What Walaa Wants, a documentary about a teenage girl's dream of becoming a Palestinian Security Forces police officer, won the Special Jury Prize for Canadian Feature Documentary at the Hot Docs International Film Festival this month.
Toronto filmmaker Christy Garland spent six years following outgoing and opinionated teen Walaa Khaled Fawzy Tanji, who lives in Balata, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank.
At the age of 8, Walaa’s mother was sent to an Israeli prison for aiding a suicide bomber. She was released when Walaa was 15, leaving her to be raised by relatives. Garland points out Walaa’s circumstances were not usual in Balata, where conflict is common, and young people grow up amid violence and limited opportunities.
Garland, who is known for making immersive, female-focused documentaries, such as Cheer Up, met Walaa while researching another documentary.
She was in Balata looking into a Danish programme that helps girls in conflict zones express themselves by making video games with narratives based on their struggles.
Garland saw Walaa and was immediately fascinated by the confident and enthusiastic teenager. "She was a bit disruptive, but she's also very charming – all the other girls were either [loving] her, or they were avoiding her because she was just this force of nature," says Garland.
Walaa wants many things, a drive that inspired the film’s title. On-screen, she’s not shy about making her dreams and demands known, chiefly her determination to start police training as soon as she turns 18. Garland’s camera followed her through the process. But Walaa’s stubborn streak and rebelliousness often clashed with the ordered life of boot camp. It also didn’t win her friends among some of the young women she was training with. Despite eye rolls and malingering, she’s so engaging, audiences can’t help rooting for her, especially when Walaa steps up.
Garland said Walaa “really blossomed” under the structure of police training and her singular focus impressed her Palestinian Security Forces commanding officer Issa Abu-Allan. Walaa ends up with her coveted police job, maturing along the way. Garland said that although Walaa’s upbringing within a military occupation was influenced by the cycle of violence, she wanted to make a positive story about Palestine.
Showing every day life in Palestine
"Most films about that region, of course they focus on the conflict. And I had this incredible character who's breaking rules and that was going to be entertaining and engaging," said Garland as she sipped a cup of tea in the kitchen of her Toronto home before What Walaa Wants had its final screening at Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary festival.
“You know most people would rather watch a film about a character who breaks rules rather than just follows them,” she said.
She was also interested in showing everyday life in the West Bank. So the audience sees Walaa and her mother check their Facebook accounts and cheer for a Palestinian contestant on Arab Idol. Later, Walaa and her younger brother, Mohammed, have a giggling shaving cream fight.
Mohammed also figures in the film. He was arrested for stone throwing and during his court appearance, a frustrated Walaa kicked an Israeli solider. She spent two weeks in jail, while Mohammed is still incarcerated.
Garland doesn’t speak Arabic and relied on Ekram Zubaydi, a project coordinator with the Palestinian Centre for Peace and Democracy to act as translator and go-between.
“She taught me so much about what life is like there, what they’re up against. And she’s also very much a part of their culture,” said Garland. “What I really loved and really envied is for the women there, in five seconds they’re talking as if they’ve known each other for 30 years.”
Although she didn’t understand the conversations until Zubaydi translated, Garland said reading body language gave her solid clues while filming. “I have no idea what they are saying, but I’m covering it with the camera as if they could be saying the most important and dramatic thing in the world.”
Garland said she had no trouble getting access to film inside the Palestinian Security Forces training facility because officials wanted “the opportunity to show, to represent themselves and to represent their own pride and their own police force.”
'The prize means that people care about young Palestinian people'
She added, "I feel very grateful to them because they let me shoot. They let me see them because they recognise that especially in North America, nobody really knows what the Palestinian Security Forces are and in fact some people think it's a militant organisation, they think it's associated with Hamas."
What Walaa Wants had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, where it was nominated for the best documentary award. Walaa was in attendance and she was treated like a star, especially by young Syrian refugees in the audience who saw the "strong, funny and driven" Walaa as a kindred spirit who had achieved her goals.
“This is becoming a genre film right now…one of those charismatic rebellious protagonists who ends up in the military and breaks every single rule,” said Garland. “For Walaa, the prize means that people care about young Palestinian people and want her to do well, and feel for her when she falters and suffers, but ultimately succeeds, despite the pressures of her environment and the barriers that surround her.”
Walaa, who turns 22 in July, continues to work as a police officer, mostly doing paperwork in the station. In a Skype conversation from her home Friday, she said she hopes to achieve the rank of general. “I love this film because it showed me my strength,” Walaa said, “And I saw myself growing. It’s been a six-year process and Christie never staged anything. This is really what happened.”