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Artists Talk: Israel/Palestine. An Interview with Till Roeskens

By Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

In her latest dispatch for our Artists Talk: Israel/Palestine series, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi speaks to visual artist Till Roeskens, whose documentary film Videomappings: Aida, Palestine won the Grand Prix at the Festival International du Documentaire de Marseille, FID 2009.

Directed and produced by visual artist Till Roeskens, VIDEOMAPPINGS: AIDA, PALESTINE, is a documentary film that explores the evolution of the Aida Refugee Camp through a series of maps drawn by its residents. Located 2 km north of Bethlehem, in the West Bank, Aida is a Palestinian Refugee camp estimated to have a population of 4,000. Palestinians initially took refuge in the camp in 1948, displaced as a result of the Arab-Israeli war, with a second wave of refugees arriving in 1967, during the Six Day War. The camp is surrounded by the Israeli Separation Barrier to the North, Rachel’s Tomb to the east, and the Jewish Settlement of Gilo to the north and north west.

Using a unique cinematographic technique, Roeskens explores the psycho-social dynamics of space, and the effects of the occupation on the residents of the camp. Roeskens writes, “I asked the inhabitants of Aida Camp, Bethlehem, to draw maps of what they see around them. The drawing process, as well as the stories related by those subjective geographies, have been recorded on video.” As the film progresses, the viewer is increasingly hemmed in by a complex network of lines, until the reality of the occupation is fully realized on screen.       

Winner of the Grand Prix of the Festival International du Documentaire de Marseille, FID 2009, VIDEOMAPPINGS: AIDA, PALESTINE, has been widely screened throughout international documentary film festivals in cities such as Boston, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Madrid and Damascus to name a few.

One of the main supporters of the project was the Al-Rowwad Center in Aida, Palestine. The Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center is an independent center for artistic and cultural training for the children of Aida Camp and greater Palestine. The center encourages the use of theater, arts, and education as a nonviolent means of self-expression. Doctor Abdelfattah Abusrour, Founder and Director of the Al-Rowwad Center, and President of the Palestinian Theater League, says the center’s mission is to develop a philosophy of “Beautiful Resistance.” Abusrour writes, “Human rights, justice, freedom, equality, peace, love . . . these values are not elastic . . . they do not change based on new realities on the ground . . . and this is the heritage we want to leave for our children and the generations to come, so we can look at each other as potential partners and not potential enemies.”

Some time after Roeskens first screened the documentary at the Al-Rowwad Center, I caught up with him to speak about his experiences making the film. As our conversation below shows, the residents of the camp co-created the documentary, sharing their stories as Roeskens recorded their individual cartographic representations of the camp on film.



Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: Could you talk a little bit about your process as an artist? I’m interested, in particular, in the way that you’ve traveled, how your travels have informed your work, and how you’ve gone from working with still images to the moving image, to film.

Till Roeskens: I will start from very far away, okay? It’s the story of my grandmother that I heard only recently, because if I did this film in Palestine two years ago, it’s because I had first been to Israel several times. I never knew why, actually, because I was fourteen when my grandmother took me to Israel on holidays and she’s not Jewish. She had friends there and I did not ask her why—I was fourteen at the time, so I did not really think to ask my grandmother about her connection to Israel. Now people ask me, “Why did you do this?” And I say, “Because my grandmother took me to Israel. But why? I don’t know.” So I decided to ask her. She lives in northern Germany and I live in southern France, so we don’t meet often. Actually, my whole family came from Eastern Germany, which is now Poland, from the region of Gdansk, Danzig. She grew up there. She told me beautiful stories. She had a lot of Jewish neighbors and there was a synagogue on her street. When she was a child she passed before it every Saturday and saw people with such beautiful books in their hands going inside. She loved reading, but there were nearly no books in her family. One day she asked her mother, “Can we not go in and see what they do?” and her mother said, “No, it’s not for us.” And then, these families left; she thinks most of them left in time. She did not wonder about it because Danzig was a port city and everybody was immigrating somewhere. It was normal for people to leave. And then there was Kristallnacht in ‘38. The next day, she came home from school and passed before the same synagogue and saw people throwing everything into the street. She saw these beautiful books thrown in the street and she admired them. So when the men went inside the synagogue, she took two of the books and ran away with them and was so proud. She showed them to her mother and her mother went crazy, asking, “Did anyone see you?” and she said, “No, no, no.” Her mother took the books and put them in the fire, and that was the end of her relation with Jews for a long time. At the end of the war my Grandmother was pushed out by the Russians, so she came to western Germany and lived her life there. When she was sixty her husband died and she had just retired and had little to do. A friend from a local travel agency told her, “There’s a cheap trip to Israel for Christmas. You should see the sun!” And she said, “Well, Israel, what shall I do there?” And she went.

AV: And she took you with her?

TR: No, no.

AV: That was another trip?

TR: Yes. When she got to Israel she took a public bus and there was an American woman sitting beside her who, like all Americans, was talking loudly and asking, “Where are you from?”  And she said, “I am from Gdansk.” There was an Israeli woman sitting beside them who turned towards her and said, “I’m from Gdansk, too.”  They started to talk in German and became best friends because they really shared the same culture of German Danzig that doesn’t exist any more. They both had this nostalgia. So she came to Israel and found something of her childhood here and met a lot of the Danzig community around the country. She came every year to see them here. And that’s how I came to Israel the first time.

This story shows that our family is also somehow uprooted. My mother moved from town to town in western Germany when I was young, and there was never a place where I really felt at home. So when I was sixteen I went to France, and when I was eighteen I went to Italy for two years. But I wanted to go further, to the desert, to live for a certain time in the desert. I happened to meet someone who had worked in something like a kibbutz, but working with handicapped people, near Beersheba. I knew the country from my visits, and she told me about this beautiful place in the desert where I could volunteer, so I went. And there I stayed for the time that I had agreed to, which was fifteen months. But I quickly understood that I was not on the side where they really needed help. There was one person, a Jewish person, in this village who had contacts with Bedouins who lived not so far from there, and he introduced me to them. I loved them so much that I started to learn Arabic and then lived several months in the Bedouin village, working there.

AV: What did you do for work?

TR: I worked in the village, helping to build a house for the farm with stones from the fields, fitting them and then using mud and straw to make the cement. After these months in the village—which, like all Bedouin villages in Israel, has very little space, they cannot live the traditional life any more—I stayed two months in Jordan just walking around the desert, spending every night under a different Bedouin tent, and sharing their life and freedom. It was such a strong experience, so much hospitality, that I knew from that time that I had to come back one day to the region to do something, to try to give something back. All this was about thirteen years ago.

Afterward I went back to Europe and started to study art. Before, I had just painted a little bit, but when I started art studies, quite quickly my experience of wandering and traveling also became part of the work. For instance, one of the first projects where I feel my work really started was a kind of hitchhiking performance. I would go to a crossing and just stand there. I would go with the first car that would take me, and go wherever the person went. And from there I would continue straight with the next car and so on like this, at random.

AV: How did this early project affect your subsequent work?

TR: From this point, my work expanded to bigger forms of exploration: how to tell the story of places. I made a whole series of projects that I called Plan de suggestion, which means “location map” or “situation map.” At that time I also read a lot of Sartre, and he talks about what it means to be “in situation,” regarding the contradiction between necessity and freedom and how they can coexist. So these words became important for me. I mean, there’s also the Situationniste, Situationist Movement, of course.

So I carried on doing things like this, questioning how personal and geographical situations come together. The work in Aida, Palestine is somehow a part of this larger exploration.  I went especially to Aida because about seven years ago I met the director of the little social/cultural center that is in the camp, the Al-Rowwad Center, and he told me about this place that was welcoming volunteers. When we met there was no separation wall yet, and then I received news from them from time to time and saw all the pictures of the wall being built nearly all around the camp, on both sides of it. I thought, I would really like to go there to question these people’s experience of space. It took some years to find the time—and the money to pay for the flight—and then I came. So that was for the first question.

AV: Can you talk a little bit about the technical process of the documentary film?

TR: Yes, of course. In the beginning, when I thought about coming here, all I had in mind was to ask the residents to draw maps. I did not know that I would make a film; but over the years, video work has became more and more important for me. This thing that I call “video-mapping,” I think it comes from a film I saw about Picasso where they—

AV: Yes, The Mystery of Picasso?

TR: —yes, where they made drawings like this. So I reinvented it a little bit and built a frame with wood I found lying around the camp. The nails you could buy from the grocery store—used nails. They’re really very precious here, I think. I built it so that it can stand upright on the table and fit the shape of the biggest sheets of paper I could find, which were about one meter large. Then, I asked residents of the camp to draw with big ink pens so the marks would go through the paper. I filmed from the other side, as they drew, so I didn’t see the person while they were drawing and speaking; I saw only the white screen with the light coming from behind me.

AV: And they were speaking as they drew, simultaneously?

TR: Alternately, I would say. The editing makes it seem like it’s really in the moment—the words come and the line comes as if the words are magically drawing the map. Of course in reality it’s a little bit more disconnected because it’s hard to speak and to draw at the same time. I would ask a question—there was always someone from the camp who spoke a little English sitting on the side of the table who could see both of us—so I would ask a question and he would translate, and the participant would draw something. And then I would say, “Can you explain to me what it is? Can you make this or that a bit more specific?” Then they would do it and I would say, “If you go further in this direction, what is there, what happened then?” It was quite a long dialogue, but the editing makes it seem more like one concentrated story.

AV:  What aspect of the film was the most interesting to you? What surprised you the most in the process of making the film?

TR: The first surprise was how exceptional the storytellers who participated in the project were. I had such strong stories that I really felt I had a narrative arc, so I decided to divide the film into several chapters; each of the chapters could also function as independent short films. What happened was that the first drawing you saw in the film is a reconstruction of the camp from the beginning, from 1945. In this first chapter, Aida Camp, the participant, Sabha Khader Abousrour, draws the first tent that was ever set up on the camp. Then you see the tents multiply as more and more appear, until there are tents everywhere. Then, houses are built around the camp, until there is no more space left, and the construction becomes vertical; the houses are built on top of each other.  Sabha drew such a rich picture of the camp  that I thought, well, now I have an overview of the camp—I cannot get a better picture of it. Then I became friends with Mahmoud Issa, who draws the second and the fifth chapters.

AV: The young man who goes to visit the woman he is in love with and gets caught by an Israeli soldier?

TR: Yes. First, in the second chapter, Ahmed Valley, he tells such a dramatic story, which is really like the loss of paradise when the Israeli army takes away his families’ land. Then, there is the second story he tells, in the fifth chapter, A Trip to Beersheba, which is much funnier, more lighthearted. The main focus of Mahmoud Issa’s stories are about the difficulties of living in the camp; about how people get around, where people go, what the obstacles are along the way, how they manage to go around or beneath or above the letter of the law—all these little acts of resistance, this very daily and simple way of struggling for freedom that is theirs. This was very, very strong for me, too, to hear these stories. I think that if this film has had such a large audience in different countries, it’s because it’s not just about a place in Palestine. I really want to say something about the right of everyone everywhere to come and go as they wish, which is also quite a big matter in many countries.

AV: I thought the arc of the film as a whole was really powerful, because it starts with the development of the camp, and then peaks with the love story where Mahmoud and the Israeli soldier share a moment of recognition, and then it comes back down at the end to a very harsh reality of the last chapter, Rachel’s Tomb.

TR: Yes, this was one of the last stories that I recorded. Claire Anastas, the speaker of the last chapter of the film, is the only person who does not live in the camp. The house is on the road to the Bethlehem checkpoint. You see this house surrounded by the Separation Wall on three sides—an incredible situation. So one day I rang at the door. They’re a Christian family—they never go to Aida. It is the only house surrounded by the wall in this way. There are still some people left in the community, but according to her the street is no longer what it used to be—a living, thriving place of connection between the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem—it’s really only a dead end now. I chose to put this scene at the end because that’s what the situation is actually heading toward nowadays. All these places where they speak about how to survive day to day by going around the wall, how to pass underneath, these are all where the wall is not totally finished. Once they placed the electric wire on the top, one could no longer take a ladder and go over the top anymore. So this total enclosure is now the horizon of the situation.

AV: It’s interesting that the film records the process of the Israeli Separation Barrier from its initial construction to when it was completed so the viewer experiences a sense of diminished freedom over time. The film provides a visual experience of what it might have been like to watch the wall be built, in phases, and then for it to finally be finished, so that one would find oneself totally closed in. Were you conscious of this narrative arc as you were editing the film?

TR: While I was making it, no. I did not know the order of the things and, I mean, it’s not such a straight line as you say now. But it’s true that in the first chapter you don’t see the wall—you see the camp in its first stages, in the ‘40s.

AV: Yes--the wall kind of accumulates throughout the piece. By the end, you really feel the presence of the wall.

TR: Yes, yes. That’s the main point about Rachel’s Tomb, because it’s a place the residents of the camp talk about a lot—it comes up about four times in the film.

AV: Yes, it’s there in the very beginning, in the first chapter.

TR: Yes, Sabha Khader Abousrour, the speaker of the first chapter, refers to it once, saying, “Here’s the road coming from Rachel’s Tomb.” In the beginning it’s just a place you don’t know anything about; then, it becomes a reference point, and you begin to understand that things connect; and then, in the end, it becomes the center of the story.

AV: Has it been surprising for you that the film has been so well-received?

TR: Yes, of course. But I’m not so optimistic about art being able to change reality, so I don’t know. I think art is this very singular form. . . I think the film did well mostly for aesthetic reasons, but I don’t know. As I told you, I made this film as an artist. In fact, if I had not been encouraged by filmmakers to send it to documentary film festivals I wouldn’t have.

AV: And it won first place at the FID of Marseille, right?

TR: Yes. The festival’s director also works in contemporary art and it’s a very well-known festival that attracts international programmers from everywhere because they can see things that they don’t see anywhere else. They have a lot of experimental stuff, so I think it was the right place, and the jury that year happened to be sensitive to what the film was portraying. I think it was shown in many festivals because it employs an unusual aesthetic for a documentary.

A: How did the residents of the camp and the participants receive the film when you screened it?

TR: The people who participated all came to the screening and were very pleased. It was a funny moment. They were just poking fun at each other’s ways of expressing, or drawing things. The children made a little hat, wrote down the name of every person who participated on pieces of paper. Then, the children drew the names from the hat, and that is how we decided which chapter we would see next. It was a beautiful moment and very important for me, of course. That’s why I stayed two months—to have the time to make a fast first edit, to be able to give something back immediately to the residents, because ultimately, they were really the first audience I wanted to address.

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Published Nov 4, 2010   Copyright 2010 Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

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