Chuleenan Svetvilas: Last summer I saw Asher de Bentolila Tlalim’s documentary essay Galoot [Exile] at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. In that film, the Israeli director discusses how his living in London gave him a different perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both of you have been living in Europe for more than 20 years. Do you think that having this distance from Palestine-Israel made it possible for you to make Route 181?
Eyal Sivan: Part of being able to make the documentary is the fact of my not living there everyday. But I am living with what is happening in Israel-Palestine everyday. Everyday I read the Israeli newspaper and talk with people. In Paris, where I am considered a citizen, I read the French papers, I look at the political structure, and suddenly, what is happening [in Palestine-Israel] looks absurd. The fact that I can look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as absurd, makes it easier to deal with.
Michel Khleifi: I think maybe your question is a good one in the beginning of the 21st century. Bertold Brecht talked about the exile in his dialogue of the exiled. He said the exile is the best dialectician because he is between two systems, both in and out of two societies. But now, in this modernity, we must change our approach, our vision.
It is impossible to be free in this situation. The problem is not physically being in Israel-Palestine, Palestine-Israel. The problem is how to stay free…to think with our head. What we discovered is that people in Israel think that they think, but they don’t.
CS: After three-and-a-half hours, the audience in San Francisco had a break. When they returned, at least a third of the audience did not come back. By the time the film was over and the Q&A began, more than half of the audience was gone.
ES: I was surprised that so many people left. When the film is shown without a break, people stay. In Berkeley, it was screened on a Friday afternoon with three short breaks and everybody stayed. The people who stay want to talk, learn, and understand more about what is happening in Palestine-Israel.
The disappointing part is that, in general, there are no real debates any more, which doesn’t have anything to do with the film itself.
MK: When the film first screened in Europe, the Israelis tried to attack us, but now they just don’t participate. The Israeli position is to refuse dialogue.
ES: There is no confrontation any more because we are dealing with two different structures: power on one side and the people who have it, and on the other side are the people. And power doesn’t debate with people any more.
CS: When did you decide to collaborate on this project?
ES: April 2002. There was this horrible moment: the Jenin attack [in which Israeli forces invaded the refugee camp]. Every day, all day long, we had this horror of the brutality of the Israeli army and the suicide attacks. Then we had the impression that a consensus of separation was building and that it was a natural separation—as if Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs are like cats and dogs. We cannot be together.
MK: The Israeli ideology after the Clinton and Barak negotiations in 1999 was: ‘Palestinians are bad. It’s impossible to make peace with them.’ It was really propaganda.
ES: So we talked about what we could do. Then we decided to make a film together. Things started very quickly. We organized a trip and we had this idea of superimposing two maps. We decided to go back to the first moment where partition was decided as a solution.
MK: We started to think about the wall, and we came to the conclusion that they build many mental walls in Israeli and Palestinian society. We asked ourselves, ‘How did the story of walls begin?’ We found that the United Nations is responsible [for the 1947 Resolution 181 dividing Palestine into an Arab and Jewish State]. Then came the idea to travel along the partition lines.
ES: We wanted to show the relationship between the physical border and the mental borders in the head. The thing was to reveal where the mental borders are coming from. It was a virtual project – following a virtual line with a virtual map, dealing with virtual borders and dealing with mental borders. What is the relationship between this virtual and physical reality?
CS: And the map determined the structure of the film?
ES: It determined the structure of the journey. Then, when we came back, there was the question of the structure of the film. We tried other structures, but the film is the journey. We tried to understand the logic of the material, and the material imposed itself. We didn’t want to make such a long film, but we realized that it was about being honest with the project. Otherwise, the result would have been a “best of.” And the “best of” is exactly the opposite of what we wanted to do.
MK: The problem is how to reduce our subjectivity. How to serve the people. They are the important element of the film, not us. We tried to give people the time to speak, to include details, to meditate, and to explain themselves. We think that that’s what Palestinians and Israelis need.
ES: We are dealing with a double space. There is not only Israel, but Palestine. All the time, it is a journey in a place that has one name Palestine/Israel. A highway is not only a highway, it is also next to the ruins of a village. There are many ways to read it – to re-appropriate the geography of the place, to go out of the clichéd geography of the news media, to give the people space, people with a capital ‘P’, the vox populi. We discovered that people need to speak, and we had a responsibility to the public to show them that we are listening. This built the rhythm of the film.
MK: It was very important to us that it was more than just a film. We provided materials to think. The way the media portrays this conflict is like a basketball match between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It’s more important than exported ideology. People suffer. The primary responsibility for this tragedy lies with the international community, the United Nations, which gave legitimacy to ethnic cleansing.
ES: It is not the kind of project where there is the Israeli and the Palestinian bringing two visions together. Our idea was that we would try to create a common narration. Not another binary…
MK: No, who are we to create a narration? What we think is that this [film] is the best way to try to understand the history of the land. The history of the land is not an ideological history.
CS: It’s a history of the land told through the people.
MK: Exactly. This is what we would like to communicate.
CS: Eyal, you said you wanted to avoid creating a binary relationship, so you weren’t consciously choosing a Palestinian vs. an Israeli to interview?
ES: We tried to show that people are not only one thing. They are not only Israelis. They are not only Jews. They are a lot of things. To reduce the people to one thing is dehumanizing the person. You are not only a woman. You are not only an Iraqi. To let this complexity express itself…
MK: We wanted to show reality.
CS: Do you intend to follow up with the people you interviewed?
ES: Yes, but more than that. We will screen the film in all the places where we shot the film.
CS: So you will retrace your route with the screenings?
ES: More than our route.
MK: We’ll try to bring a narration of truth and give people a space to talk. A space where Palestinians can tell ’48 stories, but also Jews can speak. We can speak about colonialism, about questions of trauma. We can build a journey with the screenings of the film, not only in the shooting of the film.
For two months, Michel Khleifi (a Palestinian living in Brussels, presently a guest lecturer at the Columbia University, New York), and Eyal Sivan (born in Israel, living in France) travelled together from the south to the north in their home country. To realize this journey in Israel, they drew their itinerary on a map and named it Route 181. This virtual line followed the borders of Resolution 181 adopted by the United Nations on 29 November 1947, that was planning the partition of Palestine in two states: one Jewish and one Arab.
The filmmakers met the inhabitants of the area in their everyday life (Israelis, Palestinians, civilians and soldiers, young and old) and listened to their testimonies and opinions about the country they live in, the actual situation of the occupation and how they see the future.