x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Filmmaker determined to tell Hebron story in troubled city

The crowd-funding campaign has just begun for Nicole Ballivian's Sleeping on Stones, one of many tall orders to get her film made in the West Bank city.

A scene from the trailer for the director Nicole Ballivian's forthcoming film Sleeping on Stones.
A scene from the trailer for the director Nicole Ballivian's forthcoming film Sleeping on Stones.

Anyone who has visited the West Bank town of Hebron will appreciate that it's not the first place many would consider shooting a film. Located in the south of the Palestinian Territories, this historical city displays the visible strains of the continuing struggle with Jewish settlers more vividly than any other. While there might be just around 500 settlers living amid some 160,000 Palestinians, they're considered among the most hardline in the West Bank, often heavily armed and protected by several thousand Israeli troops stationed there. The result is a town where life has been put in a stranglehold by Israeli army blockades, frequent clashes and a tension that hangs heavy in the air.

But this summer, should funding be found, this unlikely location will be the backdrop for a new feature-length drama, the first to be shot there. Sleeping on Stones, by American writer and director Nicole Ballivian, tells the fictional story of three 10-year-old boys - two Arabs and a Jewish-American settler - who bond over a love of football. The tale then reunites with the boys 10 years later, as their friendship comes under the pressure of their adult decisions.

For Ballivian, whose 2006 comedy about a Palestinian taxi driver in Los Angeles, Driving to Zigzigland, screened at the Dubai International Film Festival, Sleeping on Stones has been a labour of love for some time.

"I wrote the screenplay 10 years ago, when I went to Palestine for the first time," she says. "I fell in love with Hebron, but I was so freaked out by it at the same time."

Ballivian's screenplay was selected for the Sundance Institute's Screenwriter's Lab in 2006, and then went into the Thessaloniki International Film Festival's Crossroads section in 2010. The challenge now is to raise the money necessary to begin production, and for this she has turned to the increasingly popular tactic of crowdfunding, seeking small amounts from many individual donors.

Initially, she raised more than US$10,000 (Dh37,000) to produce the trailer, which was filmed in Hebron early this year. The next step is to amass the funds needed for the full-length feature, and for this she turned to crowdfunding website IndieGoGo, giving donors the opportunity to contribute between $25 and $10,000 and offering varying rewards, ranging from a personal thank you on the film's website to a day on the set. The total goal is $750,000, and with just over 60 days to go, Ballivian realises it's going to be tough. "I basically need to raise around $1,000 per day," she says. "But other things can come from the campaign, and from the trailer I've had producers contacting me and offering their help."

Ballivian admits that filming in Hebron isn't likely to be easy, something that was underlined while producing the trailer. "We wanted to film outside the Ibrahim mosque and had to get permission from the Israeli general. He warned us not to go outside with anything other than our cameras because he couldn't guarantee that we wouldn't be shot by settlers who were armed to the teeth. He said it was like the Wild West."

And it's this story Ballivian wants to get across. "When I talk to people in LA they tell me it must be so scary there, and I tell them: 'Of course it's scary - the scariest part about it is the American settlers.' "

In 1994, Brooklyn-born settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslims praying in the Ibrahim mosque, killing 29 and wounding 125 others.

At first, Ballivian struggled to find a producer for the film. "They told me that I couldn't shoot in Hebron, that I should just film it in Jordan or Israel. But I have to shoot it in Hebron - it's a Hebron story." Eventually, she found one willing to make it happen and thanks to a testing director who works with a children's theatre in Bethlehem, now has a cast. The crew is going to be a mix of Americans and Palestinians, together with her Norwegian director of photography. But it's likely to remain small.

"When we shot the trailer in the old city, we had about 15 people, and it seemed like we were drawing a bit too much attention, so we'll probably have a skeleton crew," she says. "But honestly, with a budget of $750,000 you can't really afford a big crew."

Should everything go according to plan, Ballivian hopes to start filming once her cast members' summer holidays begin in June, with post-production in the US. "So then hopefully it would be finished in August or September, but that's only if we get the money."

Although the race will be to get the film ready in time for submission to Sundance, Ballivian also hopes to bring Sleeping on Stones to the Dubai International Film Festival. "I'm very loyal to the festival. They premiered my short film, had the local premiere of Driving to Zigzigland and are always trying to support me in any way possible."

While the focus is now on raising the money, there is one issue that Ballivian is unlikely to resolve: insurance. "I tried getting quotes from a few insurance brokers and they were, like, 'are you kidding me?' They never got back to me."

To visit the crowdfunding page for Sleeping on Stones please click here.

aritman@thenational.ae