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Aug 27, 2009

Interview: Sam Liebmann

by Abi Weaver


In Voices Across the Wall, through a series of personal accounts of the day-to-day impact of conflict and occupation, Sam Liebmann attempts to reveal some of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict complexities, often unseen by the outside world. He tells Kamila Kuc about his reasons behind making the film

Kamila Kuc: Voices Across the Wall explores a very difficult and controversial Israel-Palestine conflict. Why did you make it? What personal interests have you got in the subject?

Sam Liebmann: The first time I went there was to coach football on a project called Football4Peace, where Jewish and Palestinian children play football together in Israel. So little did I know about the place that I didn’t bring a passport to cross from Israel into Palestinian territory and was, of course, immediately turned back. But when I did enter, it started to make sense what occupation means for the people who live under it – their lives controlled by a group of people who are the self-proclaimed enemy. I realised how little I had known about it before – from reading and seeing the news. And the large majority of people I speak to complain they do not properly understand what is happening.

So that is why I made it – to give people a clearer idea of some of the complicated aspects of the war and occupation.

KK: I was very moved by the film and wondered what was your perspective on the subject prior to shooting the film and whether making it has changed it at all?

SL: My overall perspective of the situation has not changed. Simply look at a map of Palestinian land and how it is shrinking day by day. That is a fact that cannot be denied. But this documentary was a journey of discovery for me and I learnt a lot. I had actually made some shorts in the West Bank 6 months earlier, documenting some of the many human rights abuses inflicted on the Palestinian population. A friend was watching these shorts and complained there was no Israeli perspective. So this time I wanted to show ‘the other side’. At this time, my interactions with Israelis were with soldiers and settlers – often as they were abusing Palestinians at checkpoints.

Then I met an Israeli woman who showed me another side – of a people caught in a conflict present and past. She, like many other Israelis, comes from a horrific family history of Holocaust victims. She wants to believe in peace, but throughout her life she has only known war – rockets fired at her town, her family murdered and the constant inner fear that someone wants to kill her and the rest of the Israeli people – which goes back to ideas of The Final Solution. Her story opened my eyes to this inner fear, which many Israelis have.

KK: The film attempts to present two sides of the conflict: we see both the Arabs and the Jews who lost members of their families. But you seem to have concentrated more on the exploration of the issue from the Palestinians’ side…

SL: For me, documentary is a method of showing injustices that are not shown or portrayed well in the mainstream media and I believe the issues of refugees, ethnic cleansing, Palestinians killed by Israelis, Israelis killed by Palestinians and the continuing colonisation of Palestinian land are injustices that need to be documented. So I tried to show all of this in the way I felt it is. Other people might choose to show it another way, from a different angle, or might see the situation differently, but I chose to show it through the voices of a variety of people living in the conflict.

KK: In another film on the same subject, Shuhada Street, you mention some shocking facts. For example, that in the occupied (by the Israelis) city of Hebron, Palestinians are forbidden from walking on certain streets, that they are not even allowed to drive cars and have to go through a number of check points each day…Or that between 2000-2003 Palestinians were not allowed out of their homes for up to 182 consecutive days! According to international law, this is all illegal stuff…Do you feel like the West is not doing enough to help the situation? What do you think would be an ideal solution to the problem?

SL: There is no ideal solution because so much damage has already been done. It needs to be recognised by the world that an ethnic cleansing took place in 1948, where nearly a million Palestinians were thrown out of their towns, villages and cities. This catastrophe has never been recognised, let a lone dealt with, and hence there are millions of refugees who, for over 60 years, have been waiting to go home. As the Rabbi talks about in Hebron, the UK has to take a lot of the blame for handing over a country to a group of people without the acceptance of the native people.

But now, the US has the power to change things. They talk a lot about ‘freezing’ Israeli settlements, but this is like saying, “it does not matter that the settlements were built. You can keep them, but just stop building more”. And in any case, I have not noticed them even ‘freezing’ settlement building. I believe, as a first step, removing these illegal settlements would be a major step forward in regaining the confidence of the Palestinians. At the moment, however, there is not even a hint that Israel is going to change their policy of colonisation.

KK: Did you have any problems in getting to Israel and shoot the film?

SL: I had no problems actually getting into Israel, but I have a Jewish name and I am not an Arab. A friend of mine who is half English and half Egyptian was turned away once at the border and another friend was sent back to England on the basis of national security.

Within the West Bank there are often difficulties in trying to shoot in certain places, but it depends on the soldier. Some Israeli soldiers want you to show things and some don’t. Some treat the Palestinians with respect, some don’t. And so at times I was denied access to film at checkpoints or heavily militarized zones on the basis of security and at times allowed. I really think it depends on the soldier.

KK: Was it a difficult film to make?

SL: It was a very difficult film to make. I would say the actual filming was the easy part. But in terms of the editing: I had hours of footage and I had to decide what to put in – and more difficult, what to leave out.

Each person I interviewed, I wanted to do them justice, to represent them truthfully as I see them. But of course the idea of truth is subjective, as every documentary is influenced by every single thing I have ever seen, heard, felt or done in my life.

I think one of the biggest frustrations is that you can’t show everything. At the end of the day, I am a person with a camera. If I walk down one street I might capture the image of the century or encounter a person with a story that changes the narrative of the film. Therefore, according to my documentary, the thing that was happening down the other street did not happen because it was not recorded on film.

KK: What would you like people to take away with them after watching Voices?

SL: I would like for people to recognise the fact that without justice and recognition of injustice there will be no hope for any peace which these big leaders of the world continuously claim they are fighting for – war after war.

To read a review of the film, click here.

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