Film | Review | ‘Over the Wall': On Palestine, football and western media narratives
Arts & Culture, Film & TV, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, December 15, 2012 0:00 - 1 Comment
By Jonny Benett
Throughout the middle of November, coverage of the latest tragic assault on the occupied Gaza strip by Israel was aired through every television news outlet, and discussed in depth in newspaper columns across the country.
Whether I like it or not, I, like the majority of the UK population, garner a large percentage of my understanding of the world through the mainstream media. It is through these avenues of gathering knowledge that we understand Palestine and the situation in Gaza. This November, reporting focused overwhelmingly on the missiles sent from Gaza into Israel. The headlines were unsurprisingly damning of Hamas. Statements followed from foreign offices and state departments, laying ultimate blame on Hamas’s door for seemingly unprovoked aggression, which only ceased in order to reiterate the apparent unconditional right of Israel to ‘self defence’.
It was only towards the end of this latest attack on Gaza that any real acknowledgement of the context of the missiles sent by Hamas came to light. The reality was that Israeli forces had killed 15 Palestinian fighters in late October, before shooting a mentally disabled Palestinian and killing a 13-year-old boy during an incursion in early November. In spite of all this, Hamas refrained from firing any missiles in retaliation until the Israeli-planned assassination of Commander Ahmed Jabari was carried out on 14th November. Jabari had reportedly played an instrumental role in initiating negotiations over a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas.
The way the mainstream media reported this assault has rich historical precedent. At best, reports of the Israel/Palestine conflict focus on the characterisation of two feuding neighbours engaged in a senseless cycle of violence, which is extremely deep-rooted and complex, and thus seemingly unworthy of any real dissection.
However, the two sides are rarely, if ever, depicted as equally guilty parties in this. The Palestinian “mentality” is often portrayed as one that is antiquated, murderous, consumed with anti-Semitic sentiment, and ultimately, one intent on destroying the Jewish State. Rarely, in western media outlets, is any priority given to the need for Palestinian sovereignty.
The democratic legitimacy of Hamas is an uncomfortable reality for this characterisation, but it is an avoidable one. Civilian deaths in Gaza, for example, are often reported as the result of Hamas’s strategy of using civilians as “human shields”. In fact, since Hamas were elected in 2006, Israel’s illegal occupation has subjected the Gaza Strip to myriad acts of brutality; from the 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead, to the ongoing blockade which, since 2006, only allows the minimum number of calories per inhabitant to go into Gaza that would avoid malnutrition. Unsurprisingly, recent statistics claim that as much as ten percent of Palestinian children under five have stunted growth.
When Hamas missiles were fired in November, there was no investigation into why this was. It had seemingly happened in a vacuum, and Gazans (via Hamas) were placed in the traditional position; faceless, Islamist provocateurs. As Edward Said said of the Middle East, ‘negative images of Islam are very much more prevalent than others, and…such images correspond not with what Islam ‘is’…but what prominent sectors of a particular society take it to be’. This, and more, is true of Palestine.
This dialectic only shifts once the death toll rises too high to ignore, at which point, they are reported collectively (e.g. 157 Gazan and 3 Israeli deaths reported as ‘160 deaths’). The Israeli narrative remains intact; the general population are rational, fairly peace loving ‘folks’ (notwithstanding the reality that 70% of the population were against the recent ceasefire) who are stricken by the terrible burden of ancient rivalry; the excesses of its military are generally justifiable as an unfortunate necessity to ensure their safety. The depiction of Palestinians , however, adapts to incorporate the forlorn, tragic, weeping, but forever nameless and voiceless hundreds next to destroyed buildings or dead bodies.
Without doubt, this is a reality for Palestinians, and the tragedy of those situations, and the pictures it reveals, should quite rightly stick in our heads. However, the problem with this narrative is that it does not alleviate Palestinians of being sub-humans. It offers audiences the ability to sympathise with Palestine (who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the vast majority of images coming out of Gaza?) without giving Palestinians that essential humanity that is afforded Israelis.
The general pattern of reportage in November was to follow up tragic images in Gaza with an interview with a named, calm, reasonable Israeli family, usually living in Sderot, whose house had been destroyed by missile fire. This family is then given the chance to publicly abhor the violence, lament the loss of life and criticise the entire situation. Essentially, the Israeli story remains something you can identify with, something you can see, and someone you want to help. The chaotic, hellish pictures from Gaza present a situation beyond repair, which is in no small way a result of their own abhorrence of the state of Israel, and in many ways the result of an extremist, terrorist leadership. This allows the narrative of antiquated and misguided Palestine to continue.
The week before the recent attacks on Gaza, I visited a small picture house just off Cold Harbour Lane in Brixton, South London. I’d been invited to watch ‘Over the Wall’, a documentary following the SOAS football team on a tour around the Middle East during the ‘Arab Spring’.
The film opens with an Albert Camus quote: ‘all that I know surely about morality and the obligations of man, I owe to football’. This seems depressingly misplaced in the opening ten minutes, where the more familiar themes around football (egos, bravado and tantrums) get in the way of any meaningful social commentary. It is only when the team visit Tahrir Square, several months after the popular uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, and still a place of mass protest, that that attention begins to shift.
The second half of the film is set with the team in the West Bank. The film takes interviews with Palestinians in barbershops, schools, refugee camps and universities. What’s more, the interviewees all have names.
One interviewee is a young Palestinian man (of an equivalent age to many of the players) who tells the story of his two brothers who were killed after being hunted by the Israeli army. Here was a story of Palestine and Israel, explained in microcosm, and the interview was with a Palestinian man, lasting more than ten seconds, in a lively barbershop. The story was a real one, told by the source, who had a name and a face.
Another scene follows a conversation between the two youngest players in the group, who, while living in the West Bank ,talk of being completely unaware of ‘the severity of the situation’ in Palestine. The fact is that the vast majority of people in the UK, and no doubt around the world, would share this level of ignorance of the situation. The tragedy is this fact. The lack of exposure of western people to Palestinian (and by extension Arab) people in any other guise than a gun-toting ‘Islamist’ means we have no means through which to draw understanding. This scene dissects perfectly the ignorance and lack of understanding in the west towards the humanity existing in Palestine. As one of the players recognises, ‘after seeing it…it has already changed me’.
This scene is juxtaposed perfectly with a another that follows directly after it. The team are visiting a school. To many in the audience it was striking that smiling children full of hope and spirit exist in Palestine. Western mainstream media rarely mention the children of Palestine, unless it is connected to death tolls. If children represent the future of humankind, and children exist in Palestine, it suggests there is still hope. The effect of western media ignoring this side to Palestine is to reiterate the helplessness and inevitability of Palestinian suffering.
The children in the school are filled with that very hope and desire for change that western media is so used to circumventing. One player asks a child ‘What are you waiting for?’, and the child responds simply; ‘freedom’. The juxtaposition with the previous scene is in that these children represent what is ultimately a very profound and essentially educated understanding of the reality of the situation they endure. Despite many of them being very young, they do not appear ignorant of their reality, but instead display a very fervent and fixed belief in Palestine and its right to freedom.
Everyday existence in Palestine is, without doubt, one of treacherous sorrow and a consummate battle against Israel (as one player surmises ‘these kids have grown straight into what is happening’), but life seems to go on regardless. Noam Chomsky acknowledged this interpretation when, following his visit to Gaza in October, he called the Palestinian spirit ‘a steadfast one’. Although the reality is to watch homes being turned into prisons and rubble, the response is not to give up (as much of the world has done) but to ‘endure’.
It is a miraculous spirit, and one that is captured beautifully by my enduring memory of ‘Over the Wall’, when at the end of the scene the classroom erupts into song:
‘My redemption, my land, land of my ancestors.
My redemption, my redemption, my redemption.
My redemption, my people, people of eternity,
Viva Palestine, free and Arab!’
The image of empowered young people tells the future of Palestine, and it is a hidden future. We in the west are starved from knowing what Palestine could be. We are not shown its life, its humanity, its reality. We only see its suffering.
The film may receive criticism from some circles claiming that objectivity is compromised due to the lack of screen time given to Israelis or to people espousing a pro-Israeli stance. This in itself is a manifestation of mainstream media portrayals. The film is essentially not a political one. It doesn’t spend a great deal of time dissecting the history and origins of Israel-Palestine, neither does it explicitly offer up a judgement on the conflict itself. However, due to a conditioned western audience, any focus on either Israel or Palestine has to be seen within that sphere. In so many ways, Over the Wall is the antithesis of standard mainstream reportage. Its focus remains on the culture within the West Bank and the sheer will of its people to survive.
In her chapter in the book ‘Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media’, Susan Rose says of the Israel-Palestine conflict; ‘Hope for peace cannot be found in continued images that injure and rhetoric that distorts. Hope for understanding cannot be found in stereotypes that obscure who we are and what we believe. Hope for an end to violence cannot be found in media messages that excise individuals, demonize cultures, and value some lives more than others’.
The majority of the coverage of the most recent destruction of Gaza has compounded my belief that, in order for an actual debate to surface, the stereotyping and abandonment of Palestine has to be addressed. Films like Over the Wall, that offer the chance for Palestinians to be human again, challenge that inequality.
‘Over the Wall’ is available now on DVD from www.walksoflifefilms.com