The Do Gooders: Re-examining foreign aid to Palestine

Rowan El Shimi , Monday 1 Dec 2014

British director Chloe Ruthven examines the little impact foreign aid has on the Palestinian occupation by turning the camera onto her own western attitude

The Do Gooders
Still from The Do Gooders of Chloe and Lubna

One film that did not get the attention it deserved at the seventh edition of the Panorama of the European film due to schedule changes was “The Do Gooders,” a documentary by Chloe Ruthven that discusses foreign aid to Palestine.

The film's screening and discussion with the director, which was set to take place in Zawya cinema on Friday 28 November, was abruptly changed to Galaxy cinema on Thursday evening, taking place parallel to the much anticipated screening of Turkish Palme d'Or winner, Winter Sleep which attracted the lion’s share of audiences.

A select few were lucky enough to catch The Do Gooders and see arguably one of the best films at this year's Panorama.

Ruthven's documentary is as much an investigative report on the little impact foreign aid has on the Palestinian issue as it is a personal take on the one-way relationship governing West vs. East, North vs. South and Arab vs. European.

The director's point of departure for the film stems from wanting to delve into the history behind her grandparents' story as foreign aid workers in Palestine just at the point when the Israeli occupation began. Asking herself the inevitable question on why it is that since the generation of her grandparents, foreign – mainly European – individuals have been going to Palestine to volunteer on aid projects and yet over the past 60 years, the Palestinian plight as only worsened.

Armed with her camera, which seems to be consistently on during her journey, she visits several projects in Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah, spearheaded by foreigners. Through her lens, and accompanying doubtful narration, she shows us how little impact these projects have and how they are tied up to aid according to the priorities set by the western world.

During the talk, Ruthven highlighted the contradicting nature of foreign aid in Palestine. “In order to get an aid contract Israel has to be letting you in, therefore you have to do your projects under Israeli terms and one of the key terms is that you cannot talk about politics. Given that the situation is not a humanitarian disaster but a political occupation, the whole thing is just starting from such a bad premise.”

The film plays out in two contrasting halves: one is more investigative as Ruthven follows around these Europeans, Canadians and Americans working on projects funded by the EU and other more problematic organisations such as USAID, and the second half is filmed on her second trip where she hires a Palestinian young activist and journalist as a fixer.

The film had two other iterations before it was finally released in this format and screened within the official competition at the BFI London Film Festival.

It is only at the point where Ruthven is driving around with Lubna, where the film takes on a more inner-reflective approach, and becomes a far more interesting endeavour.

“Before I went back and filmed the part with Lubna, I had already made a film where it was just extracts of my grandmother's diary, footage of [my grandparents], and this journey I took but It just wasn't working, something big was missing,” she told the audience. “I re-applied for more funding with another producer when I realised I needed to go back and find something else. That's when I met Lubna.”

Lubna's character is essentially what holds this film together. A strong willed woman, who points out the issues at hand in a sarcastic manner, however, her vulnerability at certain moments is deeply moving. Perhaps what makes her presence in the film so authentic is that she was not aware Ruthven would use this footage of her in the film's final draft. However, after the film was edited she approved of being its main character and toured with Ruthven during the screenings in London.

The personal relationship between Ruthven and Lubna then becomes a living example of the problem at hand. Ruthven admits she was not proud of the way she comes across in the film as a naive western filmmaker, especially at the point where Lubna turns the issue she was investigating for so long back on her, forcing her to re-evaluate her own presence there and how it was really not needed or welcomed. However, deciding to include herself in such an exposed manner gives the film the authenticity that pushes audiences – especially western ones – to reflect on their own position, which according to the director is still deeply rooted in colonialist attitudes.

While the film was well received in Cairo, and even among Palestinians who viewed it in London, Ruthven says it was not hailed among the leftist-British Palestinian supporters in London. She had to defend accusations that she was wrong to point these attitudes out at a time when the international solidarity movement for Palestine was needed more than ever.

However, Ruthven has a different take on the matter. “We should lobby our own governments and work at things at our end,” she said. “We don't need to be there telling people what to do. It really showed me the difference between acting in solidarity at the invitation of a country to come and support as opposed to arriving with a set of agendas.”

“The only films I tend to stick with are those looking at my people and what we do. The white filmmaker making a film about brown people: This has to stop. Everyone can represent themselves, and I feel I need to ask questions to my people that need asking.”

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