Some drama off-camera in Mideast conflict film

AP, Wednesday 23 Apr 2014

An American director's short film about an Israeli army raid in a Palestinian refugee camp ends with a surprise — literally involving a rabbit, though not one pulled from a hat. The story told in "The Warren" is meant to question the ways Israelis and Palestinians see each other as a result of their long-running conflict.

The diverse cast and crew — Arabs and Jews, locals and foreigners — struggled with those issues off camera as well during several days of filming in the al-Ein camp, a former militant stronghold near the West Bank city of Nablus.

In identity-bending twists, those playing Israeli soldiers included a conscientious objector who quit the Israeli military to protest its practices in the West Bank; a former conscript whose unit patrolled the camp a decade ago; and six members of the Palestinian security forces who put on Israeli army uniforms as extras in the film, and were also asked to protect the two Israelis.

The two ex-soldiers said they revealed their identities only to a few camp residents to stay safe — although their cover story of being foreigners was hard to maintain once they started bellowing orders in accent-free Hebrew while in character.

Producers, meanwhile, had to bring in props from Israel that might have raised suspicion had they been stopped at Israeli checkpoints, including rented Israeli military uniforms and M16 rifles that had been rendered unusable.

"The drama of the production exceeded (that of) the film," said Guy Elhanan, 35, the Israeli actor who plays an Israeli captain leading his unit into a house in search of a wanted Palestinian.

The 10-minute film follows the soldiers as they raid and ransack the house and at times hold the residents at gunpoint. The tension escalates when the soldiers fire a stun grenade into a crawl space after hearing a noise and then ask the family patriarch to go into the suspected hideout.

Eventually, the elderly man emerges with his back to the soldiers, then slowly turns around, holds up a rabbit and hands it to the soldiers.

"We stop the film the moment the surprise comes out," said director James Adolphus, 36, an American documentary maker. "It's about creating dialogue after the curtain comes up."

He and others involved in the film spoke after leaving the camp.

Israel continues to carry out arrest raids in West Bank towns and camps — areas that are nominally under Palestinian self-rule. Although Israel retains the right to arrest suspects, the raids are a key source of Palestinian resentment. The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as part of an independent state.

Durgham Sahli, a community leader in the al-Ein camp, said he welcomed the crew at the request of Palestinian security officials. Though initially unaware of the presence of the ex-soldiers, he said he had no objections "as long as the movie portrays our reality."

Adolphus said the film focuses in part on changes in the soldiers' perceptions. The title's "warren," or labyrinth of rabbit tunnels, stands for the seemingly intractable conflict that generates fear on both sides, he said.

"The soldiers go deeper and deeper into the maze of the camp," he said. "What do we find at the end of rabbit tunnels? Just rabbits."

The director said he hopes to show the short on the international film festival circuit to raise money for a full-length feature telling the story of Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in Nablus in 2002 — a time when Israel reoccupied the West Bank in response to Palestinian bombing and shooting attacks. Adolphus, who spent several months teaching in Nablus a decade ago, said he paid for the $65,000 film with personal funds and grant money.

During the filming that wrapped this week, lines between reality and fiction often blurred.

A camp resident whose house is raided in the film said Israeli soldiers have repeatedly broken down his front door over the years while chasing Palestinian stone-throwers.

"The idea is great because it represents the experience of many Palestinians," said the man, who gave only his first name, Moussa, because he feared some residents would object to him hosting former Israeli soldiers.

Elhanan, who plays the Israeli captain, said he often felt uneasy while in character.

"I feel people are judging me" when in uniform, said Elhanan, who speaks fluent Arabic, participated in several Palestinian films and teaches theater to at-risk children in Israel.

In September 1997, Elhanan had just begun his compulsory three-year army service when his 14-year-old sister, Smadar, and four others were killed in a triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem. The assailants came from the Nablus area.

Elhanan belongs to a family of peace activists, and his mother blamed Israel's harsh policies against Palestinians for her daughter's death. Elhanan became a conscientious objector after his compulsory service, refusing to report for annual reserve duty.

During the first round of filming last summer, he said he was worried people would find out he is Israeli, "without me having the opportunity to explain myself, what kind of Israeli I am." This time, the atmosphere was more relaxed.

While Elhanan never served in the occupied territories, the second ex-conscript, acting student Daniel Gamlieli, knew the Nablus area, including al-Ein, from his army days.

Gamlieli, 29, said he participated in the project, in part, because he wanted to make a case for artistic freedom.

In a phone interview, Gamlieli said his unit never acted as violently toward Palestinians as he was asked to do in the film, but added that "I know there are also other stories."

He said he entered the camp with some trepidation, thinking of cases in which Palestinian crowds have attacked Israeli soldiers who had taken a wrong turn. But ultimately, the residents respected his work.

"I didn't come as part of an army, I came as an individual," Gamlieli said. "I was more vulnerable and I knew this."

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