have a Palestinian landlord. She told me that he was "the nicest Arab I had ever met. He is a good Arab, not the Arab you think."

This is just one tiny example in a daily negotiation that goes on and is part of living here.

 

So what do you want to achieve with this film? Do you want to change people’s views? Have your parents seen the film? What did they make of it?

My parents refused to watch it, for different reasons. My whole family treats my journalism [for the Real News Network] as this thing that Lia does and that we do not talk about. My journalism and my filmmaking is something that we don’t talk about because every time they try to talk about it, it turns into me asking them uncomfortable questions and it is not a conversation you can have on a daily basis.

We had a very deep conversation with my mum about the film and what is in the film and what is not. She believes it is a very dangerous film because it gives ammunition to the people who are resisting Israel.

As for the process of the film, it started as a very journalistic movie. It was going to profile the seven myths that we believe about the founding of the state of Israel through the stories of the historians and the journalists that have covered that history. As I evolved with the film, into someone who started to understand that you can not fit this place into black and white, you can not fit this place into any other kind of political conflict, it is a different place in some ways. The film evolved with me.

I realized that the facts do not convince, the facts weren’t what changed my mind. It was that person that I met that changed my mind. Even when you bring every fact in the world into a conversation with Israelis they will bring you 400 other kind of facts and you will never be actually talking about the essence of the thing.

I wanted to touch on the essence of the thing and the only way to do that would be to talk to the persons, the individual people and the only way to do that honestly it’s to also doing that within myself which is why the film includes my personal story.

 

I remember when we talked about the film about two or three years ago, you did not really want to have your personal story in the film.

I did not! And in fact, it was only recently when I was filming for the Real News Network and doing other kind of things that I ended up being on camera a few times.

That scene in Ariel is actually a scene that was supposed to be for a Real News piece and I just ended up breaking down in the middle of it! I just had this scene in my hard drive, just sitting there and bothering me in the back of my mind as I was trying so hard to do this film about these people, them, what they did.

Having taken four and half years to make this film, I really had the luxury of reflecting and re-reflecting on it. And again, and again and again the people in my life kept questioning the honesty of it if it did not include my story and so it sort of forced me to say "well you know what? Here is my story" and I think that the film is stronger as a result.

 

Final question, to make such a film that criticizes and opens the debate and demystifies 1948 and the creation of Israel, how did you manage to raise the money?

Well, I have a sugar daddy! I’m joking! No, the entire film is funded by individuals.

We did a crowd funding, there were two associate producers who donated quite big sums to the film and also regular people who care about this issue, who know me and the film and heard about the Indiegogo campaign we did, people who heard about me from my journalism work…It is just individuals and in fact the vast majority of the people who donated to the film are struggling themselves financially.

It is an enormous honour to see that people see the power in such a story that they are willing to put their wallets where their mouth is.

 

Thanks again Lia and I do also want to say that this is a great film and that everyone should see it. Good luck with everything.

Thanks so much.

 

Frank Barat is a Human Rights activist based in London. He is one of the coordinators of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a popular tribunal created in 2009 to expose and examine Israel's impunity in regards to its treatment of the Palestinian People. He has edited two books; Gaza in Crisis with Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe, and Corporate Complicity in Israel's Occupation with Asa Winstanley. He has also participated in the book Is there a court for Gaza? with Daniel Machover.

This interview originally appeared on Le Mur a Des Oreilles and is reprinted with permission.

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