Palestinian actor and director Mohammad Bakri is one Israel’s most well-known citizens. But since producing a documentary on Israel’s 2002 assault on the West Bank town of Jenin, Bakri has found himself virtually blacklisted in Israeli cinema, and now he even faces possible jail time for making the film. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Acclaimed Palestinian actor and director Mohammad Bakri is one of Israel’s most well-known citizens. He’s acted in over a dozen films made by Israeli and international directors, including Hanna K. by Costa-Gavras, and is well known as a stage actor and director. But since producing a documentary on Israel’s 2002 assault on the West Bank town of Jenin, Bakri has found himself virtually blacklisted in Israeli cinema, and now he even faces possible jail time for making the film.
In April 2002, the Israeli military killed 52 Palestinians, flattened over 150 buildings and closed off the camp for weeks. Several human rights groups accused Israel of committing war crimes. United Nations suspended its fact-finding mission after Israel refused to allow them entry.
Bakri’s documentary Jenin, Jenin was one of the first to tell the stories of the town’s residents during the Israeli assault.
JENIN RESIDENT: [translated] No one in the world has committed such atrocities. They demolished the houses over the children’s heads. They come with their tanks and F-16 planes to fight against stone throwers. How can you explain this? The world continues to turn a deaf ear. This is unfair.
AMY GOODMAN: A resident of Jenin, the refugee camp there, from the film Jenin, Jenin. Despite receiving international acclaim, the film was initially banned in Israel until a reversal by the Israeli Supreme Court. Mohammad Bakri was then sued by five Israeli soldiers who were part of the military operation in Jenin. They alleged Bakri falsified information about them. The trial is set to begin next month.
In addition to Jenin, Jenin, Bakri is the director of 1948 and, most recently, Since You Left. Earlier this week, Mohammad Bakri joined me here in the firehouse studio. I asked him how he came to make the film Jenin, Jenin.
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Unfortunately, sometimes you are forced to do things that you didn’t program to do. I’m an actor. I never thought that I am going to make a documentary. My profession is an actor on the screen and on the stage.
During the invasion on the camp, Jenin, which started on the 29 of March, 2002, I was playing in the theater, and I had made a play by Llorca. And things were — many wrong things were happening in the West Bank, including Jenin, the camp. So we were, a lot of people, hundreds of people, Jews and Arab Israelis, who were demonstrating. We were demonstrating on the checkpoint of the north checkpoint of Jenin, the camp, with slogans like "Stop the War," "Stop the Massacre," "Stop" — all kinds of peace slogans. And suddenly an Israeli soldier veered, passed over, looked at us in very bad eyes, pulled his gun, M-16, and started shooting at us. My colleague was an actor in my play, in the same play we were doing together, was shot. All his hand exploded.
And it drove me mad, because I thought to myself, if this soldier behaved like this with us, citizens, just citizens who are demonstrating, how he behaves inside the camp Jenin? In the same moment, I thought to myself, I must go there and make a film about what’s going on, because nobody knew what’s going on. Everybody thought that many wrong things happening there in the camp, crime.
So after two weeks — maybe less than two weeks — when the invasion was finished, I sneaked with the cameraman and with soundman, and I shot four days, nonstop shooting, just shooting everything I saw. I shot the houses. I shot the people. And the people were very, very — they wanted to tell their stories, because they were still in shock. When I came in Jenin, I was shocked with what I saw. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t feel. I was really just humiliated as a human being, not as a Palestinian, not as a director, not as an actor, just as a human. How come people can do such things like that in the camp? So I shot the people and just filmed everything. And I met many people — young, old, women, children — and I just put the camera on and said, "What happened?" I didn’t ask anything, just "What happened?" And everybody was telling nonstop stories about what he felt, what he saw, what he had. And the film was banned in Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: On what grounds?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: It was banned. They say that this film is one-sided, one-sided point of view; the film is a propaganda; it is made by terror, supporting terror, supported by terror. And, you know, I’m a very famous actor in Israel. I made many films. My film Beyond the Walls, 1984, represented Israel in the American Oscar, so I’m very known, well-known actor and respected actor, in Israel. And suddenly I became like bin Laden in their point of view. They just massacred me in the media, all kinds, Internet, TV, newspaper.
And, you know, suddenly I felt betrayed. I am a good citizen. I’m working in theater, in Israeli theater. I work in many plays and many films. And all my films are talking about coexistence and love and peace and dreams about a real good solution for everybody. I have no problem with Israelis or the Jews. I have no problem with Israel as a state. I have a problem with the occupation. And my film was against the occupation. So, until now, I am paying the price.
I know what scares me, that I ask myself — they are pretending that Israel is the only democratic state in the Middle East. OK, right, fine. So why they are doing this if we are living in a democracy? You can imagine that if Michael Moore make a film here in America, he will be in prison or he’ll by soldiers or by marines or by the government? He made many films here in America, and I saw all his films, and it’s all of them against the mainstream. And he wasn’t punished. He’s not paying the price. He’s a very famous and very rich man and very successful. So, I mean, where is the democracy in Israel?
AMY GOODMAN: Mohammad Bakri, I’m looking at a BBC News report saying five Israeli reserve soldiers suing an Israeli Arab film director they accuse of libeling troops who fought in the battle for the Jenin refugee camp, they accuse Mohammad Bakri of libelously portraying them and their comrades as war criminals in the film Jenin, Jenin, which was recently banned in Israel. The soldiers are also suing two Israeli cinemas which screened it after its October release, demanding about half-a-million dollars. One of the reservists told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, "We received an emergency call-up order, went out to fight, in order to defend our homes. We fought slowly, day after day, in order to avoid harming the civilian population. This film portrays us as war criminals." Your response?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: I know that under the name, under the slogan "fighting the terror," the are fighting their homeland. They are not fighting their homeland. They are fighting for the settlements. They are fighting to defend the occupation. They mustn’t be there. They mustn’t be in the West Bank. They mustn’t be in Gaza. This land was occupied in 1967. So I don’t accept this as the Palestinian terror.
And I am against all the suicide bombing, which happens all over the world, not only in Palestine. I’m a human being, and I think that this is not the right thing to do. This is not human to punish innocent people, wherever they are.
But in the same time, when this happened, the Israel army is punishing the whole Palestinian community, and the people who are here usually are the innocent people. So this is not the right way. This is not the right way to fight against occupation, by suicide bombing. But this is not the right way also to fight the terrorists, by this, by demolishing the whole houses and by that very cruel invasion.
AMY GOODMAN: The second film, Since You Left, explain it.
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Well, the second film, Since You Left, is telling about my life during 2002 until now. Since the time I made Jenin, Jenin until nowadays, I’m telling my friend, who was my best — my mentor, my best — in my point of view, the best Palestinian writer, who wrote [Saeed] the Pessoptimist, novel, very famous novel, which was translated to many, many languages, including Japanese and Chinese and English and French and Italian and German and etc. I adapted this book since 1986, do a one-man show, and I am traveling all over the world with this one-man show, made it here in the symphony space just three months ago. And I found myself telling him what happened to me and to my country, since he left, since he passed away.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your lawyer and what you are now going through, this unusual relationship you have with him.
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: I love this lawyer. I mean, I love him. I respect him. I have great feeling to him.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s very well known in Israel?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: He’s the most well known. He now is defending the president of Israel, who was accused of raping girls. The president of Israel. You can imagine.
AMY GOODMAN: Sullivan.
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: He is my friend. He is my partner. He’s part my dream, changed this reality. And he is from the Holocaust. He was a victim of the Holocaust. His mother was in the Holocaust, and he’s telling me that in the film. And it’s one of the most moving moments in the film, when he’s telling me how he felt, how his mother left him and abandoned him after 30 years. Suddenly she became apathetic, and she wouldn’t give him love. And suddenly he felt so betrayed, because he loves mother and he wanted his mother to be, you know, as always. So for me, he is my link to the dream. He is my link to the hope, and I wonder if — I hope that we can affect the Israeli society and make many, many, many films, and not only one.
AMY GOODMAN: So you return to go on trial. You return to Israel?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you expect will happen?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Well, I am optimistic. I hope that —- look, I feel, myself, like in the Kafka book, because these soldiers who sued me, they are not shown in my film, in Jenin, Jenin. They are not mentioned by name, and I don’t know who are they. I don’t know who is standing behind them. And I don’t know what they want from my life. Believe me. And this is -—
AMY GOODMAN: They don’t have to say their names?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: No. They made three films in Israel. One is Jenin, Jenin: Massacring the Truth — my film — The Way to Jenin and Diary of Soldiers in Jenin, three films about — like an answer to Jenin, Jenin. All these three films were shown in the main channel in Israel — channel one, channel two — more than one time. All was not banned, and all was against my film. My film was banned and was not shown in Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: Has the ban been lifted now?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: No. It is released, but nobody wants to see it, because everybody believes, because of the Israeli media, that this is blood libel. This is not true, it’s a lie. I swear in my heart that there is not one word — one lie in the film. And if it was lie, I was not doing that. I am an actor, and I look in your eyes, and I’m telling you what I feel. I cannot lie to you. This is my way of world, and this is my film Jenin, Jenin. They don’t like it, because it is the other side of the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: It has been shown around the world.
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: No. It wasn’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Outside of Israel?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: No, no. It was not shown in any TV in the world. It was programmed to be shown in the 1st of April, 2003. And I have a contract with Arte, the French-German satellite. And the 30th of March, day before, they called me by telephone, and they told me, "We are very sorry, but your film will not be shown tomorrow." I said, "Why?" They said, "Well, um, uh…" And until now I don’t have an answer. So the film was banned in Israel and was banned in the world. And I have the feeling that Israel occupied the world.
AMY GOODMAN: You are an Israeli Palestinian, Israeli Arab. Explain what that means to people outside of your country.
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: I’m It’s to be a citizen in your country and to be in a corner in the same time. I’m Palestinian and I am Israeli. I love my country. I love my people. I love the Israelis. I love the Palestinians, as a people, like that.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: I was born in a small village in North Galilee. I’m still living there. As again, I believe that many good Israelis don’t know what’s really going in the territories. And I believe some of them don’t want to know. Don’t want to know. I want them to know. That’s the aim. That’s the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing. And if I was going to make Jenin again, I would doing the same thing exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: You have come here. You have performed here. What do you think of the U.S. coverage of what’s happening in Israel and the Occupied Territories?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Brainwashed. They don’t know anything about what’s going on. They don’t know anything. And I don’t blame the Americans. I blame the government.
AMY GOODMAN: As we watch what’s happening unfold in Gaza and the West Bank, and now the sentences — two peoples, three states — what are your thoughts?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Totally desperate of what’s going in the West Bank and in Gaza. And again, I think that if you put two brothers, very good brothers, in one room for one year and you don’t let them go, they will kill each other. If they don’t have food, if they don’t have dignity, if they don’t have freedom, if they don’t have anything which worth life and living, they will kill each other. And now, this is what’s happening there.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the role of the artist in times like these? What role do you see yourself playing as one of the most famous actors in Israel?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Not to keep silent. To tell and to show, and not to be apathetic. And to be involved, not remote. To be honest.
AMY GOODMAN: When you go back for this trial, could you be found guilty and imprisoned?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the sentence you face?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: If I’ll be found guilty, I will say I don’t believe in this law and I don’t believe in this justice and I prefer to go to prison and not to pay one penny to these lies.
AMY GOODMAN: Why not stay outside, not return?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Excuse me?
AMY GOODMAN: Why not stay outside, not return?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: I misunderstand.
AMY GOODMAN: Why not — why do you go back? Why not stay outside of the country? Not return? Not face jail?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: No. No, no. I want to be in my country. This is my country.
AMY GOODMAN: You have six children?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Six children.
AMY GOODMAN: How are they and your wife dealing with this?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: Very mad.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of effect does it have on them?
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: They are concerned. They’re afraid, afraid because it is a political trial. It is not real trial. It’s fiction. I feel like in Kafka, I told you. And when you read Kafka, you are afraid. Something wrong is happening, and you cannot explain why that’s happening. And I believe that a lot of people know that this is fiction, this is, you know, like a conspiracy. But how can you prove that? If I will be found guilty, I don’t know what to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Acclaimed Palestinian actor and director Mohammad Bakri.