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The University of East London is now hosting a screening of nine short films and photography produced by Palestinian youth. “The Re-imagining project: Al Aroub refugee camp and Gaza” exhibition features the creations from teenagers from Al Aroub refugee camp in the West Bank, and Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza.
The students produced the photos and films during their digital media storytelling workshop this past summer, and exhibitions this fall took place in both the West Bank and Gaza. Put on by the non-profit group Voices Beyond Walls, the camp is a five-week commitment. Students aged 12-15 spend summer days learning how to communicate their ideas and acquaint themselves with the art of expression in various forms. One of the participating youths explained, “I had many ideas I wanted to express and I was able to express them through the process of story-writing.” The culmination of the project finds each youth participating in the creation of a film. Working in teams, the students work together throughout the entire process, creating storyboards, writing the script, acting, directing, shooting, and editing the films.
Most of the attending students have no prior experience in theater. To help them overcome their shyness, the students play various ice-breaking games and participate in exercises that will get them to open up.
One such activity, called “community mapping,” asked the youths to document their neighborhood in photos, sound recordings, drawing, and text. Other activities required students to interview elderly people from their camps and to record their stories, and to do sound reports on their neighborhood. Students were asked to cover their eyes, and then report on what they were hearing and thinking, giving them a different sensation of interaction with their worlds. At the end, students shared their community maps with the other students, and they shared the stories that would become the starting point of many of their films.
The teenagers watched a wide-range of films to provide them with inspiration and direction. The kids learned how to critique the films and make suggestions for their improvement, helping them to form ideas about their future strategies.
The student created films under occupation, filming under the watchful eye of Israeli soldiers. One of the trainers and coordinators, Anne Paq explained, “Al Aroub camp really looks like a cage. It was a problem. In the beginning, some of the children thought that the soldiers might see them with the cameras and they would be in trouble. They were scared sometimes, but we found creative ways to continue the films nevertheless.”
The films the children produce are incredibly diverse, often using humor or poesy to convey their message. The films deal with human issues, with topics ranging to cover the separation between the West Bank and Gaza, the place of handicapped children in society, the gap between the rich and poor, and environmental concerns.
One of the films the children created involved interviewing people in Gaza who had been profoundly affected by Operation Cast Lead. They went to NGOs to try and get information about the events, and interviewed people who had lost homes, relatives, and limbs in the attacks.
One youth described the experience, “When we went to meet a few families who suffered during the war in Gaza, their stories were very moving. I was sad for their situation… There were some depressing stories. Though, there were also some very humorous stories.” Not your typical summer camp playtime.
The fact that the camps in the West Bank and Gaza operate in separate occupied territories is also a struggle, but this year the camps operated at the same time, with every effort put into daily communication between the camps. While phone conversations via internet were difficult because of frequent power shortages in Gaza, the teams updated one another whenever possible in an attempt to eliminate the borders.
The students of Al Aroub and Jabaliya then swapped their completed films, enjoying each other’s creations while gaining perspective on alternate experiences.
The idea of perspective is important to the youth. Just as the “Re-imagining Palestine” camp experience allows them to explore their ideas of community and expression, the completed Voices Beyond Walls films allow outsiders a look in.
“They know that people have this perception of them… maybe others feel sorry for them or think [Palestinians] are aggressive or angry,” Anne said, describing the children’s ambitions The children want to change this mentality others have of them.”
In an effort to spread this idea and enhance the sustainability of the project, Voices Beyond Walls employs a simultaneous ‘Training of Trainers’ program in conjunction with the digital media storytelling workshops. These workshops benefited around 60 Palestinian animators from various youth development centers with the idea they can replicate the program in the future with their own organisations.
Out of the 60 who attended the special trainings, ten trainers were selected to assist with the summer camps in the West Bank and Gaza.
Voices Beyond Walls began their workshops in the summer of 2006, and has been co-organizing with the Palestinian non-profit Children, Play and Education for the past two years.