From Al-Amari Refugee Camp to the Toronto International Film Festival

We speak to Palestinian filmmaker and producer Bassam Jarbawi about his latest movie ‘Mafak’, which looks at life after detainment

Playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, Mafak (Screwdriver), takes a look at how learning how to cope with trauma has become an essential and unwanted part of the Palestinian experience.

“The Palestinian people have been living under occupation for so many years and as they fight for their freedom, Israel is detaining Palestinians over and over again,” explains writer, director and editor Bassam Jarbawi. “At least a quarter of Palestinians have been detained and as we struggle to have freedom, I felt the need to start a dialogue, locally, about how we deal with this trauma.”

Jarbawi grew up in Palestine and was a child during the first Intifada, which started in December 1987. “I grew up listening to hip-hop and playing sports,” he reminisces. “I ­wanted to be a part of the world, but I couldn’t ­understand why I wasn’t allowed to go to my grandmother’s house, [as we moved]from one territory to another.”

His experiences are reflected in the opening sequences of the film that take place in 1992 within the Al-Amari Refugee Camp in Palestine. Two eight-year-old boys, Ziad and Ramzi, are playing together when they find some tools. They begin to play fighting with a ­screwdriver and manage to cut each other, thus cementing their friendship.

The story then jumps a decade. We see Ziad and Ramzi on a basketball court, their shots at hoops being interspersed with images of two boys throwing Molotov Cocktails. Ramzi is shot dead by crossfire. His mother wailing at the injustice of having her son called a martyr. Fuelled by grief and rage, Ziad and his teammates go looking for revenge and in the ensuing melee, he is caught, tortured and imprisoned for 15 years.

It is Ziad’s attempts (played in this part of the film by Ziad Bakri, son of legendary actor Mohammad Bakri) to reintegrate into society that Jarbawi, who has a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting and Directing from Columbia University in New York, wanted to ­concentrate on. “With the writing process, I wanted to humanise the Palestinian struggle as much as I could,” says Jarbawi. “I never went to prison myself, although I personally feel that everyone living in Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestine, and the West Bank is imprisoned in a way.”

As such even getting out of a prison is not an end to the sentence. The trauma of imprisonment and torture doesn’t end, and the world moves on so quickly that those trying to reintegrate into society face many problems. The director who took part in the Rawi Screenwriters Lab, a project of The Royal Film Commission – Jordan in consultation with Sundance Institute, which in 2011 interviewed ex-prisoners in the research process of the film that has been eight years in the making.

“I found a common denominator. Something that struck me profoundly was their inability to deal with modern life because they couldn’t swipe right on a smart phone or find the flush on a toilet and I saw that, I witnessed it first hand and I wanted to have an inclusive discussion with us as Palestinians, disregarding Israel, about how do we deal with this trauma ourselves.”

Ziad feels like a fraud because he is paraded as a hero upon his release from prison. He attempts to get his life back on track, tackling the bureaucracy of applying for a bank account and finding work through a friend at a construction firm. He cannot cope with the attentions of his family friend Salma, and then Mina comes along, a ­Palestinian- American filmmaker who wants to interview him about his experiences, both literal and mental.

The production established its office right in the middle of the Al-Amari camp. The majority of the crew was local, and many of the actors seen in the film are non-professionals who live in the camp. However, the film hit a major obstacle when the Israeli authorities would not give permission for the actress cast in the role of Mina, permission to enter Palestine.

The filmmakers had to come up with a fast solution, which is when Jarbawi thought that he should cast his co-producer and wife Yasmine Qaddumi to the role. “I first met Yasmine when she was visiting ­Palestine,” says the director. “She had this beautiful image of it which I was attracted to, rather than when I was there and felt trapped. She kind of freed me in a way. We worked on the film together. When she worked on the film as a producer, people would ask her where she was from because of her accent, and we decided to have this foil to show that someone from prison and someone who has had complete freedom meet half-way,” he explains.

“I was definitely nervous,” says Qaddumi, who grew up in Kuwait about being thrust into the film. “­ I have never acted before, so it was tough. But you have to do what you have to do to make the film happen.”

The producer-turned-actor has a unique perspective on the documentarian that she is playing. “I think the ­character Mina, even if Ziad doesn’t see it, is similar to Ziad in the sense that she is a foil. She has a different life and feels the same way about the same land. So many Palestinians live abroad, not always because of choice and some are refugees, but those who can come back feel very lucky.”

“For me,” she continues. “I feel that Mina’s character is actually a version of Bassam [Jarbawi] in a way, because he spent a lot of his life abroad – he studied abroad and he would come back and go to the refugee camp and see people that are there. So, with Bassam coming back and taking ­photos of people and interviewing them, it’s his way of feeling like he is doing something for this cause.”

The two filmmakers had previously worked on Raed Andoni's 2017 award-winning film Ghost Hunting, in which a film director shows former prisoners using theatre and reconstructions how to deal with their memories and traumas, a technique known as "theatre of re-enactment".

"We worked on Ghost ­Hunting and we made it clear to be very separate, none of the stories would be transferred from one to the other," explains Jarbawi. "That wasn't hard because so many Palestinians have been detained – so there are so many stories."

According to the director, the issue is important to essay. “It’s a collective trauma – if you haven’t been detained, you know someone who has been; if you haven’t been killed, you know someone who was killed. How do we get over this trauma? But also, this is a question to the Israelis, how are you going to obtain your security that you keep complaining about, and say you want without allowing anyone to build a wall of trust?”

Mafak is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada from Sunday, September 16


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