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“There is No Nice Way to Bulldoze a School”: Basel Adra and Yuval Abraham on No Other Land

A man in a blue t-shirt lies on a rocky landscape.No Other Land

Co-directed by an Israeli-Palestinian collective of four, No Other Land was filmed in the West Bank, in Masafer Yatta, where Israeli military and increasingly civilians have forced Palestinians out from their villages. Premiered at the 74th Berlinale, the debut feature won both the juried documentary award and the Audience Award in its section, Panorama—amply deserved honors for its adroit, affecting and infuriating portrayal of a tight-knit Palestinian community resisting Israel’s relentless campaign of expulsion. Basel Adra and Yuval Abraham, two of the co-directors, are also extensively on screen. Adra, whose father was also an activist, offers the film’s primary eyes and ears, both through the offenses he hustles to record at mortal risk—he’s essentially a war photographer who lives inside the war—and through the archival video that conveys his memories of growing up there. Abraham, an Israeli journalist, befriends Adra in the course of reporting, and the two grow closer as he gets invested in the survival of Adra’s community, whose adults and children we see menaced, shot at and pushed into living in a cave as homes, a schoolhouse and other buildings are demolished.

The film’s excellence and the courage required to make it are worth underlining amid the fractious politics of this year’s Berlinale, which was lambasted for policing speech about the very issues addressed so cogently by a film the festival programmed and honored. (The latest news at press time was a bizarre clarification from the German Ministry of Culture that the Culture Minister’s applause at the prize ceremony was intended only for the Israeli member of the No Other Land filmmaking team, i.e., Abraham, and not Adra. Abraham reported death threats after making his acceptance speech, whose words echoed his answers here.) But when I interviewed Adra and Abraham in a lounge tucked away in the Palast, it was barely midway through the festival, and they were only two screenings into a festival edition that would be defined by the strength of its nonfiction selection—perhaps none quite so urgent and on point as No Other Land.

Filmmaker: What has it been like to premiere your film here at the Berlinale? You had some vocal audience members at the latest screening.

Abraham: I was generally a little bit overwhelmed, because you work on a film for five years, and it’s a personal film, a film with a lot of violence, and you have a room full of people—some are family, some ofare Palestinian, some are Israeli—and press everywhere, around 30 cameras. It was very overwhelming, and I was a little bit disappointed, not so much by the crowd but honestly by German media. You watch a film for 96 minutes, it’s a very complex and deep film, and in the end, you take something one person shouted and something another person shouted and make that the story. That was a little bit disappointing, but maybe that too is to be expected.

Adra: Yeah, what happened in the room was expected, because of what’s going on in Gaza and the war, and what’s happened since October. People are a lot more sensitive. But we wanted to tell the audience the truth about what’s going on, to show them. And that’s what we expected from the journalists: to talk at least about the movie, the reality of the Occupation and the settlements, and what’s happening on the ground.

Filmmaker: The reality on the ground can get intense—confrontations, shootings, demolitions, protests—though that’s not how the entire film feels. Any one of these events might be the center of another movie, so how did you approach the structure of the film?

Abraham: We had two main challenges. The first is that we are telling three different stories. You have Basel’s personal story—it’s his film, from his perspective, his narration, his childhood. Then you have the story of the connection between me and Basel, then the story of the community of Masafer Yatta and what is going on there. To interweave these three stories into one coherent film so the viewer does not forget each one was a very big challenge. We tried and failed so many times. Just to watch yourself, you know, is a challenge, because we are in the film, which Basel can speak to as well. Anne Fabini worked with us as the editing consultant.

About the violent events happening in Masafer Yatta: this was a challenge, because part of how the military occupation works is that this policy of forced transfer is not done all at once. It’s not a clear story. It’s not like one day the soldiers come and place the people on the trucks and they’re deported. It’s spread out in thousands and thousands of moments of violence. Every week a bulldozer destroys a home, they cut the water pipes, they fill the well [with concrete]. The editing challenge, is how do you take all of these moments and make it a story? And it’s a story that is political, because it will expose the policy. They don’t want it to be a story, and that’s why they’re doing it spread out, not all at once. We chose to make it [so you can feel] escalation. So, for example, the school demolition: we tried to be true to the dates when it happened but also built it in a way which will escalate—which is true to the reality of what happened.

Filmmaker: You’re giving it a narrative shape that they explicitly try to avoid by keeping the military acts just below a certain level of perception. Basel, for you, what were some of the challenges of making the film while being in it and working?

Adra: It’s the first experience for all of us doing a documentary, and we wanted very much to tell the story of the community through documentary. It was still difficult to see myself on the screen in the cinema, especially during the conversations [with Yuval]. And we faced a lot of challenges while we were there—for example, editing a scene of demolitions, then another demolition happens and I have to run away to go film it. Or how I couldn’t work on editing with Yuval at his home. He had to come down to stay in my home and my community. We edit, then have Zoom meetings with other people who would give us feedback.

Abraham: And then the army comes…

Adra: The other challenge was finding an end for this movie, because we’re not documenting something that has happened and is finished. It’s ongoing, and getting worse and worse. We were about to finish in October, but October 7 happened. The situation in Masafer Yatta started to be worse and worse, and then we had add other things.

Filmmaker: How did you decide what had to be the end of the movie? It sounded as if at a certain point, when settlers stepped up attacks, filming became impossible.

Adra: At a certain point, the movie is part of our activism. Our goal behind this movie is to tell audiences in the U.S., Germany and all Western countries what’s happening in order for them to put pressure on their governments. So, at a certain point it was hard to find an end but we had to find an end. We had to tell people that you have to act in order to stop this.

Abraham: And I can say about October: at the end of the film, there’s a settler from the nearby outpost and he’s invading Basel’s village. From point blank range, he just shoots Basel’s cousin in the stomach. Basel filmed it. And after that, villagers began to leave. This never happened before to such an extent, that you see hundreds of people leave who were born there and whose grandparents were born there on that land. They were terrorized by the settlers around them, the way the settlers became the military, and by the military itself. With all of this pressure, we started to see the communities were leaving, and I said, “We don’t want people to see this film in festivals, drink a cup of wine and talk, and then the communities are [already] gone.” It’s a very, very political film, and we hope that people who see it first of all understand the importance of ending the occupation and finding a political solution, but also very specifically for these communities in Masafer Yatta and all over the West Bank, there needs to be pressure on the state of Israel to stop this war crime, this forced expulsion that is so clearly portrayed in the film. We’re hoping that our film is able to achieve that, and because it’s so urgent now, we release this to the world.

Filmmaker: Shooting in these situations, what’s your strategy when you know sometimes you have to get away at any moment?

Adra: It’s crazy. To be honest, mostly we don’t have a plan. Sometimes I’m sleeping and they call me: “The bulldozers are coming.” First people would see it from the community; someone from his home sees bulldozers coming to the area. Mostly we go as a group, because it’s very dangerous to film something close by myself. We should be in a crowd of journalists and activists, and we call other journalists to join from Hebron or other places. Because first [the military] gathers in one of the settlements—the forces, the bulldozers, everything—and then they go to the community to destroy, and we follow them where they are going. A lot of times, they come with a convoy of jeeps and will leave a car in the middle of the road, taking our IDs and make us wait so we don’t film what’s happening. So, sometimes when we see them parking like that, we have to run on the fields and on the stones to go film what’s happening.

Abraham: And you were beaten many times while filming this.

Adra: Many times they would come and push us and attack us and prevent us from getting closer, or threaten arrest or being kidnapped and put in a military base for hours under the sun, for being in a place and filming. And you have another, really dangerous thing: the settler attacks, as you saw in the movie, smashing the community. That’s like a nightmare, to be honest. A three-year-old boy was seriously injured on his head by a rock during an attack. I survived an attack myself and couldn’t believe it. Ten settlers were throwing rocks at the house, at the cars, and didn’t know that I was filming them. Then when they realized and saw my camera, all of them ran over with stones and sticks. I had to run very, very fast, and it was very dangerous and very scary. But I made it, and I’m happy that I made it.

Abraham: Basel is a very fast runner. It’s really part of how he manages to film everything. He is extremely brave and superfast.

Adra: In the same attack, they came to attack another village, and there was a soldier who was about to shoot me, when he saw Yuval on other side filming him and telling him “Don’t shoot.” He just came over and hit the camera and hit me on my face, then kicked me away. So, it’s not fun. It’s dangerous.

Filmmaker: Under these conditions, what kind of cameras did you use to capture all these aspects of the experience?

Abraham: So, we are a collective of four—two Israelis, two Palestinians. Other than me and Basel, you have Hamdan [Ballal] who is a bit older than us. He’s in his mid-30s and he’s been a photographer for many years. And you have Rachel Szor, who is also the cinematographer of the film. So ,there were three kinds of cameras in the film. You had Basel’s archive, which is all the community’s archives. For 20 years, people in Masafer Yatta have been filming: the community filming itself, or activists who were there 20 years ago filming. And we found a lot of archive material of Basel’s childhood, which allowed us to go back to his memories in the film. Then you have the handheld footage, which is filming the violence of the occupation. This is more Basel’s point of view. These are Canon HD cameras that are in the area for a long time. It’s easy to run with them after bulldozers because they’re strong. Then you have Rachel’s camera, a Lumix GH5, 4K. This was in more of a classic fly-on-the-wall style, filming us and our conversations.

Filmmaker: How do you work around filming subjects like the military who obviously don’t want to be filmed doing what they’re doing?

Abraham: A big part of this film is to show the system itself. So, we are showing the actions that the military is admitting it’s doing. We are showing the military law in the West Bank, which is a system of law that the Palestinians who are under its control do not choose. Basel has no voting rights. He cannot affect the laws that control his life. We are showing how that system of law is being used as a weapon to destroy the Palestinian villages to prevent them from getting building permits. The actions of the soldiers on the ground—even if they try to do it in a nice way, there is no nice way to bulldoze a school! Even if you know you’re being filmed, how can you do it? So, that’s one answer. The second answer is, imagine you are going to go to a children’s school and destroy it. I believe that when you are doing something like that, you have to completely dehumanize them in order to be able to. So, when you do that dehumanization, you’re also going to be violent. You’re going to blame it on them. It’s not only a violent film—I think we try to make it not only violence—but violence is a part of this film.

Filmmaker: Basel, what sort of pressures do you feel in having to be a representative and witness in this way for your community, family and friends, all while being targeted by military and the settlers?

Adra: Actually, when I got married, the settlers took a photo of me and made a poster of me. They said, “Congratulations, we hope your new wife will take care of this agitator [and keep him] at home.” This is, in a way, funny but also dangerous, because the settlers are the soldiers today. So yes, sometimes I have this feeling that it’s really dangerous putting myself in danger. But also I see that this is power: The camera is the tool that we have beside our steadfastness on our land. People should know about what’s happening. In the past, we suffered a lot from the lack of journalists. Journalists are not so interested in coming and writing about this. And this is the goal of occupation—to hide it, not to let people see it. So, today more than ever, I really feel a responsibility. I have to keep filming, I have to keep writing, I have to keep talking about what’s really happening.

Filmmaker: You include this scene of a couple of foreign journalists coming in, with this apologetic cameraman. But there’s a limit to what they do, and they leave.

Abraham: I think this is a big part of the film. First of all, we’re asking: What can cause a change? And does doing this journalism and filming cause a change? We wanted to show that this film is really about power. It’s about power imbalances, not only between the military occupation and Basel, but also between journalists who come from outside and the victims of violence, and also between me as a privileged Israeli who is there and Basel who is living under occupation. Instead of hiding these power imbalances that I think are often a part of documentary filmmaking and journalism, we wanted to make a film that will try to discuss them or shed light on them in some way.

Basel and I are not equal. I’m under civilian law, Basel is under military law. I am free to move around, Basel is locked in the occupied West Bank. Human rights organizations all over the world are calling this system of systematic inequality an apartheid system. We believe that it needs to end and we need to have a political solution, so that we can be equal and there can be security and peace and a good life in this land. Otherwise, where are we going? It’s very scary.

Filmmaker: How did the bond between the two of you develop? Basel, you’re shown as being skeptical of Yuval in the beginning—that he writes an article and expects everything is going to change. How did you progress from that?

Abraham: If you progressed! Did you progress? [they laugh]

Adra: I looked at how it’s new for Yuval every time he learns something new in the area and sees how unjust the situation is, how miserable it is and how miserable they can make it. Time after time, he sees things. I grew up as a child seeing my father being beaten up and arrested, and the army invading our home. They know how strong they are, but this will not be over soon, because they are supported by the U.S., by the Western governments. People don’t know in the U.S. that their tax dollars are going to that—a military convoy coming to confiscate a bathroom, destroy a shelter, a school or a water line.

Filmmaker: But was there a moment when you felt that even if Yuval could not solve the problems, he could help?

Adra: Yes, for us every voice, every person, every activist that comes and joins us is important. This is what we need and this is what we fight for—especially if they’re Israelis, to see what their government is doing. There was a moment when Yuval understands that one article will fail, but we have to continue working. It’s a process.

Filmmaker: Basel is trained in law, so I wondered what obstacles to filming you might have to deal with behind the scenes. Are you having to deal with challenges to permits and things like that?

Abraham: Basically, the way the military occupation works is that for Palestinians, if they want to leave the West Bank, they have to get a permit, and for most of the Palestinians the military does not issue a permit unless there is some medical issue. Even then it’s very, very difficult. As an activist, Basel is blacklisted. This was one of the most shocking things for me to learn: that all the Palestinians around me, who are activists who are filming and who I’m filming, are on the military blacklist. It’s a punishment. They cannot leave the West Bank, they cannot get these military permits.

Not many people know that, basically, protesting in the West Bank—even non-violent protests, such as the protests that we did—is illegal. In the film, you see protests that are organized against the forced transfer and expulsion, but under the military law—military law number 101—any gathering of 10 or more people that is a protest, or where there is a political speech, or where something is said that could be conceived as a political [speech], is illegal, unless the military commander decides [otherwise]. And all the protests that we did not only were declared illegal immediately by the soldiers, but were met with violence from the soldiers, real violence.

I’m coming from under civilian law. It’s a completely different system of laws that Basel is under—for the protests, for the movements, for the building permits, for filming. Under military law, soldiers can enter your home without a warrant. You have to get a warrant in Israeli civilian law. They don’t need it [under military law]. Soldiers can confiscate pretty much anything they want from your home. This is how they took cameras and computers from Basel. This is the system of law that is weaponized against Palestinians who are living in the West Bank and made the filmmaking so hard.

Filmmaker: Were there any films that gave you some kind of inspiration for achieving what you were doing?

Adra: Of the other movies close to our situation, 5 Broken Cameras (2011), from Bil’in. I used to go to that protest against the wall [the Israeli West Bank barrier] a few times. My father and the people from my community, the activists, used to go to those protests every Friday. That movie really influenced me a lot about what’s happening. Also, Arna’s Children (2004) a documentary that was made about the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp, during the second Intifada. It’s a very strong documentary, and it was also made by Israeli and Palestinian [directors].

Abraham: I was about to say Arna’s Children. Both of these films, Arna’s Children and 5 Broken Cameras, were made by Israeli-Palestinian collectives, so in a way we are continuing the legacy, and they’re both good films. I remember being, I don’t know, 18 and watching Arna’s Children for the first time. It stayed with me to this day. I think it made me feel the power of a documentary—how it can change something in you emotionally that reading an article or watching a news clip is not going to do.

Filmmaker: One last question about one of the amazing details in the film: the children on the school bus who are singing a song. The lyrics are something like, “We have a house—it exists” and repeat like that with the refrain “it exists.” Can you tell me anything about that song?

Adra: This is my little sister, my nephew and my cousin. This is the bus my father used to use, and it’s still transferring other students from other villages to our school. To be honest, I don’t know where she learned it! But there is a thing that the children do in our communities today: They really listen to many songs, especially about home, about Palestine, because all the time they see soldiers and settlers and attacks and violence. So, they really like learning those songs, and sometimes they really surprise us. A very little kid will have in their brain songs like this!

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