Thursday, June 28, 2007

Silverdocs: Hothouse


Friday I left work early to go to the early screening of Hothouse. I was second in the ticketholders line (as opposed to the passholders line who get to budge in front of us ticketholders). I chatted amiably with #1 and #3. #3 was a nineteen year old man. #1 was a woman with a nineteen year old son. This was discovered when #3 says his favorite film is The Sandlot, which is #1's son’s favorite film. I have never seen The Sandlot ( We bonded as three local film buffs sneaking out of work to enjoy the festival. We contemplated taking three days off of work next year to take it all in properly. #1 didn’t know what Hothouse was about. She just bought tickets for everything she could squeeze into her schedule. #1 and I recommended Cinema Paradiso ( to #3. He recommended Clap Your Hands Say Yeah ( to us. Bonding with #1 and #3 reinvigorated my belief in film after it was decimated by the filmmakers’ vapid Q & A after Miss Gulag. Then there were very few passholders to budge in front of us and I found my favorite seat in Theater 1. I was half expecting cartoon birds and squirrels to bring me popcorn and a soda until I was surrounded by women complaining about their hotel rooms and manicures and the party a the Moose Lodge last night and not being able to find a taxi in Silver Spring and why do they have this festival in this god forsaken place . . . and if that’s not bad enough Harry Chapin’s Cat’s Cradle plays over the P.A. I wish my dad was here.

The film opens in February 2006 with a speech by the speaker of the new Palestinian parliament who mentions the members of the council who are in prison. He pledges to free all Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Fourteen members of parliament are in prison. Guard dogs bark at the camera as they run between two rows of fence around a prison.Intertitle: One year earlier.Be’ler Sheva PrisonInmates introduce themselves and state what crimes they were convicted of. Some say they are members of Hamas. For example, one says he sent suicide bombers to two locations. The prison looks modern and clean. Cells contain multiple bunk beds. At least four sets of bunks are visible. As one inmate begins to introduce himself while sitting on the lower bunk in his cell one of the other inmates tells him to speak in Arabic. He starts over again, speaking in Arabic rather than Hebrew. Many of the inmates who introduce themselves say they are from one or another refugee camp. Some say they were arrested for failing to liberate their land. Some cells are full of Hamas inmates. Other cells are full of Fatah inmates. But all of them are Palestinians. The windows of the prison are frosted so they cannot see outside. They joke that all they would see is desert, so why frost them? There is a television in each cell. They get Israeli and Palestinian channels. One says he didn’t think about politics on the outside because he was busy following orders. An off-camera interviewer speaks to Colonel Ofer Lefler, an Israeli prison spokesperson. He says there are 10,000 prisoners. The prison administration used to have a difficult time maintaining order among the Palestinian inmates. Then they decided to work with the leaders of the various Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and Fatah, and they helped to maintain order among the Palestinian inmates. There is a horrible electrical beep when sallyports open. The Fatah prisoners’ representative negotiates with a prison administrator, Warden Eshel, about privileges. When a correctional officer enters a cell the inmates stand by their beds. Inmates say they have political power because they get their families to vote for who they recommend. Inmates focus on politics and the news. The warden says they see Palestinian culture differently in prison. They have military discipline and a hierarchy. Each cell block has a representative. There will be no peace so long as the issue of prisoners remains. Buses passing through a bus sallyport.Hasan Yusuf is a Hamas candidate who was arrested. Israeli security services are trying to prevent a Hamas victory in the elections. Inmates exercise in a courtyard.An inmate performs the call to prayer from his cell. Inmates from around the cell blocks pray. Hasan Yusuf leads his cellmates in prayer.A newspaper shows pictures of all of the candidates from Ramallah. An inmate points out which were arrested. They were all in prison at one time or another. Many of the prisoners have academic degrees, especially in political science. Two inmates write answers to a political science exam while a correctional officer watches. Inmates state their names, degrees, and the school where they got the degrees. One of them got a graduate degree in biomedical engineering from Emory University. They say they are prohibited from studying Arabic. They learn Hebrew to talk to guards and prison doctors. They can get degrees from Hebrew University. An off-camera interviewer speaks with a failed suicide bomber. He says he wants to blow himself up to kill Jews. He is studying to do that when he is released.A man outside of prison says that prison taught him to use his time wisely. Now he gets respect from others because he was in prison for eight years.Hashfaron PrisonThis is a women’s prison. Some inmates wear burka. An inmate says female inmates have become Palestinian leaders. They have turned the jail into a school. They meet women from all over Palestine in prison. They read more. They know more about politics. Then the inmate says she is in prison for asking a friend to do a suicide bombing. Another female inmate says she planned the Sbarro suicide bombing and another suicide bombing. She said her arrest communicated the agenda of jihad. Another woman does not want to be filmed. A guard conducts bar taps in the women’s cells. A prison official says they are in a daily intelligence war within the prison. Inmates direct operations on the outside. A special operations response team conducts a drill. A prison official says coded notes that order attacks on the outside are referred to as “launchers.” A candidate in prison speaks at a political rally on the outside via cellphone over loudspeakers. Cellphones in prison are a huge problem. They are illegal. Intertitle: Ramalla one month before election.Prisons provide the best opportunity to create political activists. They are not allowed to organize outside. In Gaza prisoners who are released became political leaders. Prisoners in different prisons communicate with one another via attorneys and families. Every cell has an account book for each prisoner which records the amount of money and good each inmate has. These are all kept by the prison treasurer. The warden discusses issues with inmate representatives. They have a dialog regarding daily life in prison, for example building a new visiting facility. There are two different classifications, “Security Prisoners” and “Jewish Inmates.” The prison dentist tries to calm frustrated visitors. Each inmate has 45 minutes for visits. There is a digital red countdown clock, like a bomb, in the visiting room. Small children and babies are passed from the visitor to a guard and then to the inmate. A visitor says she refuses to be filmed. She asks the filmmaker, “Are you filming to solve our problem? If you’re just filming for sympathy, no.”An off-camera interviewer asks a female inmate about the children who were killed in the suicide bombing she was involved with. The inmate turns as if talking to another person and asks how is she to respond to that question when she has children of her own. A woman off-screen responds that she should say something about jihad. The camera pans to show the Sbarro bombing planner, smiling at the camera. Clearly she had just told the woman how to respond but when the camera is turned toward her, she appears to have said nothing. This woman was news reporter at the time of the bombing. She reported on the bombings she organized. She says suicide bombings are realizing the bomber’s dream. We don’t feel remorse. We are defending ourselves. If we get rights, we don’t want violence.A man on a donkey says he is going to vote.Intertitle: Ramalla on election dayPrisons prepared Palestinians for democracy because they conducted elections in prison for years and after the voting, they still had to live together. They meet to discuss peace during the voting. Various news outlets begin to report the election results. Fatah prematurely celebrates victory. Time lapse sunrise at the prison tower.Hamas wins majority. The prison leaders of both parties tell their followers to stay calm and act normally. The Fatah cell discusses why they lost. What kind of representatives are we in prison? A prison official says the inmates get to know Israelis not through gunsights. Prison disciplines and trains you. They get the tools to confront oppression.Quick cutting roll call of inmates stating their sentences in ascending order. Fade to black though prison bars. Credits over image of road.

Q & A with the film’s director

Q: Why didn’t you show lives of average Palestinians compared to the prisoners? There was no context.

A: Film is an exercise in limitation. I had curiosity about prison and the difference between the way Palestinian prisoners were portrayed and the way they see themselves. I deliberately tried to keep the film inside prison. At other screenings people have asked why have I not shown the victims of these people’s crimes. The answer is the same. There is limited time and scope.

Q: How did you get access? Did the Israeli Prison Services or Israeli Security Services review your footage?

A: The amount of access I eventually got was surprising. I asked. They said no. Again. No. Friends of mine in the administration said no, but let me see what I can do. Maybe one afternoon. You already got in once? OK, you can come in again. The prison authorities wanted to look good. There were no restrictions once I got in. A spokesperson asked to see the final cut before it was screened, but then he didn’t have time. It’s a grey world.

Q: How did you get access to the different Palestinian factions?

A: Working with the inmates was a process that took place over a year. I got to know them. It became a dialog. They knew I wasn’t in there to get a scoop or a soundbite. The factions are aware of the power of the camera. They used me as I used them. They educate eachother. They have safety in prisons other Palestinians don’t have. The film touches on something that needs to be studied further.

Q: [Something about prison politics versus outside politics]

A: Nothing is permanent. The relationships in prison are friendly. Prison administrators allow Palestinian inmates to congregate based on political affiliation. Productive for them and contal to negotiate with authorities. In response to present crisis, prison authorities separated Fatah and Hamas inmates for the first time.

Q: How was the film received in Israel and Palestine?

A: In Israel it was shown on national television. El Arabiya showed it in three episodes with a panel discussion following each one. In Gaza people saw their family members they had not seen for years. Some in Israel don’t want to give the inmates a voice. They appreciated what I had done and the thought that went into it and that people should listen.

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