Interview with Christy Garland: WHAT WALAA WANTS

What Walaa Wants_Walaa Tanji_4_photo by Christy Garland.jpg

Canadian documentary director Christy Garland appears to be hitting her stride with her most recent film, shot over six years in the Balata Camp of the West Bank, following an uncommonly driven young teen on her quest to become a cadet with the (overwhelmingly male) Palestinian Security Authority. What Walaa Wants gained two nominations in Berlin before becoming Garland’s third documentary to screen at Hot Docs, where it premiered for North America in May 2018 and won the Special Jury Prize for Canadian Feature Documentary. The film establishes Garland’s poetic, versatile sensibility and transnational production expertise as a director who has previously focused on subjects including a team of cheerleaders in Northern Finland (Cheer Up, 2016), family violence in Guyana (The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song, 2012) and existential questions in India (Doormat, 2008). A familiar blend of themes of struggle, resilience and meaning infuses Walaa.

The enigmatic strength of this quickly captivating journey lies in the way Garland manages to thread it through several social registers at once: gender roles and equality; mother and daughter relationships; Israeli-Palestinian relations; pop culture; globalization – all while evoking the military bootcamp and coming-of-age genres, imbued with mythic whispers of the hero’s journey. Garland also shot the film and recorded sound herself, which is likely a factor in what appears to be the incredible sense of trust through which we witness the unfolding of such life-changing developments in the lives of Walaa and her family. Her keen intuition for story and character, furthermore, recalls the strengths of artists like Claire Denis and Clint Eastwood. 

With impressive empathy and emotional range, Walaa moves effortlessly between the political and the poetic with the help of a dreamy musical motif by Tom Third. Although it eschews overt political commentary for a character-driven optimism, one gets a feel for the weight of historical forces through recurrent events and the sense that the narrative brings us, and Walaa’s family, back to where we started.

I felt so honoured to have the opportunity to speak with Christy about the film’s production history, international financing and vérité documentary methods. 

What most fascinates me about this film is the way in which it tells several stories at once: it’s an intersection of gender roles, Israeli-Palestinian relations, feminism and global pop culture – and there’s something a bit mythic about Walaa and the cyclical structure of the narrative. Can you talk a bit about some of your filmmaking influences or desires for the film’s aesthetic? 

I’ve never been very interested in making analytical, interview-based documentaries, much as I enjoy watching them. I was very drawn to Walaa’s story because it had the potential to be what you refer to as the ‘hero’s journey’, and yes, a fascinating mother-daughter story informed by intergenerational trauma resulting from the Israeli occupation, Palestinian resistance and the cycle of violence and incarceration it perpetuates.  Opening the film with her mother’s release from prison, as the most important element of Walaa’s backstory, asks a question: will Walaa, this spitfire of a young woman, follow in her path? 

After meeting Walaa in 2012, I returned in 2013 and found out she wanted to be a policewoman, and saw that her story had all the elements of classic story structure; a determined, compelling, charismatic and (understandably) flawed protagonist, facing considerable obstacles on many levels, in the pursuit of a goal that I knew many people could relate to. But as with everything about that region, being a policewoman with the PSF is rather complicated considering she lives in Balata Camp and with her family past - the PSF often collaborate with the Israeli Defense Force to arrest people like her mother.  

It also seemed like a story I hadn’t seen before, as most films set in that region analyze the political complications of the conflict from one side or the other, and almost none are focused on female characters.  And since Walaa is such a charismatic, complicated character (and not always likable) who gets herself into all sorts of trouble, I was attracted to the potential for an entertaining, emotionally immersive narrative, although I didn’t anticipate the roller coaster of a story it became.  Walaa is never boring and although she has been traumatized by her environment, she does not think of herself as a victim.

I was very new to the region, and I had quite a learning curve ahead of me with the history, and political complexities of where they live.  I knew that the POV of the film would not stem from my own evolving views about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, that is better left to talented Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers who are better versed at the reality on the ground.  

Yet I did have a responsibility to describe her environment accurately, and show how Walaa, and her pursuit of a job, was directly affected by her mother’s past, the unfolding events related to the conflict, the Israeli occupation and the culture of resistance and martyrdom in Balata Camp, a setting that functions significantly in the story.  As challenging as that was, that’s what I thought I could offer - a very intimate, relatable story told on a personal level, showing an audience Walaa’s world through her eyes (or as close to that as possible) and hopefully it would add something meaningful to the larger conversation.

What Walaa Wants_Walaa Tanji_6_photo by Christy Garland.jpg

I’d like to ask about the striking level of intimacy you had, as director, camera and sound person, with Walaa and her family over the course of several years (from apparent news footage from her at age 13) - how did you meet them and build the sort of relationship that got everyone on board with this as a production, lending such levels of trust and ease with the presence of the camera?

I shot and recorded sound myself, which, like a lot of observational documentaries, was necessary for the kind of intimacy we experience in the story.  For that I owe Walaa, Latifa, the family and everyone in the film a debt of gratitude because without their trust, and courage, we would not have such a privileged view of Walaa’s world.

I was in the West Bank for the first time in July of 2012, casting about for a different film. I’d been invited by a Danish team of video game designers (Play and Grow) who conduct workshops in conflict zones, with a focus on teaching young women technology. I offered to shoot their workshops and give them the footage for fundraising, and in exchange I could tag along and maybe find a film.  

That didn’t lead me to anything promising, but then I met Walaa near the end of the trip. I was immediately struck by her as a strong personality (she was about to turn 16 at the time) who was obviously navigating a difficult time in her life.  When I found out that her mother had recently been released from prison, where she’d been sent after what some would call ‘freedom fighting’, and others would call ‘terrorism’, I knew there was an interesting mother-daughter story there. Walaa initially declined, assuming I was only interested in her mother, and it was only after I told her that I was interested in her life, that she introduced me to her mother Latifa.  Both of them consented to let me film when they agreed there was an opportunity to show the world a unique Palestinian story, and that’s how we got started.  At the point, Walaa hadn’t confessed to her dream to be a police officer, I found that out a year later.  

I had one day to shoot before I left.  Walaa asked me to meet her at a salon, and I followed her with the camera as she walked home through the seemingly endless, labyrinthian passageways of Balata Camp.  You see this image in the first minutes of the film, for me it represents her situation on many levels, which is why I repeat the image again when Walaa is heading to work in her uniform near the end of the film.  

To answer your question about the blurred faces of Walaa’s fellow students at the Police Academy, that was done at the request of the Palestinian Security Forces.  The girls were comfortable being seen without hijab, but the PSF objected to it, and some of the girls had questions about where the film would be seen - so we blurred them to err on the side of protecting their identities.

Where would you place the film between fiction and non-fiction, in terms of using actors/ non-actors; dramatized scenes vs. a direct cinema or cinema vérité style of relating to the subjects? To what extent was the narrative arc envisioned in advance?

I shot 10 times over 5 years, capturing the events of the story as they unfolded, so primarily it was all shot cinema vérité.  The arc was followed and shaped by choices I made about what to shoot as I went along, step by step. Some elements of the story were easily anticipated (Walaa applying to the PSF, training in boot camp) but much of what happens while she’s training, and after she leaves training, was completely unpredictable. 

Because so many films about this region are journalistic, with interviews and analysis, and serious in tone because of the history and consequences of the conflict, I was attracted to a more buoyant, personally engaging approach.  I embraced how the naturally occurring elements in her story embodied narrative conventions because it would allow us to deeply emphasize with Walaa as a character, as we root for her in a way we are accustomed to doing with fiction film. Compared to a film where she’s just interviewed and talks about her experiences, where we are passively absorbing her thoughts, I feel it’s more immersive to witness behaviour, which keeps us guessing.

Very little of what happens in the story was planned, or staged.  I don’t speak Arabic and very often I didn’t find out what I was shooting until afterwards (sometimes months later). I shot a lot, with an aim to capture scenes as they unfold, but I wasn’t randomly ‘collecting’ with the thought of figuring it out in the edit room. As the story developed, I made very deliberate choices, anticipating what might happen next which might further the story, reveal layers and answer the building thematic, character and story questions I knew would engage the audience from the beginning.  For that reason I didn’t spend a lot of time following other characters, or delving into other aspects of the conflict - this was about Walaa, what she wanted, what she had to do, what got in her way and how she would change as she pursued a job in uniform. 

If anything was set up, it was something that I’d seen, or that Walaa always did but that I just hadn’t been there to capture, as in the scene when Walaa is walking to work at the end of the film, through the passageways of Balata Camp a repeat of the image in the title sequence. I kept missing it so I asked her to wait for me to arrive one morning, before she set off, so I could capture that image to bookend with the beginning of the film. At the PSF, we had a relationship with the trainers, and they kept us up to date with Walaa’s issues there, but I kept missing her misbehaviour (and there was a lot of it!).  What I did manage to catch, you see in the film.

Also - the story needed to show where she landed as a police officer, and as a more mature woman who has a greater understanding of herself as a Palestinian.  So I sought permission to shoot her doing intakes at the precinct for three days, documenting several scenes of her taking complaints and registering people who had been arrested. Near the end of the last day, after shooting the mother and daughter scene, Ekram Zubaydi, the translator, told me that the conversation was interesting because of Walaa’s mature attempts at conflict resolution, and she thought the complaint itself reflected the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seemed like the best way to end the film.

I also think it’s important to state that there is no question that Walaa and other individuals in the film are sometimes very obviously aware of the camera (notably Lt. Col. Issa, who seems straight out of Central Casting) and are projecting an ideal image of themselves, of the police academy, and of Palestine etc.  This is something I would normally avoid, I’ve kept that kind of thing out of past films - but here, it was Palestinians representing and expressing themselves in the presence of a camera, and like all subjects in any observational documentary, they were telling the story along with me. Given the lack of Palestinian stories we see, and how little we hear about them in Western media, I decided that any feeling of performance was actually important to embrace for that reason.  I accept that this might raise questions about the authenticity of the events that unfold, but I don’t mind because it allowed for an entertaining, emotionally sympathetic story about people we are normally not exposed to in that way.

What Walaa Wants_Walaa Tanji_5_photo by Christy Garland.jpg

I’m also interested in the film’s status as a co-production with Denmark, but also with the help of the Doha Film Institute and other documentary festivals (Sheffield, Barcelona) – what’s the story behind the film’s financing and collaboration?

To this date, the film had been rejected by every broadcaster in Canada, so I thought the financing in Canada would be limited.  So I was very lucky, from an early stage, to be making the film with producer Anne Köhncke from Final Cut for Real in Denmark, producers of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.  I’d made an earlier film as a co-production with Denmark called The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song, and when the Danish producer of that film went bankrupt, Final Cut came to my rescue and pulled the film out of the fire (or out of a bankruptcy lawyers office actually), and that began our collaboration.  Matt Code produced the film in Canada.

Once those producers, and the Danish Film Institute were on board, we were very lucky to have the National Film Board of Canada approach us and they have been an enormous support to the film. We were also lucky to have support from the Doha Film Institute, who usually only support directors from Arab regions.  

Denmark is a country that produces documentaries that very often push the boundaries of what documentary can be, and many of the films there utilize the shooting of scenes as they unfold, like I do, so I’ve been lucky to have a lot of creative support and inspiration there.

Documentary films usually begin with footage shot in development and are financed gradually as you continue to develop and produce the film. If your trailer, or support material has potential, you are invited to pitch at various financing forums (IDFA Forum, Sheffield DocFest Meet Market, Venice Production Bridge) and we were very lucky to have those opportunities from an early stage in the film.  

What did you learn from working on this project, and where do you think this film is pushing your work forward at this point? 

I think the most exciting part about making this film was getting to know Walaa, and the challenge of distilling an important time of her life in a film. It’s such an enormous privilege to travel to a foreign place where you know nobody, and emerge with a film that shares a deeply personal story with the world. This film obviously gave me that experience, but it was also the most daunting film I’ve made so far, wading as it does into one of the most sensitive places on earth to bring a camera. I knew so little about Palestinians when I began the film, and I certainly had some presumptions about both Latifa and Walaa that were turned upside down.  It’s a very unusual experience, to take moments from a life like Walaa’s, make decisions about how she will appear to an audience, and then sit with her, as we did at the premiere in Berlin, in an audience of over 400 people watching her story.  It was nerve wracking, but she loved it, and it was a transformative experience for both of us.  She is someone I care very much about now, and we’ve taught each other quite a lot.

I’m hoping that experience is represented in the film, and that for audiences, their initial judgements evolve over the course of the film like mine did, leading them closer to an understanding of what it is like to be a young person like Walaa, living where she does.  I hope it expands their understanding of that region, beyond what that they get from other sources, and leads to greater empathy.

Is there anything else about the film you haven’t been asked about in other media, but you’d like to share?  

Because we had to focus the narrative on Walaa’s story, not enough is understood about Latifa, one of the most prominent characters in the film, a significant link to the larger political context and a major influence on Walaa’s story.  She is also controversial as a character, as many people would regard her as a would-be terrorist, while others, who are more sympathetic with the plight of Palestinians, would call her a freedom fighter, using what tools she has to fight her country’s side in a war.  An entirely separate film could be made about her. It’s too much to describe here but I will say that her background as a young intellectual, who lost her father and brother to the conflict, has views about the futility of violence and the need for peaceful discourse that would surprise people. 

Finally, you mentioned your connection to London - what brought you into filmmaking, and where do you hope to take it from here?

While I was in high school in London, (Central Secondary) I saw a film called “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing” on television, and it was the first time I’d seen a female name, Patricia Rozema, listed as the director.  That inspired me to pursue filmmaking. I plan to continue shooting documentaries, but I am also taking some first steps into a couple fiction projects I’ve been carrying around for years.

What Walaa Wants screens at the Forest City Film Festival, October 28th. Full schedule and tickets available here.

Shannon Foskett