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Raed Andoni: ‘The Israelis occupy our minds’

Palestinian director Raed Andoni reconstructs the trauma of detention in his film Ghost Hunting, where former Palestinian prisoners act out their memories of imprisonment.

Interview by Hassina Mechaï, article by Amelia Smith

Palestinian director Raed Andoni was arrested by Israeli authorities some 30 years ago yet still lives with the effects of his imprisonment today. Andoni was waiting until he was “adult enough” to address his “ghosts” through film. It seems that for Andoni that time has come:

“Lately I saw it very cinematically this real experience of being inside the interrogation centre. I remember when I was 18 they covered my head and sat me down and I just was listening to many amplified voices around me then my mind started to create images because I couldn’t see so I started to imagine what this place looked like and then my emotions started to go into the extreme, like extreme hate, extreme love, extreme missing.”

If this is where the concept started the final result is the award-winning “Ghost Hunting,” a production that received its UK Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Part-fiction, part-documentary Andoni’s film follows a group of former Palestinian prisoners as they reconstruct the notorious Israeli detention centre Al-Moskobiya in an empty warehouse, using their memories as a guide, and then take on the role of prisoner and interrogator within it. Through reenacting their past experiences and sharing stories between them the characters come face to face with the trauma of detention that thousands of Palestinians face under occupation on a daily basis.

Read: Israeli politician calls on UN to stop using the term ‘occupation’

The protagonists responded to an advert Andoni placed in a Ramallah-based newspaper inviting former prisoners who could work as carpenters, craftsmen, architects and actors for an interview. The casting process has become part of the film and early on Andoni interviews the professional actor Ramzi Maqdisi who asks for the role of interrogator but is assigned the role of prisoner.

“Anyone who is living under control has a desire to practice what he passed through. I was aware of that and that’s part of my concept,” says Andoni on why Maqdisi chose to play the role of interrogator. “All of us want to play the role of oppressor it’s something very natural inside any human being. Everyone prefers to play the role of interrogator because it’s a way to express himself and express something deep living inside his conscious.”

The protagonists in the film are survivors, not victims, says Andoni: “No one wants to be a victim again and so that’s why the role of being a prisoner in this film has to go to a professional actor who can just deliver and protect himself.”

Asking former prisoners to confront their past trauma throws up a number of ethical questions. To address them Andoni consulted psychologists and psychiatrists who told him this was a method also employed by them – creating the space for trauma but allowing them to see their experience from a new perspective.

“I know that what I’m creating is not easy. Even for me as an ex-prisoner I passed tough – and beautiful at the same time – moments in this film. During this film I cried spontaneously and I laughed spontaneously. I think as most of them I take the journey of extreme emotion by reliving this experience again but from a new perspective. I’m not a prisoner, I’m in a place where I can leave, but of course it’s not that easy an experiment.”

Read: Experience life under Israel’s stifling occupation

When you experience any kind of trauma – a car accident, jail, the death of a relative – you have two options, explains Andoni: “Either you deal with it or you deny it. I think even the denial could be a kind of temporary solution, to ignore it, not to think about it, not to talk about it. But I think the ghost of this trauma will stay living inside you. I believe that expressing it and dealing with it is the best way, is the healthiest way. In this experience we dealt with it but maybe the characters after filming will go into denial again; or they will continue – this is a personal choice.”

Throughout “Ghost Hunting” the characters draw, write poetry, sing, dance and act. “The Israelis occupied our land, they occupied our soil and they occupied our minds,” says Andoni. “They occupy everything; it’s a tough occupation at this period of time. I think art can’t liberate the land but I think and I hope that it can liberate our souls to let us feel free because the moment we feel free I think we can be free.”

Still, life inside is hard and prisoners face both violent and psychological attempts to break them.   In the eighties and nineties Israelis used physical beatings a lot but these days they prefer to use psychological tactics which are harder to bear: “After one day if they beat you hard you build a kind of physical resistance. The psychological tactics are the worse and they tell you, the moment they arrest you, ‘look, we are not going to damage your face. We are going to damage your mind.’”

Palestinians are unique, says Andoni, because a quarter of the entire population has been imprisoned which means that 750,000 people – at least one member of every family – has undergone this mental torture, which is damaging for the entire society: “It’s a psychological occupation,” he says.

Earlier this year some 1,500 Palestinian prisoners brought issues like this to the fore when they declared an open hunger strike to demand better conditions inside and an end to administrative detention. The protests ended after 41 days when Israel offered a compromise deal. The strike was a success, says Andoni, not only for the prisoners but for Palestinian society itself whose spirits have been low in the last decade or so: “I think this hunger strike gave us hope, dignity, and the feeling of pride”.

Andoni believes that audiences will easily see these extreme emotions, like pride and dignity, throughout “Ghost Hunting”. Israelis will not because they live in denial:

“The secret of their existence is that they have to live with the status of denial. They know that they are living inside a place that doesn’t belong to them, in houses that don’t belong to them. They just came in 48 and kicked some people outside the country and took their homes, but they have to deny this fact and since that time until today they are living in denial.”

“That’s why I usually say that peace starts with the recognition of Palestinian rights,” he continues. “After that peace could come. But with denying those rights, with ignoring the fact that 25 per cent of our occupation has been in jail, that we were kicked out of our country in 48 and that we have 2 or 3 million Palestinian refugees around Palestine – if the entire world keep denying these facts then peace can’t go on. That’s why I think this film is important. I hope that Israel will get it.”

Denial is a kind of psychological disease which Europe and the United States simply encourage believes Andoni: “If someone is taking drugs you don’t give them more drugs.”

As for the protagonists Andoni hopes the audience will understand them and share their deep experience of trauma with them for almost every human worldwide has dealt with trauma at one stage in their life. “Those guys had enough courage to deal with their trauma and transform it into something positive, to transform the jail into art, to transform the pain into pride and I think this is something to learn from. My characters are not victims searching for sympathy they are humans and they have their own weaknesses, they have their own strengths. They are just humans like everyone.”

They have already been honoured by the minister of culture whilst the film itself won best documentary at the Berlinale: “This is the real meaning behind this project, to transform the pain into pride,” says Andoni.

Filmed by Esther Thwadi-Yimbu

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