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“What Walaa Wants”, by Canadian director Christy Garland, will be one of the highlights of the coming “Stronger than Fiction” documentary film festival screening this weekend at Palace Electric cinemas.
It’s one of several films that takes audiences behind closed doors into communities where ordinary Australians would have no access.
In it, a rebellious Palestinian tomboy from the Balata camp in the West Bank who wants to be a police officer in the Palestinian Security Forces discovers how tough it can be at boot camp but thrives. When she goes back home and finds it’s complicated being a cop in a household used to hating the constabulary.
The story is something you couldn’t make up.
Garland will be coming from Toronto for the festival, but “CityNews” caught up with her over the weekend for a chat by Skype to Manitoba, where she was attending a film festival.
“Yes, it’s a bit of a cheeky title, but I thought it worked well for the character,” she says, adding, “we hear about Palestine but we so rarely hear stories about Palestinian women and girls—they’re either oppressed or victimised.”
Walaa, she remarks, is anything but a victim.
“Look at the way she kicks her prisoners around,” she says.
The documentary, she says, is about what Walaa wants to be, and by the end there is reason to think that she might have potential for it to become a director in the PSF.The officer at the Police Academy told Garland that she was like a lot of people they’d seen before and says: “We want to break the carbon and crush it into a diamond.”
Garland is a fan of her chief subject and counts herself lucky that Walaa is not only beautiful but full of facial variety, sometimes defensive, sometimes serious, more often jokey.
“She thinks for herself and she’s very confident, given her background in Balata camp, she learnt to fight her own battles,” she says.
In part the film is to do with authority. Walaa comes from a family that has resisted the occupation, every other neighbour has been to prison including her own mother, Latifah, who was jailed for eight years when Walaa and her troubled brother Mohammad were most in need of a mother.
“When it comes to boot camp, Act II of the film, Walaa find she has to learn which rules to follow, but when she goes back to her family in Balata, there is no control again,” Garland says.
“She needs structure in her life and when she gets it you can see the way she excels.”
In one evocative scene she is filmed riding a horse by night.
“Girls are not allowed to ride horses, but of course if there are rules, Walaa wants to break them…she is a bit of a Mustang, unbroken in her desire for freedom,” she says.Another central motif in the film is the troubled mother-daughter relationship. Her mother comes back from jail damaged, stuck in the struggle… her father was killed her, brother was killed, but then the brother killed an Israeli.
“The mother-daughter relationship is very, very complicated because the mother symbolises the damage that military occupation and the never ending cycle of violence have done,” she says.
To Garland it’s fascinating that Walaa wanted to be a cop.
“It’s one of the few jobs you can get, but the PSF do sometimes collaborate with the Israel Defence Forces and she could get into trouble with her own people, as there is pressure in any police force to get confessions,” she says.
Garland found Walaa by accident when she was documenting the work of some Danish women making video games with women and traumatised children in danger zones.
“We ended up in Balata camp —that’s the most challenging — Walaa was in the class,” she says.
“I saw all this energy, competitiveness, she was the class clown, she was boisterous, and I thought, that’s an interesting person.”
She was 15 then and the film starts when she’s 16, so we see her going from girl to woman, but Garland had been given access to screen interviews with children of female prisoners taken some years before and Walaa was there, much younger.
“I got lucky,” she says.
Walaa is now 21. She still works at the PSF, she’s ambitious, and she likes her job.
“It’s infinitely better than sitting at home not working and gossiping and she’s still not keen to get married,” she says.
The production company took Walaa to the Berlin International Film Festival and were amazed at how media-savvy she was, standing up for Palestinian girls on BBC and German TV, fielding tough questions and enjoying the applause from a crowd of 500 people.
“She gave autographs, it was good for her self-esteem,” she says.
Garland is adamant that although sympathetic to the Palestinians she met, she doesn’t over-editorialise in her film.
“I was careful to show the world through Walaa’s eyes,” she says.
“What Walaa Wants”, part of “Stronger than Fiction”, festival, Palace Electric, 6.30pm, Saturday, August 4, post-show Q&A with Christy Garland. Bookings to palacecinemas.com.au