What Walaa Wants played at VIFF 2018 and will be screening again at VIFF Vancity Theatre this coming Wednesday February 27th. This film follows Walaa from the ages 15-21 as this defiant young girl navigates formidable obstacles to reach her dream of becoming a policewoman in the Palestinian Security Forces.
Often times we see stories from this region on an extreme end of the spectrum. There is either enormous overcoming of odds or someone in the worst possible situation. What Walaa Wants is a layered, complicated story about a girl whose compelling coming-of-age story shows that it is possible to disprove the negative predictions from her surroundings and the world at large.
In this interview, Director Christy Garland takes us through her filmmaking process, how she met Walaa, and what she hopes people will take away from the film.
How has all of the positive feedback been for you and Walaa? I know you also won the Women in Film + TV Artistic Merit Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival here in Vancouver last year…
Can you talk a little bit about what this documentary was about initially to you? Did that idea change over the course of filming?
I didn’t start out with any ideas. I don’t usually when I make movies. I find the film after I meet a certain person. The context opens based on what that person wants to accomplish. I embrace a lot of narrative techniques that have more in common with fiction. I don’t use interviews. The story unfolds over time as that person is pursuing something. In 2012 I was in the West Bank, I had never been before. I was with a team of Danish women giving video game workshops. They were teaching women technology, like how to design their own video games. This is an area with a lot of conflict and the idea of women designing video games their way seemed like it could be a film. I didn’t find a film, it’s sort of boring, girls just staring at computer screens.
Our final stop was at a Balata camp. The refugee camp there is a lot of people who engage in protest of the military occupation. It was there I met Walaa. She’s the first kid you notice. She was rambunctious, funny, disruptive. The other girls liked her and looked up to her but she was also kind of a bully. She was very compelling. I asked about her and was told she was a good girl. Her mother was just released from prison and she’s having a tough time. Her mother was involved in a very famous trade for one Israeli soldier for 1000 Palestinian. Walaa was 8 when her mother conspired to bring a bomb into a nearby settlement. She was caught and went to prison for terrorism related charges. So Walaa was just learning to become a family again. I was focused on Walaa. There were questions like why would a single mother make a choice like that? I felt like this was an opportunity to pick up a story. Walaa just being this likable charismatic kid who has restrictive freedoms. That’s how I found the film.
How did Walaa react when you approached her about making her story?
At first she wasn’t into it. She assumed she was living under her mother’s shadow. Her mother was celebrated as a freedom fighter. In this region martyrs are celebrated. There are parades for people like her. She assumed I was more interested in her mother. At first she said no so we met in a bar with her mother, I gave them a copy of one of my previous films. They were really moved by it and gave me permission to cautiously start. I met Walaa when I was just leaving so I said let’s start, let’s see how she is with the camera. She said I can meet me her at this salon and I’ll walk home. I thought that’s boring, but let’s see how it goes, see if she freezes up. She almost pretended that I wasn’t there, it was so interesting. So it was her walking through this Balata, labyrinthine like passageway. Every time she turned a corner it would be a more narrow alleyway and it was a great image this charismatic kid trying to navigate her situation. I hung onto that shot it made it into the film.
I can’t imagine this was an easy movie to get permission to film, did you have to fight constantly? Like filming the scenes with Walaa in training?
I did have to renegotiate. We kept having to talk about what the film was offering. Pitching it in North America, a lot of people don’t know what the Palestinian Security Forces are. They are living under occupation but they do have their own police force looking at crimes like narcotics. They are policed by Palestinians themselves but they are under the Israeli Defence Force. So talking to the PSF they agreed a film that showed it as a regular police force with a young girl wanting to be a good cop was good for them. They welcomed us, for them to have the opportunity for a film showing a young Palestinian woman to have a job and a future was appealing to them.
And during these training scenes, was it hard to watch Walaa go through this experience? Were you two close, or do you need to maintain a distance for objectivity?
We were close. We were like family. We had loads of fights. I love her as a sister or daughter. I was blessed and I need this with every film, but I have to find that fixer, on site producer, whoever can be a surrogate for me in terms of trust. Ikram Zubadi laughed a lot, she’s part of the team, she was trapped between me and Walaa. Walaa would ask when is this gonna be done what is this gonna do for me. It attracted a lot of unwanted attention for her. She was teased and mocked. So I asked her where can we shoot where you won’t feel uncomfortable? When can I shoot? We are very close. We care a lot about each other.
Speaking of how Walaa has been affected, how has she changed from this experience?
The film has changed her life and the way she looks at herself. We are going to Berlin and Egypt just us so I am going to have to be crazy with google translate. She doesn’t see documentaries or art house. She had strangers come up and it was then she realized she was representing Palestinian women and that has brought us closer. She would say most of it the experiences fun. It has given her wings in her sails. Her bosses realize she is an ambassador. She’s grown up quite a bit and she is a spokesperson now. This is a girl who has had tear gas canisters rattling outside her door and is now getting interviewed by BBC. And she acted like she had years of media training. She is impassioned. She spoke about being a Palestinian in the context of the conflict and she was extremely articulate and diplomatic. We were in Berlin. I mean, that’s a big step on the tour of World War Two. I was proud. She’s instinctively quite clever, she’s very mature.
And how have you felt about the film’s great reception?
It’s been great. A big part is what Walaa brought to the film. I owe it all to her. I showed her privately and she was so cool, even with humiliating moments, or after she’s a cop and she has a problem disciplining a female prisoner using too much force. It was part of the story and why people identify with her, not just her strength. She knows she stumbled but other girls realize they can come out of that.
And now what do you hope people, especially young women, get from her story?
I was so ignorant on every level about the conflict there. I knew about the news, we hear about terrorist activities. So I hope people will ask more questions. It’s so complicated. I hope they will see and be touched by a film about a Palestinian girl showing a different, nuanced view of the story. It does bring us into the home of someone convicted of terrorist activities. The way young people get radicalized is at home. People assume that young people are just going to be involved in the same activities as their parents and I wanted to tell the story that every person who lives in Gaza just wants a normal life, to have a family. They don’t have the same human rights, under occupation, people hopefully will ask questions about that. What is it like? I just hope that people see that if young people have opportunities to have a normal life free of violence they will take it if offered.
Your last documentary was about a losing Finnish cheer leading team, and then you made this. What is next?
I’m hoping to do a fiction film based on a Canadian novel. That’s all I can really say right now. And I’m poking around Greece. It is an idea about cleaning women and the corruption, austerity crisis there. She works in a nursery school and she lied about having a 6th grade education, which is the minimum requirement to have that job. She only had 5th grade and she led a life of poverty. So after fifteen years of doing this job they sentenced her to sixteen years in prison by a female judge known to be corrupt. But I will meet with her and it depends on that.