Al-Manara Square, central Ramallah. Children eat candy floss greedily as their parents tug at their hands, hurrying them along. Street vendors peer cautiously into the camera. Taxis fight their way through the gridlock that clogs the roundabout.
Amid the chaos, Maher stands barefoot on the concrete, his movements soft and graceful against the cityscape. In the fading light he dances, paying no heed to the bewildered onlookers who, after a few moments of curiosity, carry on with their lives.
“Maher told me when we first met to discuss the film that he has always had this idea that he wants to dance in Al-Manara Square,” explains Toomas Järvet. “It was meant to symbolise his connection to the people of Palestine. As you can see from their reactions, he has a long way to go to really be connected to the people.”
This was the first dance scene that the director filmed when he began working with Maher to create Rough Stage. Set in the occupied West Bank, the film traces one man’s struggle to build a career as a contemporary dancer and put on a production at Ramallah’s Cultural Palace.
“It all started when I first read a Facebook post by a friend,” Järvet explains. “They had reposted an advert from an NGO looking for volunteers to go and teach classical dance in Palestine. Right away it caught my eye; I thought it could be interesting to follow how ballet could relate to the cultural and religious background of Palestine.”
Järvet travelled to the occupied West Bank with the teacher selected for the programme, but quickly found himself more interested in Maher, the head of the dance school in Ramallah. “I wanted to know who he was, why he was doing this, what this meant for him and how he was capable of doing all this, despite all the frustrations and difficulties that one has to face in Palestine. These restrictions and constraints aren’t just set by Israel but also by the Palestinian authorities and the community itself, his family and friends; this was really the most interesting point.”
Maher’s attempts to continue in the face of these restrictions lie at the heart of Rough Stage. From early on in the film, it is clear that Maher’s family is far from enamoured with his decision to pursue a career in dance. “There are not many demands, son,” his father tells him. “But you’re getting older, this is it! Look for a good girl; you must turn your life around.”
Candid moments such as these are woven throughout the film. Maher goes to visit his mother a few days ahead of the performance, for example. Just like his father, she wants Maher to get married. “I don’t like your way of life, I’m often criticised for it,” she berates him, adding that people speculate if he is “not in fit shape to marry.”
“I’m happy,” Maher tells her, as he laughs at his mother’s no-nonsense talk.
As far as director Järvet is concerned, the essence of the film is very simple; how to stay true to what you believe in and what you want to achieve no matter what the obstacles are in life. “The ideas and problems the film talks about are very common and universal,” he insists.
Yet while, true to Järvet’s intention, Rough Stage deals with relatable, universal challenges, it also cleverly explores some of the deep-seated problems facing Palestinian society as a whole. During the film’s opening sequence, Maher stands at his kitchen sink speaking to the camera. “We have a lot of water in Palestine,” he explains, “but there is a limit to how much Israel gives us. You put a fish inside a bottle and throw it into the sea. They see food and they have a lot of water, but they cannot swim.” This captures perfectly the impact of the overbearing restrictions that characterise life in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip.
According to Järvet, the analogy was completely Maher’s. “During my first trip I really wanted to know his opinion on everything. He was just constantly talking and I managed to capture the scene you see on camera. It’s one of the very few things from our first meeting that actually made it into the final cut.”
Throughout the making of the film — four years’ worth of trips to meet Maher in Ramallah — one thing that struck its director the most was the extent of these restrictions. “I thought I was socially and politically sensitive and that I knew all the stories and background, because my first degree was in cultural theory and I had studied the Middle East, but of course when you enter it all becomes alive and real.
“When you have to go through the likes of Qalandia checkpoint [situated between Ramallah and Jerusalem] and you see people waiting in long lines like cattle waiting to be executed, it really affects you. If it affects us Westerners, who know that this is something we have to go through once and that’s all, how must it affect Palestinians who go through this on a daily basis? I thought I knew about Palestine until I saw the occupation first hand.”
One of the subtle themes running through Rough Stage is the question of what it means to resist. Although not mentioned explicitly, before becoming a dancer Maher was active in the Second Intifada which started in 2000 and lasted until February 2005. He was arrested, spent three years in an Israeli prison and was banned from entering Israel for a further ten years. Yet now, almost two decades later, his interpretation of resistance has altered.
“At a certain point,” explains Järvet, “he said ‘no’, my way of resistance has to be different: ‘I don’t want to throw stones or use a gun or communicate that violence is the solution’. He knew that he wanted to express himself in a different way and that’s how he found dancing.”
Maher touches upon this himself. In one scene, as he drives to Ramallah to deal with yet another pre-performance obstacle, he laments, “It’s like jihad the things we are doing in this country. I’m not doing this for myself. I feel this need for change. I don’t know what it is, but we have to change something during our lifetime. If not, what’s the meaning of one’s existence?”
Later, as Maher discusses his dancing with his brother, the latter says: “When our mum does embroidery, it’s a form of resistance. When I see you dancing, competing with an Israeli and receiving awards, this is also resistance of the occupation, but I want you to explain this, because our people don’t understand modern dance and what your movements symbolise.”
That scene, says Toomas Järvet, is both intense and interesting. “It explains the problem in Palestine. Palestinian people, and possibly people in general, expect more explicit ways of making art that is more easily understandable.”
Perhaps the same is expected of resistance. Yet, as Rough Stage shows, maybe simple acts like dancing, planting trees or crafting cultural products can, in their own way, act as powerful statements of resistance in the face of Israel’s all-encompassing occupation.