Hunting the ghosts of Palestinian prisoners through cinema

Hunting the ghosts of Palestinian prisoners through cinema
Society: Witty yet brutal, Raed Andoni's latest work seeks to help former prisoners confront their trauma.
5 min read
27 February, 2017
The documentary aims to help former prisoners confront their trauma [UDI Distribution]

This year's Berlin International Film Festival, held in mid-February, witnessed a unique winner.

Grabbing the trophy for the best documentary was Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni. Istiyad Ashbah - "Ghost Hunting" - is a emotionally charged 90-minute creation that attempts to use cinematic language in order to explore what goes on in people's mind.

The ghost being hunted is that part deep in one's mind that has been kept hidden for years. As a Palestinian who had his own ghosts when he was arrested and interrogated by the Israelis at the age of 18, Andoni took his time before even approaching the subject.

Even when he finally got to it he knew he had to handle the task with care and sensitivity.

It would take a group of Palestinian activists detained for a year for belonging to one of the PLO factions another 25 years to consider entering into that no-man's-land that exists in many people's minds. The emotional search is  especially gruesome to those who have gone through imprisonment, torture and interrogation themselves.

Andoni says that he needed those years to tackle the painful incidents he and others like him went through.

Watch a clip from Ghost Hunting
on IndieWire

"I needed time for the idea to mature and I needed time for my cinematic language to develop and be perfected," he told The New Arab.

Andoni's artistic development included a documentary on three Palestinian musicians. The Joubran brothers were the subject of his 2008 Improvisation, while Andoni's documentary feature film Fix Me dealt with psychological issues surrounding the occupation.

Fix Me documented 20 sessions that Andoni himself went through with Dr Fathi Fleifel, the head of the mental health programme at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

It was during the production of Fix Me that Andoni came up with the idea that he needed to take this emotional discovery adventure "all the way".

He was ready for it himself but he wanted to include many others in the process. The Palestinian filmmaker also needed some props. "I started looking for other former prisoners who had been interrogated at the Mascobia prison where I was held."

He had a unique condition for those auditioning for a part in his new film. They needed to have construction experience.

Andoni rented an empty parking lot from the city of Ramallah. It was to become a construction site, as well as the main set for the film he was about to shoot. What Andoni had in mind was a physical act that he thought could help trigger the search and hopefully the conquering of ghosts held by so many former prisoners.

"Like everyone else when I was taken to Al-Mascobia prison I was blindfolded," he said. The blindfolds remained firmly strapped during interrrogation.

Andoni's plan was to force prisoners to try and reimagine what they thought their prison looked like, in order to rebuild it in that deserted Palestinian parking lot. By pushing the former prisoners into remembering those days decades earlier, he hoped they would be able to come to terms with their own ghosts.

It is an extraordinary recreation of the imprisonment of Palestinians by the Israeli state
- Ken Loach

Before beginning the shoot, Andoni paid a visit to Dr Fleifel.

"I wanted to be sure that I wasn't going to do something that could bring permanent mental damage to the participants," he acknowledged. Fleifel was extremely encouraging. He sent one of his staff to stay permanently on the set and he would visit the site every couple of days.

"But Dr Fleifel had one important request. He implored me to be careful not to force anyone to continue if they felt they were unable to."

Andoni's film is a hard-hitting condemnation of Israeli prisons
[Les Films de Zayna, Arte France, Dar Films, Akka Films]

Andoni accepted the advice reluctantly, because he feared that an exodus of participants could lose the film important characters.

"Two weeks into the experiment, one former prisoner asked to be relieved. He was unable to emotionally handle the experiement and continue until the end. All others stayed through the time it took to build the model prison."

Hunting Ghosts was edited into a 90-minute narrative that used a variety of formats. Interviews and re-enactments were weaved with animation to produce the final narrative that became this award-winning documentary.

Andoni is hoping the film will be able to help "humanise" Palestinians in the eyes of many who believe Palestinians to be otherwise.

British filmmaker Ken Loach praised Ghost Hunter. "This film, directed by Raed Andoni, is startling in its originality. It is an extraordinary recreation of the imprisonment of Palestinians by the Israeli state. The making of the film is laid bare. We see prison cells constructed and actors chosen, some with harrowing stories of their own.

"With memories, drawings and scenes acted out, a brilliant but horrifying picture emerges - fear, torture, desperation - with a warm humanity shining through. Laughter turns to terror in the blink of an eye."

Beautiful and ugly, powerful and compelling, it utterly condemns the brutality in a wily, witty and devious way that is always totally honest
- Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh is another British writer and director, and also had strong words about the Palestinian film.

"Ghost Hunting is a major cinematic achievement," he said. "Beautiful and ugly, powerful and compelling, it utterly condemns the brutality in a wily, witty and devious way that is always totally honest."

At the end of the filming and building, participating former prisoners brought their families on-set in an emotional yet happy conclusion, says Andoni. The prisoners-turned-builders and their families - and a much larger than expected audience - were privileged to see the premiere of the film in Ramallah last December.

Andoni says he hopes to be able to show Istiyad Ashabh throughout Palestine and beyond. He hopes that, like his core group of former prisoners-turned-builders, the process can help others overcome the demons that haunt them:

"I hope that everyone who sees the documentary can dig deep in their own head to find and hopefully conquer their own ghosts."

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on @daoudkuttab