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Palestinians exorcise ghosts of Israeli torture in haunting docudrama

Raed Andoni's 'Ghost Hunting' tells the stories of former Palestinian prisoners of Israel seeking to confront trauma, pain and anger
A scene of torture and interrogation in the film 'Ghost Hunting' (Courtesy of Palestine Film Festival)

LONDON - In one of Ghost Hunting's most harrowing scenes, a Palestinian prisoner urinates on himself as he stares in contempt at his Israeli captor.

"God damn you!" the infuriated prison guard screams. "We have no one to clean this up - whoever makes the mess must clean it up himself!"

He gestures at another guard in the room to force the prisoner onto the floor. The two men then mop up the urine with the body of the prisoner, who bursts into paradoxical laughter and is then left in handcuffs on the ground of the cell when they're done. The scene abruptly cuts, but the cameras continue to roll.

The director Raed Andoni and cast member Mohammad Khattab – both former Palestinian prisoners themselves – start to discuss how best to proceed, with one suggesting the prisoner sing to himself to illustrate the extent of his defiance.

Ghost Hunting opened with a sold-out screening at the London Palestine Film Festival (LPFF), which runs until 28 November.

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The 93-minute docudrama is a disturbing and powerful film that hovers between fact and fiction, to the point that it is occasionally hard to tell what is real and what is not.

In the film, a group of Palestinian men construct an interrogation centre in a deserted warehouse in Ramallah, modelled on the Al Moskobyia detention centre in Jerusalem, where several of the former prisoners including Andoni had been interrogated.

Andoni's bold and experimental method seemingly gives the men space to confront their trauma by both reliving events as they occurred and creatively building upon them at the same time.

They're playing roles, yes, but they're mostly expressing themselves and their deep emotions in the context of real-life events. They're survivors, not victims

- Raed Andoni, director

"The question is less about the line between fact and fiction and more about the men themselves and what they endured," Andoni told Middle East Eye. "They're playing roles, yes, but they're mostly expressing themselves and their deep emotions in the context of real-life events. They're survivors, not victims."

In the film, which is in some ways a slow-motion, close-up look at post-traumatic stress disorder, Palestinian torture survivors exorcise the demons of their past.

Director Raed Andoni says he has made peace with the ghosts of his past (Courtesy of Palestine Film Festival)

At first, Andoni had wanted to direct a feature film about Palestinian prisoners' experiences with Israeli interrogation. While conducting research for the film, however, it struck Andoni that a documentary might be a better and more authentic fit.

"I felt that if I had to make a film about an interrogation centre, then I would have to build the centre itself," he said. "And if I had to make a film about ex-prisoners, then I would need to find ex-prisoners."

Rare glimpse

Ghost Hunting gives audiences a rare glimpse of the long-term effects incarceration and detention can have on Palestinians. The experience is transformative for some of the men. One breaks down on set as he shares thoughts about his suicidal brother, who'd been imprisoned alongside him three years earlier. 

The following day, when the man returns to the warehouse, his spirits seem high. He's just been to an amusement park with his wife and children and even jumped on an inflatable castle. "I'd like to thank you," he tells Andoni. "I feel relieved. I feel it's good that I talked and got things off my chest."

A prisoner gestures from behind the walls of his cell (Courtesy of Palestine Film Festival)

In another scene, one of the older men squeezes into a tiny cell, reenacting solitary confinement. At first, he seems lighthearted and says the cell's reconstruction is "exactly right," while smiling nervously. As he peers out of the cell through a tiny slot, however, we witness him start to panic, the sweat on his forehead glistening. He lasts less than two minutes in the room before being let out.

If critics want to criticise anything, how about they criticise the jails and the jailers themselves, rather than a fictional prison that we built from wood?

- Raed Andoni, director

It's a moment of sheer dread that is unsettling to watch and that brings to mind what some critics have said about Ghost Hunting: Andoni's approach may have created new traumatic memories in some of the former prisoners rather than exorcising those of the past. 

Andoni pushes back on this idea. He says that to ensure the safety of the cast, he hired psychologists to help him devise a suitable and sensitive directing strategy. The men were all told that they could leave the project should they feel the need to; only one did, he said. 

"What matters to me is the Palestinian people and how they feel about the film, and they adored it," he said, adding that it has been screened 150 times in Palestine. "If critics want to criticise anything, how about they criticise the jails and the jailers themselves, rather than a fictional prison that we built from wood?"

According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, at the end of August 2018, 5,493 Palestinians including 311 from the Gaza Strip were being held in Israeli Prison Service facilities.

Last year, hundreds of Palestinians in administrative detention went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions under which they were being held.

"Imprisonment and interrogation have left a mark of pain, anger and sadness on the collective memory of the Palestinian people," Andoni said. "The film explores that."

Rising tension

When Andoni first decided to go down the documentary route, he placed an advertisement in a Ramallah-based newspaper, seeking former prisoners with a background in carpentry, building and acting, who might be open to a film project. He then "preselected" several men who expressed interest in the documentary, and held a casting session.

Only one of the men who responded to the call, Monther Jawabreh, wasn't a former prisoner. He was drawn to the film because his family members and friends had been imprisoned, while he had been spared.

"He felt traumatised about not having been traumatised," Andoni, who has a dark sense of humour, said at a Q&A session with the audience following the film's screening at the Barbican in London. "So I said sure. I'll send him to prison." 

In real life, Ramzi Maqdisi was imprisoned by Israeli authorities for a year in 1997 and was interrogated for three weeks (Courtesy of Palestine Film Festival)

During these auditions, he also met Ramzi Maqdisi, a 38-year-old Palestinian actor from Jerusalem. Maqdisi was imprisoned by Israeli authorities for a year in 1997 because he started a Palestinian radio station in old Jerusalem without a licence. During that time, he spent three weeks under interrogation.

Imprisonment and interrogation have left a mark of pain, anger and sadness on the collective memory of the Palestinian people

- Raed Andoni, director

In the film, Maqdisi auditions for the role of an Israeli interrogator, questioning Andoni, who plays the part of Ramzi, as he seeks to prove that he's the right man for the job.

"Which party do you belong to?" Maqdisi repeatedly asks, as he has Andoni in a chokehold, his acting so powerful and so believable it's difficult to watch. "No one," Andoni insists, visibly perturbed. "Ramzi, don’t force me to be violent," Maqdisi replies, recreating his own experience in a role reversal that necessitates tremendous skill and control.

Instead of handing Maqdisi the role of an interrogator, Andoni unexpectedly offers him the lead role of prisoner. It's a crucial scene because it hints at the tension between the two men which builds up as the film progresses. 

"If I were to briefly describe to you my experience working with Raed," Maqdisi said in an interview with MEE from Jerusalem, "I'd say it wasn’t good." Although the actor's overall feeling is that his experience with the film itself was "extremely important," Andoni was at times "manipulative" when working with some of the men, as he would rile up the actors to elicit responses from them, he said. 

The question of manipulation is indeed raised in Ghost Hunting, more than once. 

We can forget that the Palestinian prisoner is a human and that he can have his weaknesses

- Ramzi Maqdisi

In the film, Maqdisi accuses the director of "trying to have a new experience" at the expense of his cast. Andoni, distressed by this accusation, in turn asks for permission to hit Maqdisi. Maqdisi says yes and is subsequently pummelled. It's a fascinating scene that begs more questions than it answers.

Another former prisoner charges Andoni with making the men "pawns in a game of chess".

"You have a strange obsession with control," he says. "Do you deny it?"

"Yes, I do," Andoni responds.

Middle Eastern masculinity

Despite the intensity and lingering tension, the manner in which the men bond during the eight-week shoot is palpable. They sing together, dance together and embrace one another. They openly speak about their feelings, their difficulty sleeping, their problems with intimacy, and their concerns that their time in prison has altered them and their futures in irreparable ways.

It's a rarity to see Arab men speaking about their emotions so openly on screen, and, as such, the film challenges deeply entrenched stereotypes about masculinity, particularly in the Middle East.

"We hear a lot about prisoners, but we don't know a lot about what it is like to be a prisoner from the inside, and what it means when a man, specifically a man from the Middle East, is imprisoned," Maqdisi reflected. "We can forget that the Palestinian prisoner is a human and that he can have his weaknesses. That's the most important thing for me in this film."

'Personal journeys'

Andoni said the closeness between the men reminded him of his own time in detention, which, though trying, also gave him a sense of community as he befriended his cellmates. 

'Ghost Hunting' challenges deeply entrenched stereotypes about masculinity, particularly Middle Eastern masculinity (Courtesy of Palestine Film Festival)

In 1985, Andoni, then 18, was taken from his home near Bethlehem by Israeli authorities and charged with belonging to a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He would ultimately spend a year behind bars, shuffled between prisons in Ramallah, Nablus and elsewhere. But it was his time at the Al Moskobyia detention centre that would leave its mark. During interrogation there, he says, Israeli authorities tortured him by covering his head and tying his legs for days on end. 

Even if you have that strength, though, trauma will still be in your consciousness. The trauma is definitely still in mine, and this film was like opening Pandora's Box

 - Raed Andoni, director

"The easiest thing is to put memories like that behind you, and to move on," he said. "Even if you have that strength, though, trauma will still be in your consciousness. The trauma is definitely still in mine, and this film was like opening Pandora's Box.”

Ghost Hunting is Palestine's official submission in the foreign-language category for the 2019 Academy Awards, the final nominations for which will be announced on 23 January. 

Palestine has only been nominated by the Academy for the award twice, for Paradise Now in 2006 and Omar in 2014. The outlook for Andoni's film is strong. It received the first prize for documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival or Berlinale last year and was nominated for best documentary at the Philadelphia Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival.

This is Andoni's third documentary. His first, Improvisation, was about Palestinian musical ensemble, Trio Joubran, and his second, Fix Me, dealt with finding one's identity and individuality in a place that Andoni says is preoccupied with a collective consciousness.

"Personal journeys, psychology and Palestine are the link" connecting his most recent two films, he explained. That link will continue with his next project, this time a full-length feature film, rather than a documentary. Andoni said he couldn't elaborate any further on his new film.

Andoni says although he has grown as a director, his journey won't ever be over, and although he has not managed to rid himself of the ghosts of his past, he has found peace.

"I have accepted that if you have a certain experience, it will stay with you," he says. "If you accept its existence and learn how to deal with it, that's one solution. When you're born in a place like Palestine, you have to learn how to deal."

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