Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir didn’t really want to make yet another film about the occupation. But the need to see for himself made him visit the two hundred checkpoints in the territories occupied by Israel. This resulted in the documentary “Checkpoint”, which won the Juris Ivens Award at the IDFA 2003 and is the first film ever to be used in the Israeli army’s training program. DOX met the filmmaker in Thessaloniki.

“It was amazing. I was surprised that it even got into the competition, I never thought it would travel outside Israel,” Shamir says about the Amsterdam experience.

Checkpoint was also presented at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, and Shamir reveals that he enjoys being in a place where he can relax.

“In Israel there’s tension all the time. Seriously, I didn’t take a bus in four years. I ride on my bike and motorcycle, I don’t get near a bus stop and I don’t feel comfortable sitting in a restaurant or coffee shop. There is constant fear and pressure,” he explains.

Checkpoint was made during 2001 and 2003. Shamir and his driver drove around the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza in a bulletproof jeep searching out the checkpoints that don’t feature on any map.

704560198“I know there’s a master plan, but the army won’t tell you where it is. I wasn’t interested in the most remote checkpoints. Depending on which soldiers were there, who would make good characters, I found out where I wanted to go and who to film. So it was like going along without any definite plan.”

Operating the camera and the sound himself, Shamir filmed the passage of the Palestinians through the checkpoints and the way the Israeli soldiers deal with them. The dramas that take place when the young Israeli soldiers harass and humiliate the Palestinians and make them wait for hours or finally let a Palestinian through after lots of arguing often turn into completely absurd situations. It’s clear that the young soldiers have difficulty tackling the exercise of authority over the Palestinians. For no apparent reason they change their decisions from a flat no to a yes. As a result of the occupation these confrontations take place every day.

“I just had to make a statement about it, just as much as I would like to avoid it and be an ‘escapist’. I’m not a political person, I’ve never been to a demonstration, I don’t have that kind of background,” Shamir explains. “I don’t like people telling me what to think. I want to see for myself and that is very different from what you see in the news.”

Vérité Approach

“Obviously the presence of the camera has an influence, it’s naive to think otherwise. Because I spent so many days and hours over there, I became an insider. In some cases, the camera did make it easier for the Palestinians, but in others it didn’t, because the soldiers wanted to make it more difficult for them. But altogether I think there’s a balance”, Shamir says.

A Palestinian man cries as he holds the dead body of his young brother shortly after he was killed

“It was a very hard job, I wouldn’t want to do it again. I had to be so devoted and ‘obsessive’ about it and to take the time to do it. Many things happened, people kicked my camera etc. but I didn’t want it to be in the film, because the film is not about me, it’s not a reflexive film.”

As a vérité document, the long, uninterrupted takes and the fluid editing contains all the tension of the situations where the occupiers and the occupied meet. Shamir shot 70-80 hours of footage and edited it with Era Lapid (who also edited Purity, by Anat Zuria). The film exists in a long version and a short TV version.

“I had been to every checkpoint in Israel – there are over two hundred; in the film there are nine. That was a decision we took during editing. I’m not sure it was the right decision, sometimes we should have chosen more. But going back to a checkpoint that you recognize makes it easier for the audience to watch.”

“I believed very much in finding a form that fit the content, even though it was hard to film. I didn’t raise a lot of money. It’s a low budget film. But now I’m happy to have done it like that,” Shamir says.

Checkpoint was funded by the Israeli Channel 8 and the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television and will be broadcast in Israel in early April.

“I pitched it at the Israeli Documentary Forum, and everybody said it was an impossible film to make, ‘There’s no hero, there’s no narrator’ etc. It’s funny because they all bought the film once it was finished,” he smiles.

“For me, it was really important that as many Israelis as possible watch this film, especially high school students and people in the army. So we went on this almost political campaign to convince the army to show it to the soldiers. And now the army will use the film in their training program. It will be screened at a high level for generals and also for soldiers on ‘checkpoint courses’. They know there’s a problem and soldiers will be trained especially for the checkpoints, which was something that didn’t happen before. So I think the film contributed to the awareness of what is going on,” says Shamir, who was accused of being anti-Semitic because of the film.

To Make a Change

“Everybody is like a victim. The soldiers, the Palestinians… I wanted to show what effect the occupation has on the Palestinians, but even more what the effects are on our society. I’m an Israeli. I care about my society and I think the film shows how destructive this kind of unlimited power has. There is a direct link to civil society in Israel and its effects on it. When a soldier returns to normal life, he will be more aggressive. These experiences affect them; they will need serious psychological therapy and the impact on our society is destructive. This is something many people don’t know about.”

Palestinians scuffle with an Israeli soldier as they try to prevent him from detaining a boy

Shamir isn’t particularly optimistic about the future, but he still wants to believe in a country where Israelis and Palestinians can live together.

“Since 1967, there has been so much hatred and misunderstanding between the two peoples, as if they were dehumanizing each other. You know, when the Hebrews left Egypt they wandered through the desert for thirty years to get rid of the mentality of slaves and come to Israel with a new mentality. I think once there’s a political solution, people will be like the ‘desert generation’ and try to forgive and forget. I don’t know. There are also problems with the Palestinian leaders who do a bad job for their people. We know we do things wrong, there is a sense of self-criticism in Israel about it. But I don’t get to hear that kind of opposition from the other side. On a utopian level, I’d like to see one country where the two people live together.”

“But maybe with the help of this film it will give awareness to the problems. Every documentarist’s dream is to make something that can make a change and we managed to make a change. It’s the first time in history the army has showed a civilian film.”

Yoav Shamir’s next film project will be a road movie on anti-Semitism.


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Anette Olsen
Script writer, webfilm producer in Safran Film and journalist based in Denmark. Former editor of DOX Magazine (2001-02 and 2004-05).