BBC Arabic Festival: Director Christy Garland On Her Award-Winning Documentary ‘What Walaa Wants’

Shot over five years, What Walaa Wants tells the story of Walaa, a girl living in the West Bank’s Balata Refugee Camp, in Palestine. Walaa is determined to survive basic training to become one of the few women on the Palestinian Security Forces but this is not easy for a girl who breaks all the rules.

Christy Garland came up with the idea of shooting this feature-length documentary when she first met Walaa in 2012. At the time, she says, Walaa was taking a technology workshop with a group of Danish women who were teaching young women how to design video games.

“She stood out among the other girls; She was full of energy and clearly quite clever, but a little mischievous and disruptive,” Christy Garland adds. “Her mother had just been released from prison and I thought there might be a story there concerning a mother and daughter learning to be a family again.”

The documentary has won several awards including the Hilal Best Feature Award at the Doha Film Institute Ajyal Film Festival, the Margaret Mead Filmmaker Award in New York and the Best Feature Documentary at the Forest City Film Festival in Canada and has been nominated for several others.

The documentary will be screened on Sunday, 24 March 2019 at 7pm as part of the fifth BBC Arabic Festival (@BBCArabicFest). The festival will take place in the iconic art-deco Radio Theatre at BBC’s Broadcasting House in central London between 22-27 March 2019. Free tickets for the film are available here.

Q: What was your vision for this film when you first met Walaa and her family back in 2012?

A: I was very drawn to the possibility of telling a hopeful and upbeat story about an extraordinary young woman, who had a clearly ambitious goal that was a complicated one, considering where she lives.

Her mother had just been released from prison so I knew it was a time in their lives when they were learning to be a family again, and the consequences of the never-ending cycle of violence from both sides of the conflict would perhaps show in the family dynamics, yet they were all so energetic and hopeful, there seemed to be a lot there we could learn from.

I also wanted to tell a story about a Palestinian woman, something I hadn’t seen before in Canada and I thought Walaa’s story might add something to the conversation.

Q: The film was shot over a five-year period, following Walaa from 15 to 21. At what point did you feel you had earned the trust of Walaa and those around her to tell this intimate story?

A: My filmmaking style is quite intimate so Walaa and I, and the others in the film had to frequently discuss the reasons we all thought the story was an important one to tell. But she was very comfortable with just being herself in front of the camera at a very early stage, and that made it so interesting and compelling to shoot – she’s bravely allowing that access because she is telling her story along with me.

It wasn’t easy for Walaa as you can imagine, especially at the police academy in Jericho, and sometimes she would ask me to stop shooting, or she’d turn her microphone off and of course I respected that.

One thing we all agreed on is that a film following a young Palestinian girl trying to pursue a normal goal, a goal we in other countries might take for granted, was an important story especially considering she is a child who has grown up under the Israeli occupation which has made her life and her family’s life quite difficult.

I think she understood that this was an opportunity to share her experience, so for the most part she was incredibly courageous and generous throughout the filmmaking process.

Q: As a filmmaker from Canada, how did you relate to Walaa and how did you adapt to life in West Bank?

A: I felt very comfortable being in the West Bank with Walaa and her family, although the level of poverty and hardship there is quite shocking. In Balata Camp they would occasionally suggest I should leave sooner than I’d planned in case the IDF was rumoured to be coming through, or there was some other flare up within the camp between the PSF and camp residents.

I was given a lot of freedom to shoot although I was quite conspicuous walking around Balata Camp, so a few of those shots were done by a Palestinian cinematographer HannaAbu Saada.

He also shot the images of the HaSharon prison, and although he had a permit he still spent the afternoon in jail, which happens to him often actually.

Q: Walaa’s relationship with her mother is a big part of the story. Can you talk about observing their relationship?

A: Walaa and Latifa have quite a strong bond and I think Walaa gets a lot of her strength and resilience from her mother. But it’s complicated – Latifa made a decision to act as an accomplice in a planned violent attack when Walaa was 7, when she had seven children.

While she never thought she’d get arrested, it did mean the kids were raised with an aunt and without parents for 8 years. Walaa’s father is in Jordan living with his second wife and family and he doesn’t have much time for Walaa.

We see Walaa longing for more of a connection with her mother, but in many ways Latifa is forever stuck in a moment from her past, when she witnessed her brother being killed at a checkpoint when she was a teenager, and then she watched her father kill the Israeli soldier who killed the brother, and then her father was shot dead in front of her.

I think her entire life and all her decisions have been defined by that moment – as I’m certain it does for the family of the young Israeli soldier who was also killed that day.

I was motivated to make this film because I could see Walaatrying to sidestep that cycle, but that is not easy. In my limited experience it seems like everyone I met had lost more than one family member and many have relatives in prison, so it almost seems predetermined for young people to get drawn into it eventually.

I think we can see how much Walaa missed having a mother and many of her personal demons stem from the consequences and toll that the cycle of violence, and living under occupation has on the lives of young innocent people who only want to live a normal life, prosper and have their own futures.


Q: I believe you made ‘Cheer Up’ (about a team of Finnish cheerleaders who keep losing) while also working on ‘What Walaa Wants’. What was it like putting together these two different portraits of young womanhood?

A: A lot of travelling, I shot in Finland 14 times within 4 years (2011-2015) and the West Bank 10 times within 6 years (2012-2019).

These young women all face very different obstacles and certainly in Finland the setting is much more supportive and normal, none of those girls struggle for basic human rights like Walaa must do every day.

But it was fun to see that they all had similar energy and plans for the future – they all struggled on various levels with family and friends, and it’s those universal moments I look for in cultures foreign to my own that connect audiences with people they’d never otherwise meet in places they’d possibly never go.

I found it interesting that they have things in common, like the stress and concern teens feel regarding their parents which their parents are completely unaware of. Kids are pretty good at concealing that kind of thing.

Q: I believe you received feedback from a colleague who described Walaa as ‘a delinquent in a hijab.’ Can you talk about that interaction and any other pushbacks you’ve had to the film?

A: Yes, there were some people who didn’t find it interesting that Walaa was obviously a very strong-willed young woman who got herself in trouble and was lashing out at the world for some reason.

In the world of pitching documentaries that makes a main character “unlikeable”.

For me it was the main reason she was interesting, because the question should be: ‘why is this child fighting, and being self-destructive, when aside from that, we know she desperately wants to pursue a positive and constructive goal?’ The answer to that question unfolds throughout the story and is obviously a big part of her and Latifa’s backstory, the history of the occupation and the cycle of violence that both sides are trapped in.

Q: I heard you’ve had difficulty in getting film seen on the US festival circuit. Why has that been the case? And what do you feel the film could add to conversation in the US?

A: I’m not sure but it’s starting to pick up, it will be at SF Doc Fest, and was in the Boston Palestinian Film Festival, but compared to the 40+ festivals in Europe and Canada, it hasn’t had that much play unfortunately. It had a great screening at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York where it won the Margaret Mead Filmmaker Award – and Chris Hegedus was on the jury so I was quite chuffed about that.

Maybe it’s just they are more competitive and there are so many American films competing for slots and the emphasis, understandably, is often on American films to begin with.

But I do also know that one of the things that some people from both the Palestinian side and Israeli side struggle with about this film is that I don’t clearly choose sides. Some audience members feel I emphasise Palestinian violence, which isn’t the case actually, we just remained faithful to Walaa’s experience, and that includes living in an environment that celebrates a culture of martyrdom, which we also see set within the oppressive context of the occupation.

Friends have told me they are uncomfortable with how much time we spend with Latifa, shown as a mother in family scenes, without clearly condemning her act, but my goal was to keep us in Walaa’s bloodstream as she views her journey through her own world. This allows the audience to witness her life and come to their own conclusions about the various pressures that surround her.

Q: What do you hope audiences at the BBC Arab Festival take away from the film?

A: A big love for Walaa to start with! That always seems to be the case.

I hope they get a fresh, in-depth look at a region they are accustomed to seeing portrayed in the news cycle in an abbreviated way, and I hope they have more questions that stem from what they’ve witnessed in Walaa’s life.

I hope they have a new form of appreciation for how strong kids like Walaa are, living under the pressure she does but yet still enthusiastic and hopeful about the future.

For more info about the BBC Arabic Film Festival

Follow @BBCArabicFest and use the hashtag #BBCArabicFest

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