Beyond the Walls, directed by Uri Barbash. Written by Benny Barbash, Eran Pries and Uri Barbash. Produced by Rudy Cohen. 103 minutes. Color. 35 mm. Distributed by Warner Brothers’ Globe Exports.
This film about Palestinian and Israeli prisoners shows a leap in consciousness and willingness by at least one Israeli film company to deal with political and social issues that wax delicate and deep. The film has been tremendously popular with a wide spectrum of Israeli audiences. The movie depicts the transformation of an adversary relationship between Jewish criminal prisoners and Palestinian political prisoners as both sides join forces when they face a life-and-death battle with prison authorities. It is a very physical portrayal of racist and political tension between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews.
Director Uri Barbash and his producer-writer brother, Benny, both activists in the Israeli liberal movement, Peace Now, chose to deal with the relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinians — relations which Benny calls “awful” — by showing Palestinians to Israeli audiences in a human dimension. Their thesis is simple: that coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is possible, but the conditions for such a cooperative coexistence are left open. The Barbash brothers bow out of any political discussion. The film, they say, is a small attempt to break through Israeli prejudice by showing how Jews, at least in prison circumstances, can also be repressed by the same force and for the same reasons as Palestinians.
But from where does the common oppression emanate? Because the movie goes so far down the barbed-wire path, the Palestinian press has shown reluctance to criticize it publicly for inaccuracies and important omissions and its rather superficial political message. The Barbash team may have underestimated the political radicalism of Palestinian audiences — who logically view the prison authorities as symbolic of an entire Zionist state and ideology which by definition denies Palestinian existence. This leaves the question that one young woman from a West Bank university put to scriptwriter Benny Barbash, “But what will make Jews join this struggle?” Barbash answered that the movie was made for Israelis, to show them the self-destructive force of racism in their society. In fact, except for clusters of Palestinians who have ventured to West Jerusalem or Tel Aviv cinemas, few others have had the opportunity to see Beyond the Walls; the distributors have not sought military permission to show it in the occupied territories.
The setting for Beyond the Walls is Israel’s central prison — Ramle in real life, left unnamed in the movie. Considering that much of its energy focuses on the brutality of prison life in Israel, it is surprising that the feature was shot with the full cooperation of Israeli prison authorities, and with an Israeli government contribution of $500,000, one-third of the movie’s budget. It has already earned top Israeli honors: the “best film” award was to be personally bestowed on the filmmakers by Minister of Trade and Industry Ariel Sharon, at a gala ceremony in West Jerusalem, and it has been nominated for an Oscar by the Hollywood Film Academy for Best Foreign Language Film.
Palestinian Muhammad Bakri (Issam) and Israeli Arnon Za- dok (Uri), both veteran actors, co-star in this “all-Israeli” production. Palestinian members of the cast, all of whom hail from the Jaffa-Haifa area, have unofficially boycotted Israeli promotional parties and have expressed displeasure with the final editing of the movie. Edward Muallem, one of 10 background Palestinian actors — his chief task is to roll a razor blade around in his mouth and look ominous — complained that many dialog scenes between Palestinians were missing from the final version. Scenes showing the political prisoners singing Shaikh Imam’s protest songs, playing cards, and engaged in playful talk ended up on the cutting room floor. “The human dimension was lost,” said Muallem. “Only the old image of the Palestinian as fighter remained.” Bakri, who starred in Costa Gavra’s Hanna K in a similar role, plays the emotional anchor of the story and is the only Palestinian allowed to speak his thoughts. Thus when Uri criticizes Issam for Palestinians bombing civilian buses, Issam responds forthrightly: “Strafing a refugee camp is like a thousand buses.”
Despite the woodenness of the Palestinian personalities, their discipline, methodical manner and steadfastly political outlook are positively portrayed and contrast sharply with the Israelis’ over-emotionalism and drug-dealing, criminality and preoccupation with a cellmate’s entry in the Israeli Eurovision song contest. Israeli audiences have strongly identified with the two main Israeli prisoners: Zadok’s Uri, the Sephardi strong-man, and Fitussi, another Sephardi, a shaved-head clown with a drug habit. Both are typically anti-Arab, but the deaths of two Jewish prisoners cause Uri to reassess his situation in political terms. He leads the rest of the Jewish prisoners in a joint hunger strike with the Palestinians. The roundtable discussions among prison authorities, police, secret service, social worker and prison physician on ways to break the strike must be similar to today’s Israeli cabinet meetings on how to squash resistance in the occupied territories.
Real-life Jewish political prisoner Rami Livni, who spent five years in Ramle for membership in the “Red Front,” was the sole inside advisor on prison conditions. His involvement dates the movie’s portrayal of conditions to the early 1970s, and then only at Ramle, known as the “hotel” among Israeli prisons. Palestinian political prisoners and Israeli criminal prisoners are no longer held in the same cellblock, nor share dining rooms or exercise yards. Unlike the movie depiction, their conditions and treatment are drastically unequal, even between Jewish and Palestinian political prisoners, and more so when compared to the decrepit prisons in the West Bank and Gaza. Just since the film opened in late summer 1984, there have been major strikes at several prisons: at the new Jnaid prison in Nablus, 850 political prisoners held a nine-day hunger strike for better conditions. Two months later, prison wardens quelled a protest against new prisoners being forced into already overcrowded cells by teargassing an entire wing of Jnaid. At the Neve Tertze prison in Ramle, Palestinian women prisoners won a nine-month work strike in 1984, only to be forced this year to work in a prison factory for an Israeli military-related industry. The women went on strike again and 14 were sent into solitary confinement. As of this writing, they are on a hunger strike.
Palestinian political prisoners lead a stark life, suffer routine physical abuse and torture and are in constant struggle to keep healthy despite the overcrowding and the fact that medical care, adequate food, warm clothing, ventilation and exercise are denied them. Palestinian ex-prisoners must be bemused by the movie’s prison: large trays of food with meat, cells with beds, wall decorations, personal clothes (even hattahs) and books. The hated zinzani (solitary isolation cell) was not the closed-up closet that prisoners actually experience but merely a cramped cell with iron bars. While the film was not meant to be a documentary on prison conditions, it is easy to see why Palestinian audiences have watched it somberly and knowingly. In the same week that Beyond the Walls’ Oscar nomination was given wide publicity, the International Commission of Jurists released a documented report entitled Torture and Intimidation at Fara‘a Prison: A Case Study. The report on a real-life Israeli-run prison was ignored by the Israeli media — and, as usual, censored from the Palestinian press.