When you’re a teenager you sometimes dream about your future in terms of career, family and location in the country you’d like to live. I will admit that my dreams were not very extreme but were quite simple for the most part, if you ignore the part where I’m a famous quarterback in the big leagues. I think most of us have a fair opportunity to find happiness through hard work and dedication. However, this is not always the case in other countries living with conflict. Some teenagers living in Palestine may not be aware of the same choices others have in other peaceful countries. For them, it’s difficult to dream big and realize a bright future… but there are some that will surprise you.
Christy Garland is one exceptional documentary filmmaker that has a skilled eye for seeking out interesting subjects for her films. She has directed award-winning and critically acclaimed documentary features as well as fictional short films. She’s based in Toronto and often co-produces projects with colleagues in Nordic countries. Distributed worldwide, Garland’s films deliver a strong dramatic development, poignant character transformation, and universally felt themes. Her first feature-length documentary, The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song (2012, Hot Docs, Sheffield), garnered rave reviews during its theatrical release (The Globe and Mail described it as “echoing the work of Bresson and the Dardennes”). VICE Magazine called her film Cheer Up (2016, Hot Docs, DOC NYC) “a biting portrait of young womanhood.
I caught up with Christy in Toronto to find out all about her latest documentary, What Walaa Wants. She was very generous, humble, candid and compassionate as she began to tell me why and how she chose a young teen girl in Palestine to be the subject of her film. After we spoke, I was left with a tremendous amount of admiration for her and the young woman in the film, Walaa. This is what I learned.
““How long did it take to make the documentary?”
“I went to the West Bank in 2012. I was looking around for a different kind of film to make and that’s when I met Walaa for the first time. I actually shot some footage on that first trip, so just under six years.”
“What was it about her that made you decide to use her as the subject of your documentary?”
“I was invited by a Danish game designer to shoot some footage of a workshop and maybe find a film about a woman learning how to design her own videogame. That didn’t really pan out, it wasn’t very promising and at the end it was a lot of boring footage of people staring at computers but it did introduce me to the region and the very final workshop they were giving was in the same refugee camp that Walaa and her family were living. Two to three days before I was scheduled to leave I was shooting some footage in a small classroom at a United Nations community center in the center of the refugee camp. That’s when I met her. She was laughing and everyone seemed to love her but there were some girls that were also afraid of her. She has a strong personality and was getting all of her activities done very quickly, then she turned into the class clown and I wondered who this kid was. I then found out her mother, Latifa had recently been released from prison, so I thought there might be a story in there about them renegotiating what it’s like to be a family again after the mom gets home from prison but also where she lives. Walaa comes from a neighborhood where there are a lot of resistance occupation and every other neighbor has been to jail or knows someone that’s been to jail for something. I was curious about how Walaa would do. I introduced myself and soon after they gave me permission to shoot after we sat down and talked about what my film would be about. That’s how it got started.”
“When you say you had received permission; did you mean, from their government?”
“No, that would be Latifa, her mother. Walaa at the time was soon to be 16 and as you can see from this film and my other work, I shoot very observational footage. I follow someone very closely through a moment in their lives that holds some significance. We constantly have to renegotiate that access when it’s that long. Walaa didn’t really want me to make a film about her because her mom was quite well known as a prisoner and very outspoken. She was very tired and was one of the few women during a famous prison exchange where over1000 Palestinian prisoners were released for 1 Israeli soldier. Walaa was a little tired of living in her mothers shadow and first told me no because she thought I only wanted to film her mom. I assured her that I was more interested in what she was doing with her life. She came around and introduced me to her mother. We sat down and I showed them my past films and they agreed to let me start making the film.”
“She is very strong spirited and has big character. I almost thought she would definitely fail at the Police Academy.”
“The thing about Walaa that I admire the most is, while her mother was in prison her father lived in Jordan with his second wife. From a sibling, Walaa has had to for the most part, look after herself. She’s grown up in such a challenging environment with a tremendous amount of pressure but maybe not so much discipline and structure. A lot of the other girls that she’s training with at the Police Academy come from very different backgrounds. Many of them are middle class or upper class and their parents are in the military or dentists or doctors. Walaa comes from a rougher background and ‘the other side of the tracks,’ so to speak. I understand why she was having a hard time. This is somebody that’s learned to have her own defenses and take care of herself. She’s one of those young kids/people that you know are rule breakers but you know they crave that kind of structure and discipline. She actually blossoms while she’s there. She’s very good and a natural for the military. She really loves the challenge and loves the rules but in her nature, she doesn’t have the background to comply with structure and deadlines, getting up early at 4 in the morning. Yes she gets into a lot of trouble but she also learns what functional environment is and what working with others and supporting your fellow students needs. I think the most significant part of the story is her coming of age and participating in something that represents a move into Statehood. Where she lives it’s about pride and being part of the Police Force. That’s something she had to come around to adjust and learn to exist outside the unique environment she was raised in.”
“When did you know to stop filming and realize you had captured enough footage?”
“My guess was as good as yours about whether or not she would complete the Academy to become a Police Officer. I was hoping she would make it through. The film lands in a place where we see her as a mature young woman who has a job and a uniform and a certain amount of independence that she’s been craving. She has some form of control over her own destiny and that’s where I thought the story would end but I was also worried that would over simplify where she’s from and how complicated her life is because of the Palestine/Israel conflict. On a story level we deal with her and what she wants to go through and achieve but we couldn’t ignore the pressures that surround her. When she gets out of Police Academy, is really what deepens the story and really answers the bigger cinematic questions posed at the beginning of the film; how free is she and how will she actually be a police officer in the world she lives in? I knew the story had come to an end when that was answered.”
“When did you start and finish the film?”
“I started in July of 2012 and just finished shooting this last January of 2018 and the film premiered at the Berlinale Film Festival.”
“Have you kept in touch with Walaa and do you know if she’s still in the Police Force?”
“Yes she is and I keep in touch with her almost everyday, especially now that the film is touring around the world. She herself attended the premiere in Berlin, which was real exciting and mind blowing for her. She’ll actually be travelling with me to Qatar in November for a film festival and very often Walaa is pumped in for a Q n A through Skype after other screening at festivals to answer questions. I’m also trying to get her to Canada for the theatrical release.”
“You must have used a small camera crew in order to keep it personal. How many were there?”
“It was just me and a camera. I recorded the sound as well. In one case we had a day or two where we worked with a really talented Palestinian cinematographer because it was really difficult for me to walk through the camp and get visuals. I knew I really wanted to bring people there, I understood what a unique environment it was. In the beginning of the film there’s a floating shot where we come out of the alleyways, he shot that. He also shot the prison where Walaa was incarcerated. He has a press pass and was able to shoot all that footage. He ended up in jail but at least he got the footage because he had the proper permits. I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
“How long did he go to jail?”
“Just a few hours, I felt horrible. This happens all the time with Palestinians. Many Palestinians end up spending time in an Israel prison for one reason or another or no reason at all. Sometimes security is very tight and I think that they were concerned that he should’ve had a different permit. We had to call a friend to bail him out but I think as a cinematographer and a photo journalist he’s comfortable with that type of thing and it happens all the time.”
“Speaking of jail, her brother Mohammed was arrested for throwing rocks. Did you know what the status of his situation was?”
“He’s still in jail but his sentence was reduced to 2 years. That was a year ago so hopefully he only has one year to go.”
Walaa’s brother Mohammed was caught sneaking into Israel for work and also charged for throwing rocks at a check-point. Mohammed was represented by a prominent lawyer that prevented his 2 year sentence from becoming much longer.
“How many times did you travel to Palestine?”
“I went about 10 times. Most of my stays were for a duration of two weeks at a time. I had travelled down 4 times during the course of 3 months.”
“It’s wonderful to have seen her succeed in her role as a police officer. I would like to hope that she is content. Having had continuous contact with her, does she seem happy?”
“I think she’s content, she’s done various jobs since she’s been on the police force. She’s very happy that she has the ability to generate her own paycheck. She has a life outside her home. She hasn’t married yet and I think she just wants what other young North American teenagers relate to, which is to get a sense of who she is, get a job and have a sense of self-respect. She enjoys challenging herself and chose a job she’s really good at. There really isn’t a lot of opportunity for young people especially young women besides waiting around to get married. She get’s transferred around to other positions because she gets restless but she is content and happy to have a job.”
“There is quite a dramatic character arc in watching Walaa transform throughout this film. I found it very unique for a documentary.”
“Yes there is. Because her mother was so prominent while in prison, she happened to be interviewed when Walaa was just 13, so we get to see her as a young girl missing her mom and crying to a 22 year old woman that’s toughened up and has kind of raised herself while facing many challenges. It was quite an arc especially for a documentary.”
‘How did you finance the film?”
“At the very beginning I had a Canada Council grant that had gotten me over there. I had previously made some other films in Nordic countries and had worked with Denmark before. I had the support from a Danish producer that works for a company called Final Cut for Real which have had 2 Academy Award nominated documentaries that they produced. I was really lucky to have their support in the early stage of the film. At the appropriate time, once we had the story and a strong and promising distributor, they were able to come on board with the Danish Film Institute and that led to the Gucci Tribeca Fund, which is a very prestigious fund from the US. They only fund approx. 7 films per year so we were lucky to get that. The National Film Board then approached us and offered their support. After that the Doha Film Institute came onboard, so it was quite an interesting range of International funders. We were very lucky in that regard. In terms of the Danish funders, I’ve worked with Danish editors in the past and find them to be very fruitful and creative collaborators.”
“Do you know what’s happening with the film after its finished touring the festivals?”
“It will have a theatrical release in Canada and hopefully will be on television in Canada. It will be on television in Denmark and Sweden. It’s already been on television in Italy. It’ll have a broadcast life and then hopefully it will be available on Amazon or iTunes.”
This was an extraordinary documentary that gives you a front seat outside your normal perimeters and shows you how teens live and evolve on the other side of the world. If you have an opportunity to view the film at VIFF it will have an impact on your day and maybe even your future. Films like this tend to inspire and evoke emotion. Christy Garland is an exceptional filmmaker with an eye for story.