Badar Salem
Last updated: 1 August, 2013

Palestinian youth flying high

Filmmaker Adam Abel visited the West Bank town of Qalqilya and was immediately captivated by a group of Palestinians calling themselves X Games. Abel felt that someone needed to tell their story, one far from violence and mainstream media’s stereotypical coverage of Palestinians.

For Adam Abel, a New York based artist, the film “Qalqilya: Where Palestinian Boys are Learning How to Fly” happened by accident, or perhaps, “the accident was waiting for him,” as he puts it.

In 2010, Abel was working on a project about borders that make physical marks in the earth. The project later developed into an installation called ‘Terra Infirma’, which represents boundaries as political interventions, and examines the human territorialisation and occupation of land.

His search took him to Qalqilya, a town of more than 40,000 located in the northwest of the West Bank. Once a thriving agricultural centre, Qalqilya has been cut off from most of its land because of the Israeli separation wall, a perfect illustration of Abel’s project. Dubbed by the Palestinians the ‘Apartheid Wall’, the 8 metre high barrier – which stands three times the height of the Berlin wall – cuts nearly 1.8 million Palestinians from their lands, schools, jobs, health centres and families.

“I was drawn to Qalqilya in the beginning because of its image from above. I asked myself ‘what would it be like living there?’” Abel says. It wouldn’t take long before he finds out.

They choose to be defined by what they do

As he set off his project, Abel hears about a Palestinian group called “X Games” who are skating, making graffiti, performing beatbox, hip hop and parkour. “I was absolutely captivated when I met Sajed Abu Ulbeh (the group’s mentor and the protagonist in the film) for the first time,” Abel recalls. “Sporting a curly afro, baggy jeans and red Vans shoes, Sajed showed me home-made videos of him and his crew doing tricks all over the city.”

Living in one of the most conservative cities in the West Bank, Abel finds the young group’s ability to find harmony between the old and the new “inspiring”. He later decided to film the group during one of their late night practice sessions at the entrance of the zoo in Qalqilya – the only zoo in Palestine, which endured a series of tragic events during the Israeli invasion, losing many of its exhibits.

“How poetic – here I was outside of a zoo, inside a city caged in like a zoo, and hanging out with a bunch of Palestinian kids who are using movement to express themselves,” says Abel. “I felt that someone needed to tell this story. Armed with a DSLR and a microphone, I began making my film.”

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He goes on, “When faced with both the physical barriers of the occupation and the social barriers within their society, Sajed and his team do not try to destroy these obstacles, nor do they run the other way. Instead, they use the walls as tools to fly and propel themselves in new directions.”

Asked about the most challenging part in putting the documentary together – which currently is at production phase – Abel says that managing time is the most difficult part. “I always have two things working against me. Firstly, following over a dozen boys and young men requires a lot of stamina.”

“Secondly, time is very fluid in Palestine. Travelling from place to place can change based on what roads are open or closed that day. Depending on what is happening at an Israeli checkpoint, what may be an hour trip one day could be two hours, or maybe five,” he says bitterly.

Upon learning about film and the X-Games during Abel’s trip to Dubai Film Festival in 2012, Tashkeel, a Dubai-based art organisation decided to design and build a skate ramp for the kids in Qalqilya, the first skatepark in Palestine. And for the last year, Abel was project managing the production of the ramp. “We’re hoping to build it in September. And I will return to film it,” he notes.

What awoke Abel’s curiosity and trigged him to get involved was the question why people put walls around other people, the Wall is staging itself as one of the main characters in the film. “It is this fear of the unknown that I am interested in engaging with the most concerning walls,” Abel explains. “The Wall is definitely an antagonist in this story.”

As Abel goes into this ‘accidental’ Palestinian journey, he finds out that walls that are invisible are often greater than ones that are physical, and Palestinians could make a great case in that sense. “The Wall does not define 10-20-year-old Palestinian youth; rather, they re-define the Wall,” Abel says. “Despite living in confinement, with poorly paved roads, and few resources to support their passions, these kids are still able to fly.”

As he manages his time between supervising the ramp construction and raising funds for the film’s post production phase, Abel hopes his film will offer a new narrative for people in the West and especially in the United States.

“I am not an expert on mainstream media, but it seems to be a challenge here to see or read about a Palestinian story that is not tied to violence,” he notes.

“What I find incredible is that Sajed and the X Games are not discarding their traditions and religion for this new form of expression. They choose to be defined by what they do, not by what others are doing to them. This is the story I want to tell.”

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