A train to Busan city centre in South Korea is the unlikely, but apt, location for an interview with Norwegian director Mats Grorud to talk about his animation, The Tower, based on the testimonies of Palestinian refugees who have been living in Lebanon’s Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp since 1948.
The cartoon was screened at the Busan International Film Festival and has made its way to the fifth Palestine Cinema Days, which runs from Wednesday until October 23. It will be the opening night gala screening to audiences in both Ramallah and Gaza.
The Tower mixes puppetry, with drawings and archive material such as photographs and news footage to tell the story of the family of curious 11-year-old Palestinian girl, Wardi (voiced in the Arabic version by Layla Najjar), who was born into the Burj el-Barajneh camp.
Wardi lives with her great-grandfather, Sidi (Makram Khoury), Grandfather, Lutfi (Mohammad Bakri), father Yehia (Saleh Bakri), mother Lina (Hanan Hillo) and aunt Hanan (Mouna Hawa), and they recount generational tales from their lives, the house they were forced out of in Galilee, the conflicts and different political regimes in the camp, and how their “temporary” solution has thus far lasted 70 years.
Grorud was a young boy when he first heard about the camps in Lebanon. His mother worked as a nurse in the country in the 1980s, and when she returned to Norway, she told her children about the camps. “I grew up with all these photos and slides from when she worked at the camp and we were always promised that we would go if there was peace,” Grorud says.
He did not wait for peace. In 1989 when he was 12, his family moved to Cairo, Egypt and that Christmas they went to Jerusalem and Gaza. “This was one of my first memories, because it was snowing and there were all these kids around my age swearing on every corner. It was during the First Intifada.”
Grorud visited the camps in Lebanon for the first time at the end of the 1990s as part of a study trip arranged by the Palestine Committee of Norway, a solidarity organisation for Palestinians set up in Norway. In 2001, Grorud went again, this time for a year, to work in an NGO-sponsored programme in the Burj el Barajneh camp, putting on workshops for children. Grorud began asking his friends in the camp about their lives. From those interviews, he worked on a documentary, Lost in time, lost in Place, about the living space, but he kept searching for a way to tell these stories. In 2010, he met producer Frode Sobstad, and the idea to make an animated film began to take shape.
The decision to focus the movie on one family came about because “a lot of the stories came from one family, that of my best friend Abu Hasan’, Grorud explains. “And it was his sister, Hanan, who told me about her grandfather teaching her to tend plants.” He wanted a young girl as the main protagonist because “she is the same age as my own daughter”, he says.
Grorud felt that animation was the best format to tell the story, since it stops the protagonists seeming like the “other” because they look different, or because they are of a different culture. As far as the director is concerned, to get children, such his own, to look away from their omnipresent screens and into other people’s lives, he had to make them see themselves in the characters. Making them puppets was his way of doing just that. “Empathy is the key word to understanding other people’s situations and where they come from,” he says.
The film is made from the Palestinian perspective. It shows both the consequences of being forcibly removed from home and the reaction of the Lebanese population to the influx of refugees and how this relationship has changed over the decades. Grorud also uses flashback to detail some of the main historical incidents that have affected those living in the camps and throughout the Middle East. “Maybe I felt that this story was not told before on behalf of the people in the camps who don’t have a chance to tell it themselves.”
To complete the movie, his team did a lot of historical research over the eight-year production period. “I had to rely on some historical sources for research, as well as the interviews, because it’s hard for people to talk about the bad things that have happened in their lives,” says Grorud. “For example, with my best friend, Abu Hasan, it was six months before he mentioned to me that he had an older brother who was killed in the war and he never spoke of it again.”
The director also feels that having a basic grasp of the history helps to make sense of the little incidents that happen every day. “During the Right to Return Marches in Gaza, I think people, especially in the West, think ‘another endless demonstration; endless killings,’ but if you know that the people have been demonstrating and their families have been there for 70 years, you see the images in a new light.”
One of the main goals of the Palestine Cinema Days is to bring together international and Palestinian film professionals. The industry event, Palestine Film Meetings, is a creative platform to share ideas and visions, planting seeds for future collaborations. The event features a series of panels and talks, many of which offer practical advice for Palestinians to tell their stories through cinema. There are also masterclasses with Emmy Award-winning director, editor and composer, David Osit, as well as cinematographer Gilles Porte and scriptwriter Prami Larsen. Palestine Cinema Days also includes two Sunbird Award Competitions for short narrative and documentary.
A fascinating mix of films will be screened, including Mary Jirmanus Saba’s A Feeling Greater than Love, about the strikes that took place in Lebanese tobacco and chocolate factories in the 1970s; Gilles Porte’s animation The State Against Mandela and the Others; Senka Domanovi’s Occupied Cinema, about the attempts to save Zvezda cinema in Belgrade, Serbia, from the bulldozers. Cannes competition entry Yomeddine by Egyptian director A.B. Shawky, will also be screened, along with Soudade Kaadan’s The Day I Lost My Shadow, which won the Lion of the Future award at the Venice International Film Festival; and Narjiss Nejjar’s Stateless, set during the 1975 expulsion of Moroccans from Algeria.
Palestine Cinema Days opens on Wednesday and runs until October 23
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