Flemish filmmaker looks for the positive in Palestine

Summary

Jan Beddegenoodts has recently released two hard-hitting youth-centred documentaries about life in Palestine, one of which he describes as “his grimmest work so far”

Rave and resist

Palestinian youngsters are often called a generation of hope and despair, growing up in a conflict that permeates every aspect of their existence, even as they try to lead a normal life. Hope and despair are also at odds in two youth-centred documentaries by Antwerp filmmaker Jan Beddegenoodts, recently released on DVD (with Dutch and English subtitles).

Shortly after his return from a screening tour in Israel, 26-year-old Beddegenoodts told us about the strenuous years making and distributing these films. “It all started in 2011, when I went to Israel to expose how Dexia’s Israeli affiliate financially supported illegal settlements there,” he says. “But Dexia collapsed the week after I left Belgium. I then got involved in a very contradictory experience, as I went back and forth between Palestinian protests and large rave parties on the Israeli side.”

Beddegenoodts’ debut, The Taste of Freedom, reflects this. It’s a dialectic trip, fuelled by pounding beats and violent confrontations. Interviews with friends he made while partying and protesting evoke the conflicting experience. “We struggle to live, they struggle to enjoy their lives,” one of them says.

Yet The Taste of Freedom tried to embrace a positive perspective. “The film ends with a montage of portraits I made of both Palestinian and Israeli friends,” says Beddegenoodts.

“The conflict is about huge military and economic interests, while all these people just want to live their lives. So, I absolutely tried to offer hope. But, as this was my first film, The Taste of Freedom is perhaps also somewhat naive in that sense.”

A different tone

Gripped by what he saw, Beddegenoodts then worked with collaborator Niel Iwens on Thank God it’s Friday (pictured), which documents the relationship between the Palestinian town Nabi Saleh and the neighbouring Israeli settlement Halamish.

With its green pastures and colourful flower beds fenced off from the surrounding hardship, the latter seems paradisiacal. Certainly in comparison with tattered Nabi Saleh, which is regularly invaded by Israeli forces and where children’s play is infected by the atrocities they have had to endure from a young age, even in their own backyard. 

We decided it would be fairest to show the film to the people involved and incorporate their reactions

- Jan Beddegenoodts

Every Friday, the Palestinians protest. Their demonstrations are met with teargas and rubber bullets, and at some point one of the protesters is killed. The settlers respond uncomprehendingly. In their eyes, the weekly ritual of protest is useless.

Thank God it’s Friday has a different tone to my first documentary,” says Beddegenoodts. “The Israeli settlers I interviewed were not my friends and the film is far less hopeful than The Taste of Freedom. It ends with the reactions of some of the settlers on the film. ‘There’s no hope when you look at this’, one of them says.”

Nonetheless, the feedback from both sides was crucial to Beddegenoodts. “Thank God it’s Friday was a lengthy project in which we also showed a man dying. And you have to be aware that making a film entails personal choices. From every hundred images you shoot, only one makes it into the film. You put those together and select the music.

“After all these personal filters, we just wanted a reality check. We decided it would be fairest to show the film to the people involved first and incorporate their reactions into the film.”

Difficult climate

Later, YouTube decided to delete the trailer of Thank God it’s Friday after an Israeli complaint. “It was staggering to see that an independent filmmaker can be silenced like that,” says Beddegenoodts. “But I’ve received a lot of heart-warming reactions from other directors, journalists and so on. And we’ve toured extensively with the film.”

People in Israel often don’t want to see a film by yet another foreigner about their situation

- Jan Beddegenoodts

Beddegenoodts refused to back down from the challenge of showing his documentary throughout Israel. He hoped to reach a mixed crowd of Palestinians and Israelis, as he had before with a screening tour of The Taste of Freedom.

Thank God it’s Friday drew full crowds, but not of Israelis. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to reach a mainstream Israeli audience. People in Israel are often fed up and don’t want to go see a film by yet another foreign filmmaker about their situation. And part of me understands that. But we keep trying. The DVD will be released there as well and we’re still in talks about screenings at Israeli universities. But it’s a very difficult climate right now.

The heavy subject matter took its toll, Beddegenoodts admits. “Thank God it’s Friday is my grimmest work so far. So, in all honesty, I had been longing for a smaller, more joyous project.” And that turned out to be the documentary Charlie Goes to Burning Man, “about my encounter with an 81-year-old professor on his first visit to one of the most challenging festivals out there.”

The film premiered at a special screening in Antwerp last week and Beddegenoodts now plans to screen it during a tour of homes and service centres for the elderly.

An exposition of photos from Charlie Goes to Burning Man will be on show at the Aim Space Gallery, Sint Jansvliet 2, Antwerp until 13 July. Thank God it’s Friday and The Taste of Freedom are distributed by Dalton Distribution

Flemish filmmaker Jan Beddegenoodts looks for the positive in Palestine with two hard-hitting documentaries

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