Visit Palestine: Film at the Tricycle

From this week’s Irish World:

The Tricycle Cinema provides a rare opportunity next week for British audiences to see Visit Palestine, a documentary following the experiences of Irish human rights activist Caoimhe Butterly. Tom Griffin reports.

What makes young well-educated westerners risk their lives as peace activists in the midst of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts? That was the question that director Katie Barlow set out to answer when she began filming Visit Palestine. Barlow chose to follow Irish activist Caoimhe Butterly who was then living at the refugee camp in Jenin, a West Bank town besieged by the Israeli Defence Forces for much of 2002.

“Caoimhe had become infamous all over Palestine for her active heroism, running in front of tanks and blocking them coming into the town,” Barlow says.  “I saw some images of her. I sort of understood what was making her tick, because I was so shocked with what I was seeing.”

“I thought she was the best person to use to show how you would act in an extreme way under extreme circumstances. To get rid of the myth of activists just being crazy students on a gap year, trying to fight someone else’s cause.”

“I wanted to make a documentary about an activist who had not just been there for a couple of months, but had been there for a year living with the Palestinian people, seen the invasion into Jenin and witnessed carnage and devastation, about what made her tick and why she would risk her life for these people.”

It would prove to be a fateful decision. In November that year Butterly was shot by the IDF. She survived but a British UN volunteer, Ian Hook, was killed on the same day. Barlow learned about the shootings from a BBC newsflash, as she had returned to Britain in a bid to raise money to continue making the film.

“I was convinced then that someone would want to pick it up, a more in-depth portrait of this woman and they just weren’t interested in it. I couldn’t understand it. There was this block on information coming out of the occupied territories with what I could see was a very simple narrative. People are getting shot and killed and children are being targeted. It was as simple as that, but that was not what I was reading in the papers.”

“Some of the Commissioning editors and some of the independent production companies they had thought of making a documentary about peace activists with Iraq and Palestine, but they wanted to call it “Gap year gone wrong.”

“Of course you get some activists who maybe have had problems at home and maybe just want to travel and do some good in the world. There’s nothing wrong with that, but someone like Caoimhe really went there with a mission, very knowledgeable about the Middle East, knew exactly what she was doing, and suffered an incredible amount mentally as well witnessing what she has done.”

Speaking to Butterly herself, it’s clear that here involvement in Palestine was the result of a
deep-seated commitment. “I was raised in a family that was very politicised so I think that was part of the process of being aware at least on the theoretical level of the situation in Palestine,” she explains. “I had been working in Latin America for about three years before that with
communities of displaced peoples and with Zapatista communities.”

“I was in Ireland when September 11 happened in the States. That for me catalysed a move that I’d been intending to make for a while, a sense of exploring the Middle East. It seemed like a very pertinent time to be there, to try to dispel, at least for an Irish audience, a lot of the spin and demonisation of Muslims in general and Arabs in particular that was going on in the mainstream media.”

“I was in Baghdad with Voices in the Wilderness, and decided to go from there to Palestine. Initially, I only intended to stay a few months, but I think most activists that I know who have spent time in Palestine, find it’s something that it’s very hard to detach yourself from. I found personally once I was there, that it was virtually impossible to leave.”

Butterly’s determination is underlined by her attitude to being shot, which she insists affected her much less than aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Jenin some months earlier

“It’s traumatic in the sense that it’s a very physical reminder of the possibility of your own death, slammed into you, but the aftermath of the massacre, the deaths of friends, were definitely more traumatic.”

“In some ways I found the danger-zone in Palestine is less your physical safety, and more the impact it has on your emotional well-being, just dealing with the continuing level of grief.”

“I think the reason that Palestinians despite the trauma and despite the violence manage to stay intact is the community. It’s a very collective process. Everybody’s going through the exact same stuff, and that provides a level of support that you don’t see in other situations.”

“I think a similar process happened in the north of Ireland, in the sense that entire communities were under siege. So the flipside of all the trauma and violence was that there was a lot of inter-community solidarity and support, and that does I think almost buffer and cushion some of the impact of the trauma.”

Butterly sees her role in Visit Palestine primarily as a narrator, arguing that the film’s strength is in the insight it provides in to the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

“It looks at how people suffer under occupation, at children and how they are put under siege. Access to education in Palestine is virtually impossible at the moment. It focuses on a number of themes, the situation of political prisoners, home demolitions, mainly women’s narratives.”

“That in a sense is the value of the film in that it gives voice to women in the camp, which are generally voices that you don’t hear in the Palestinian narrative. It goes beyond political spiels into just very practical, very poignant explanations of what people face on an everyday basis.”

Butterly found the same sense of solidarity when she visited Palestinian refugees in Iraq, many of whom had been driven from their homes after the invasion of 2003.

“It was similar in the sense that Palestinian diaspora communities that I’ve interacted with in many different countries worldwide, retain this incredible sense of identity and there was that in Baghdad. But there was also a very deeply ingrained sort of memory of the whole dispossession and exile, the exodus from Palestine. You saw children who would have had no
actual material links with Palestine, because they’ve never been there, they’ve never seen it, but they retain this sense of identity.”

As well as documenting Butterly’s experiences in Jenin and Baghdad, Visit Palestine follows her return to Ireland, where she travelled the country trying to raise awareness about the Palestinian issue.   

“I did a lot of talks in Ireland, and I found almost uniformly that people were very receptive,” Butterly says.

"I think that’s because historically, when people have gone through their own process, particularly in the north, being under siege and repression, they can much more easily identify and empathise with people who are going through a similar process.”

“There’s a lot of empathy on a street level in Ireland, but I think that isn’t really being translated into anything affirmative on a government level. There is definitely Irish complicity in terms of multi-national corporations, in prolonging this occupation, but the empathy is there anyway, and that could be translated into something that has political impact. Ireland could take a much more courageous stance and maybe act as an example for other European countries.”

Butterly clearly has a compelling story to tell. Nevertheless, getting that story on film has been far from straightforward.

“It’s pretty much been self-funded apart from £8,000 that I got from the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association,” director Barlow says. “ I just had to carry on in my downtime over the last couple of years, trying to make this film, with the help of Caoimhe towards the end, trying to get it into a comprehensive narrative that we were both happy with.”

"Luckily, John Pilger saw the film and he loved it, and helped me get it on at the National Film Theatre where it had a really good response.”

As a result, Visit Palestine was nominated by TV producer Roger Grace for the Rory Peck awards, established in honour of a Dublin-born cameraman killed covering the Moscow coup of 1993. It was also shortlisted for the British Documentary Awards, the Griersons.

“All of which was beyond my wildest dreams, but was what put it into the limelight more and got it circulated,” Barlow notes.

The film has been shown at the Cork International Film Festival, and at the Eureka International Film Festival in New York. It has also been televised in a number of countries, although not yet in Britain.

“We’ve always had a problem with it here in the UK for some reason,” Barlow says. “My mission now is to get it shown as much as possible.”

An important step in that mission will come next week, when a circuit of screenings around the country begins at the Tricycle Theatre in London.

Until the broadcasters have a change of heart, that looks likely to be best chance for British audiences to see Caoimhe Butterly’s remarkable story.

Visit Palestine will be screened at the Tricycle Cinema, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 on Friday, January 26th at 7pm. Box office tel: 020 7328 1000. Tickets £8 and £7. Further screenings nationwide to be announced.






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