Setting the scene
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is perhaps the most protracted of its kind in recent history. Along with an ever-changing security situation, the searing heat of the Jordan Valley makes documentary-filmmaking a challenging undertaking. Reflecting on his experience working in Area C of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Tim Webster speaks to Charlie Henderson on his experiences making the film, Until the Last Drop.
CH: How did the film come about?
TW: Oxfam approached Reelmedia Film with an initial idea that they’d already developed. Their idea was to feature two farmers, one from Israel and one from Palestine. They wanted to focus on the the issue of water, and the ways that the two farmers access it, in order to demonstrate the ways in which Israel uses water as a weapon to displace Palestinians from their land. It followed advocacy work that they were doing already in the West Bank around Palestinian rights to water.
Tasked with developing Oxfam’s idea, we set out to find characters. We needed to use two fixers – one Israeli, and one Palestinian – because Palestinians can’t cross freely between areas in the West Bank and Israeli’s can’t just walk into a Palestinian area. There areas that are just completely out of limits to Palestinians, and areas that are completely off limits to Israelis.
We found Abu through our Palestinian fixer, Ahmad who had worked with him on an Al Jazeera documentary in 2014. We were able to see how Abu came across on camera and instantly warmed to him.
For the Israeli side of things, contacting settlers proved to be far more difficult because the settlers are extremely wary of journalists and foreign media. Whilst we spent many weeks on the phone trying to contact a settlement that we could film, it just wasn’t possible. We would have to try to negotiate access once on the ground. It was a risk, but we had no choice. As luck would have it, our incredible Israeli fixer was able to gain the trust of Eli. As soon as I met him, I knew this was the Israeli farmer for the film.
CH: What were the logistics of shooting in a remote area?
TW: The logistics of the shoot were extremely challenging because Abu lived in a very remote area. … The nearest hotel was a two-hour drive to a city called Nablus. The Jordan Valley is extremely hot – after 9 am it becomes unbearable to stay out of the shade, and it becomes even more difficult filming because the light is so strong. So, you really need to film only in the golden hour – about 1-2hrs after the sun has come up and before it sets. Since Abu’s place was in a very remote location with no electricity or running water, we had to continually drive between his place and Nablus – 8hrs of driving a day, just for a couple of hours filming.
CH: Were there any risks making a documentary in the Occupied Territories?
TW: The risks were not so much from the Palestinian side, but more from the Israeli side. Palestinians are a really warm and welcoming people. I was often invited to sit with them to have food. They love to talk and discuss politics – I guess because it has such a strong bearing on their day-to-day lives.
Filming with the settlers was definitely more nerve-wracking, perhaps because I was there under false pretences. They were suspicious of us, and rightly so – many documentaries have been made that expose the illegal settlements and the produce they export to European markets. Eli was producing hundreds of tonnes of dates for export all around the world, so he had a right to be nervous. It was challenging to get their buy-in, to convince them to be involved in the documentary and the Israeli fixer was worried they’d discover what who we were really making a documentary for.
CH: Will any future projects build on the film’s success?
TW: The film has been a great success – it’s won lots of awards in festivals around the world, including Best Cinematography and Best Documentary. It was also distributed by my Journeyman Pictures. Following the success of Until the Last Drop, we’ve been asked by the Land Research Centre in Jerusalem to make a series of four films on Palestinian housing rights. This comes in wake of the recent forced evictions that sparked the last round of violence in Gaza and East Jerusalem.
I’m really looking forward to continuing Reelmedia Film producing documentary films that raise awareness of Palestinian issues.