Julian Phillips
Last updated: 28 March, 2013

Documentaries highlight life in the Golan

Julian Phillips takes a close look at two documentaries portraying life in a region riven by conflict, and what it means to live torn between nationalities.

In the far north of the Golan Heights, 20,000 people carry identity documents that read “Nationality: Undefined.” When Israel occupied this sliver of Syrian territory in 1967, the army systematically pushed 95% of the civilian population from the area. The few thousand Syrians who remained in the Golan have been left in limbo. They and their descendants are eligible for both Israeli and Syrian citizenship, but the geopolitical situation prevents them from integrating fully into either state.

This limbo has become increasingly uncomfortable over the past two years. In Syria, a deadly civil war has disrupted longstanding notions of national unity and obscured the country’s future. And in Israel, a hawkish government has bombed Syrian territory and questioned the place of non-Jewish citizens by proposing ethnically specific loyalty oaths and authorizing de-facto residential segregation.

Two recent feature documentaries explore the complex relationships between residents of the Golan Heights and the two nations that they straddle. Both films were produced as collaborations between European directors and local interlocutors and producers. (A broader recent efflorescence of local film production in the region—including dramas by Ehab Tarabieh, reportage by Hamad Awidat, and art films by Akram Al Halabi and Randa Maddah—is beyond the scope of this article.) Together, the documentaries paint a picture of a community where national identity is complex, shifting, and destabilizing.

“Not Israelis, Not Syrians”

In 2007, Irish filmmakers Jill Beardsworth and Keith Walsh arrived in Majdal Shams, the largest town in the Golan Heights. The two were in search of a subject for a documentary film and discovered a community that was “rich in stories.” Beardsworth and Walsh visited the Golan repeatedly over the following four years and documented local culture and politics with the assistance of local resident Hamad Awidat and others. The fruit of their labor, the feature documentary Apples of the Golan, debuted at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in February 2012 and is scheduled for an online release in spring 2013.

Apples of the Golan melds two distinct documentary styles. In-depth interviews with local residents narrate the region’s history and contemporary society. In alternating sequences, largely wordless footage of local scenery and community practices complements or contrasts with the statements of interview subjects. The aesthetic parallels local culture: physical reality is constantly contested and re-interpreted under the mediation of local and regional politics.

Much of the film attempts to capture the zeitgeist of Golani society, a close-knit community with a unique history and high rate of endogamy. The filmmakers explore local agricultural practices with an eye towards the place of apple farming in communal culture. Performances by the local bands al-Aḣkām (Judgements) and Toot Ard (Strawberry) provide a window into the local music scene, an important cultural nexus for young members of the community.

Apples of the Golan also explores tensions in local society. One moving interview relates the story of Hassan Mahmoud, a resident of Majdal Shams who was ostracized from the community for marrying a Christian woman. (Mahmoud’s story is also dramatized in the 2004 Israeli feature film The Syrian Bride). Most of the civilians who remained in the Golan Heights after 1967 were adherents of the Druze faith, a heterodox offshoot of Shi’i Islam that prohibits religious intermarriage. Although many members of the contemporary Golani-Druze community are socially and religiously liberal, intermarriage remains largely taboo.

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The film’s most significant focus is the complex relationship between contemporary residents of the Golan Heights and Syria. For the past 45 years, the passage of people and information across the ceasefire line between the Golan Heights and other Syrian territories has been limited. Restrictions have loosened somewhat in recent decades, and more than 3,000 civilians have received permission from Israel and Syria to cross the line since 1990. But most residents have never visited Syria proper, and it is unclear if Israel will ever withdraw from the Golan Heights.

Beardsworth and Walsh profile two members of the community who crossed the ceasefire line under vastly different circumstances. Laila Safadi, born and raised in the Syrian city of Suwaida, received permission from Israeli and Syrian authorities to resettle in Majdal Shams to marry a local man. Safadi left her natal family in Syria and established a marital family in the Golan Heights, thereby rooting herself on both sides of the ceasefire line. Hatim Said Ahmed, a lifelong resident of Majdal Shams, also crossed the ceasefire line in pursuit of a romantic partner. Unlike Safadi, Ahmed did not receive official permission for his journey and was detained and tortured by Syrian security forces before returning to the Golan Heights. The experience effectively severed Ahmed’s emotional identification with the Syrian state.

The contrast between the two stories illustrates the range of relationships that exist between individual residents of the Golan Heights and Syria. Many interlocutors tell Beardsworth and Walsh that they consider themselves Syrians. Several sequences show parents and community leaders teaching young children the principles of Syrian patriotism. But other residents identify primarily with their local community. In one eloquent interview, two members of the hip-hop group al-Aḣkām state bluntly that they are “not Israelis, not Syrians, nothing. From an occupied area, closed.”

“We are a place closed to the world”

The tension between membership in a close-knit local community and in the Syrian nation is explored more fully in the feature documentary Shout. Filmed on both sides of the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line, Shout follows three young men from the Golan Heights during an academic year in Damascus. (Students from the region receive full tuition scholarships to the University of Damascus, and nearly 1,500 local men and women have enrolled since the mid 1990s.) Each of the three reacts differently to life in Syria, and their experiences reveal the spectrum of relationships that residents of the Golan Heights form with their ancestral homeland.

Shout was directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Ester Gould with production assistance from Basel Al Abdullah and Orwa Nyrabia in Damascus and Yasser Khanger in Majdal Shams. The film debuted in 2010 at the Doxbox Festival in Damascus and the Movies That Matter Festival in the Hague. It is currently available on DVD.

The film’s central narrative follows the traditional form of a buildungsroman. Childhood friends Bayan Amasha and Ezat Abu Jabal leave Majdal Shams for their freshman year in Damascus. Over the course of a year away from home, the two change clothing and hairstyles, learn to live independently, and adapt to a new environment. They struggle to balance their continued connection to the Golan Heights with the new lives that they build in the city. And they drift apart: Ezat moves in with an aunt and begins to date a classmate, while Bayan struggles to assimilate to the new environment and fantasizes about returning home.

Although Bayan and Ezat transition from youth to adulthood in a comparable manner to their compatriots in other countries, Shout underscores the particularity of their experience. Unlike their classmates, students from the Golan Heights are only permitted to return home once per year, during the summer intercession. They communicate with their families, in part, by standing at the ceasefire line with megaphones and shouting across a minefield. After they finish their degrees, they are required to choose to settle permanently in either Syria or the Golan Heights – waiving their right to cross the ceasefire line to visit family or friends on the other side.

The film’s third subject, college senior Mahmood Mahmood, eloquently explains the results of this policy. After spending five formative years in Damascus and building close social and romantic relationships, Mahmood can only remain in the city if he permanently abandons all face-to-face contact with his family in the Golan Heights.

The choice between Syria and the Golan Heights ultimately separates Ezat and Bayan. At the close of the film, the two return to Majdal Shams and debate whether or not to re-enroll in the University of Damascus for the coming year. Ezat rejects the idea of remaining in the Golan Heights, declaring, “there’s nothing to do… we are a place closed to the world.” Bayan responds, “I am here, Majdal Shams”—an echo of Mahmoud Darwish’s ode to Palestinian identity, “I am from here, and I am here.”  In 2009, Ezat returned to Damascus to study theater, while Bayan remained in the Golan Heights and began a job in construction.

“Only God, Syria, and Bashar”; “Only God, Syria, and Freedom”

Neither Shout nor Apples of the Golan focuses on the civil war in Syria, which erupted well after the former film’s completion and during the final production of the latter. The conflict has come to dominate contemporary understandings of both Syria and the Golan Heights, however, and has reshaped the reception of both films.

Apples of the Golan includes interviews with both supporters and opponents of Bashar al-Assad. The film presents support for the regime as part-and-parcel of a fervent Syrian patriotism that is common among residents of the Golan Heights. In maintaining focus on the community within the Golan Heights, however, Apples of the Golan does not engage directly with the recent violence in Syria.

Some viewers have questioned the film’s ambiguous attitude towards the Syrian conflict. The Dubai International Film Festival declined to screen Apples of the Golan, in part, because the film could be interpreted as supportive of Bashar al-Assad. An organizer wrote the directors in September 2012, “Emotions are high here about Syria, and it would be hard for us as a festival to appear to condone the regime, if you see what I mean.”

Shout also spotlights a range of Golani perspectives on the Assad regime. Ezat’s paternal grandfather, a retired member of the Syrian parliament named Shakeeb Abu Jabal, endorses Assad at several points in the film. In contrast, Mahmood Mahmood describes antebellum Damascus as a dystopian police state. Mahmood states, “Only the stupid are not afraid, you have to be… There are red lines when you talk about certain subjects… you must not cross them even when you are speaking with friends.”

When Shout premiered in Damascus in 2010, Lubbe Bakker and Gould screened a shortened made-for-television cut of the film. This version included Shakeeb Abu Jabal’s patriotic support of Assad, but excluded Mahmood Mahmood’s discussion of the local police state.

The devastating violence in Syria has also strained relationships between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime in the Golan Heights. Tensions culminated on a Friday evening in July, when the two factions held rival rallies in downtown Majdal Shams. In an incident that appears at the close of Apples of the Golan, crowds of dueling demonstrators traded chants like “Only God, Syria, and Bashar” and “Only God, Syria, and Freedom” and flung eggs and rubbish at their opponents.

The directors of both Apples of the Golan and Shout intentionally showcased multiple perspectives on the Assad regime — capturing the complexity and diversity of the relationship between the Golan Heights and the Syrian state. The films’ local producers, however, felt pressured to choose sides in the increasingly rancorous debate between supporters and opponents of the regime. After contributing to documentaries that neither explicitly endorsed nor condemned Bashar al-Assad, Hamad Awidat and Yasser Khanger began to express polarizing opinions on the situation in Syria.

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Awidat, the associate producer of Apples of the Golan, declared uncompromising support for the Syrian regime in a 2011 interview with the Jerusalem Post. In discussing the violent crackdown on civilian protestors, Awidat stated “for me there’s no problem killing 1,000 people if they are breaking windows, burning fires in the street, making problems.” In contrast, Shout production manager Khanger became an outspoken proponent of the uprising against the Assad regime. In December 2012, Khanger released a lengthy statement on YouTube that declared, in part, “in this period, the revolution is everything in my life.”

Awidat and Khanger began to declare radical political positions after completing work on their respective films. Many of their neighbors, however, have remained politically “undefined” in order to avoid conflict. Individuals with permission to cross the ceasefire line – including many students – have increasingly cancelled or postponed their trips. Few have applied for either Israeli or Syrian citizenship, partly because Syria’s future remains ambiguous. In a region riven by conflicts, continued existence in “a place closed to the world” may be their best option.