MENA Film Festival: Beyond the Walls

The Middle East & North Africa (MENA) film festival came to the Frontline Club on the 29th of October for the event MENA Film Festival: Beyond the Walls, director Ahmed Adnan Al Ramahi’s film about the 760,000 Palestinian prisoners who have experienced Israeli jails since 1967 and the struggles they face once they are released after many years.

Following the screening of the film there was a Q&A with filmmaker Martin Short and Abdul Wahab of the Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association (CADFA) chaired by Hany Beshr, London correspondent for Al Jazeera. Director Ahmad Adnan Al-Rumahi couldn’t be present on the evening so discussion was kept around the general subject matter of the film and didn’t cover the technical aspects or story motifs such as the introduction of animation.

Martin Short used his experience of filming in prisons and with crime over the last 40 years to reflect on the film:

“It really was two films stuck together wasn’t it? It was a film about what it’s like to be in an Israeli prison and the experience of coming out and how you cope with the life afterward. In a sense that second section was fairly universal; I know a lot of people who have been to prison in this country, some for very long sentences, twenty-seven, twenty-five years…and really all those feeling on how on earth do you acclimatise to life outside? Those were pretty universal.”

The discussion then centered on Wahab’s experiences of imprisonment in Israeli jails as a teenager and the privileges that earlier prisoners like Anwar Yaseen and Ahmed al Alsukkar – who were interviewed in the film and had spent 17 and 27 years in prison respectively – had created for later prisoners like himself.

“The experience that these people had in the early years of their incarceration and the struggle that they had to achieve human life for other prisoners coming after them was itself a victory because in the beginning in the seventies…basic things like a glass of water could be a struggle for a prisoner to have; the quantity and the quality of everything was a challenge for them.”

“The idea was to kill the spirit…to isolate them from the outside world and from even each other. What the Palestinian prisoners managed to do and are proud of it is [to gain knowledge within the prison]. Believe me the knowledge that I had myself about the world, about everything going around us inside jail is much better than a university. Because…inside the jail there are professors, teachers, lecturers, fighters who have been in jail more than twenty years, you have the chance to experience that.”

“Each political party used to have their own program for the day; about anything and about everything, about a book, about politics, anything you think about. And then there would be time for prisoners to learn more through the library and then come together again to discuss.”

On the subject of spirit, Short said:

“In theory [prison] is about retribution not revenge, and it’s about rehabilitation, well you don’t see much rehabilitation in British prisons – they do make an effort. In a sense the Israeli’s probably don’t feel under any obligation to treat people nicely…A number of these people [in the film] seem to have been completely broken and some of them have a spirit left but the point about prison really is to break the spirit, that’s why America has 2 million people in prison at any one time, the idea is to break the spirit, to force dissident elements in society to conform and if it means that they’re mentally broken so be it. In that sense the Israelis aren’t that much different from other people and other situations in other countries.”

Abdul Wahab on the struggles child prisoners face:

Martin Short on prisoner rehabilitation: