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The Jerusalem Report: Getting Behind the Camera

The Jerusalem Report: Getting Behind the Camera

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Published by Daniella Cheslow
Four new short documentaries record Bedouin life. By Daniella Cheslow, Jerusalem Report, Feb 14, 2011.
Four new short documentaries record Bedouin life. By Daniella Cheslow, Jerusalem Report, Feb 14, 2011.

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Published by: Daniella Cheslow on Feb 06, 2011
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FEBRUARY14, 201114
IKE MANYGIRLS WHOgrow up in the shantytowns dot-ting the Negev desert, Yusra AbuKaff seemed destined to cut hereducation short and tend the fam-ily flock. When she was in tenth grade, AbuKaff’s mother locked her schoolbag in a clos-et so her daughter would not be tempted to goback to class. But the high schooler was deter-mined to graduate; she stole her bag andsneaked off to class several times a week untilher parents caved in months later.Other girls were less lucky. Abu Kaff heard of two who committed suicide in des-peration and she explores their bitter fate in“Burned Notebooks,” a nine-minute film shedirected about the frustrated young Bedouingirls of the Negev.In “Notebooks,” Nura, wearing a longblack dress and a black headscarf, explainshow her parents forced her to stop schooldespite her protests. Abu Kaff’s footageshows Nura gathering tinder for fire, coaxingashen embers to life, and walking with mot-tled white and brown sheep across the flat,barren land of the Negev. An older womanconcedes that girls today want to study, butsays of her daughters, “There’s no way Iwould send them to college.”Abu Kaff’s film and three other shorts(all directed by Bedouins) make up “Back and Forth,” a documentary released in Julythat provides an inside view into the livesof these poverty-stricken and under-educat-ed people. “Back and Forth,” screened atcinemas around the country, on Israeli tele-vision and at international film festivals,has brought the plight of the NegevBedouin, who number about155,000, to national attention.Abu Kaff is a soft-spoken woman whochooses her words as though she will be pun-ished for any mistakes. She is slow to smileand reserved. In an interview on the grassycampus of Beersheba’s Ben-GurionUniversity, she quietly rages at what she seesas the impossible choice – between rebellionand ostracism or utter submission to men –that Bedouin women are forced to make.“Our society is patriarchal. Men alwaysrule women,” she says. She looks at her longdenim skirt; her head is wrapped in a purplelace scarf. “I really don’t agree with traditionat all. These clothes are also tradition and Idon’t like it.”Besides, she says, herding sheep for hoursin the sun quickly loses its novelty once a girlrealizes that she is missing her education. Herwork aims to show that frustration, she says,and maybe even bring about a change.“I want to let women be freer,” she says.“I want them to have hope. There is alwaysa way.”“Back and Forth” is thesecond documen-tary about Bedouins produced by Israeli film-maker Uri Rosenwaks, who is head of theIsraeli Documentary Forum. Raised in thesouthern city of Beersheba, Rosenwaks hasfond memories of wandering the desert with
Getting BehindtheCamera
Daniella Cheslow
Four new short documentariesrecord Bedouin life
   D   A   N   I   E   L   L   A   C   H   E   S   L   O   W
YUSRA ABU KAFF:Budding filmmaker
FEBRUARY14, 201115
friends and stopping at Bedouinencampments for coffee and com-panionship. Since 2004, he has fre-quently driven the hour and a half from his home in Ramat Gan toteach aspiring young filmmakershow to shoot and edit in Rahat, aBedouin city in the desert, nearBeersheba.In addition to Abu Kaff’s filmabout girls in school, the otherworks deal with a local electioncampaign, a British animal lovermarried to a man from Rahat, andthe dangers faced by Bedouin wholove to plunge into the waves of thesea even though they don’t knowhow to swim.
WKWARD SHOTS, SPOT-tylighting and uneven storylines mark some of the filmsclearly as student productions. However, theshort pieces capture the poverty, paternalismand rigid social norms of the community. Atthe same time, they also show the momentsof joy: a child’s first day at the beach or kidspetting a fluffy white rabbit.Rosenwaks, 46, is one of Israel’s most cel-ebrated documentarians. He works systemat-ically and quickly, the product of a longcareer working on tight schedules. He studiedfilm at Tel Aviv University and is now pursu-ing a master’s in Near East studies.Rosenwaks spent 15 years directing inves-tigative reports for “Uvda” (Fact), a “60Minutes”-style television news program. In2008 he won the Pratt Prize forEnvironmental Journalism for “State of Garbage,” a look at why Israelis litter. He hasalso directed lighter fare, such as “The FoodTrail,” a 33-part TVseries on cuisines inIsrael and around the world.But he wanted to do something with moreimpact, he explains, and that is why hebecame involved in Rahat. He admits timeshave changed since he roamed freely throughthe desert, as a result of what he views as themisguided government policy that settled theBedouin in cities like Rahat, their problemsfurther exacerbated by soaring birthrates andrising crime.Rosenwaks first became involved inteaching Bedouins when his high school prin-cipal in Beersheba suggested that he make afilm about Rahat. Rather than making thefilm himself, Rosenwaks preferred to teachfilmmaking to his potential subjects. His highschool principal lent him film equipment, andRosenwaks contacted the Step Forward orga-nization to find him students and a classroom.Step Forward was founded in 2000 toimprove education in Rahat through coursesin reading, English and computers. They wel-comed his offer.“When you look at the documentaryworld, you see films about indigenous com-munities throughout the world,” he says.“You find that most of the films are in somemanner made by Westerners.”The Bedouins were similarly cast in Israelifootage, Rosenwaks says. This means that asa filmmaker, “you come into a certain envi-ronment, you suck out all the emotions andscenes this environment has to give you, andthen you disappear. You’re dust. You made agood film, but what have you left behind you?I wanted to do something better.Beginning in 2004, Rosenwaks taught hisstudents how to operate cameras, how toframe their shots and how to edit. Week afterweek, Rosenwaks’s most reliable studentswere black women, a small minority in theBedouin community. Some of them broughtback interviews with other black Bedouinswho complained of prejudice and discrimina-tion against them in Rahat. He began askinghis students about their families’origins, andfound to his surprise that none of them knew.Rosenwaks pushed his students to inter-view relatives and ultimately found out thatthe black Bedouin were brought to Palestineas slaves from Zanzibar as recently as 60years ago. He was able to obtain fundingfrom Channel 10 andthe New Foundation forTelevision and Film totake the class toZanzibar, where theirancestors were cap-tured, shackled, andshipped as human chat-tels. That documentary,called “Film Class,”won a Best One-HourMovie award from theIsraeli DocumentaryAwards in 2007.It was also a revela-tion for the Bedouinsinvolved. “Over theyears I knew we wereblack but we wouldalways deny we wereslaves,” says KamlaAbu Zeila, who studiedwith Rosenwaks. “We never asked.”After “Film Class” aired, Israel’s Channel 1TVstation and the New Israeli Foundation forCinema and TVgave Rosenwaks $100,000 toproduce short films by Bedouin directors.Rosenwaks chose his most promising stu-dents, along with some newcomers like AbuKaff, and found himself once again making aweekly pilgrimage to Rahat. He shepherdedhis students through the process of choosingtopics and laying out a film schedule.For Abu Kaff, the topic choice was easy:she had already written and shot a fictionalscreenplay about suicidal Bedouin girls. Otherstudents struggled to find a focus.Bader Alfrawna-Amer worked as pro-gram director for Step Forward; her sisterMay was a student. When May’s originaltopic, horse riding in Rahat, fell through, thetwo racked their brains for more ideas.Alfrawna-Amer suggested their Britishneighbor Janice Abu Hani, a blonde 42-year-old British woman who came to Israel forlove but found a calling teaching childrenabout animals.I know Janice well,” says Alfrawna-Amer, 26. “She is socially active, she cares,she wants to change things ... We wanted toshow her as a good model for someone whocomes from the outside and works to changesociety for the better.”For Rosenwaks, it was a relief. He was farbehind deadline and worried that he wouldnot have enough material to deliver to his fun-ders. “I was really in despair, because we hada lot of beginnings, a lot of people who start-
‘Women inBedouinsociety areagents ofchange…And one wayto change isthroughfilmmaking’
– filmmaker Uri Rosenwaks 

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