Interview: Documentary film producer reflects on Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian children

One facet of the occupation that has largely remained hidden from the public’s critical eye is the systematic abuse of children at the hands of Israeli soldiers and prison officials.

Targeted because of their vulnerabilities, hundreds of Palestinian children cycle through rounds of violence and interrogation where they are often kept from communicating with the outside world. Beatings go hand-in-hand with interrogation techniques meant to wear the children down, and threats made against their families, friends, and neighbors are used to force false confessions over things as trivial as throwing stones or walking too close to an Israeli military installation.

In its latest update, human rights group B’Tselem reports that 182 Palestinian minors were held in Israeli prisons at the end of March 2015. Most if not all of these children remain in Israeli prison facilities or detention centers to this day. Hundreds more pass through military courts that do not work to protect them.

To garner national attention for this issue, a team of grassroots organizers and media experts launched the No Way To Treat A Child campaign, complete with a website hosting a collection of testimonies, case studies, reports, and fact sheets. The campaign’s latest and quite possibly its boldest strategy is to produce a documentary with interviews collected in Palestine of children who have lived the experience. Young film producer Amr Kawji is the mind behind the project so we caught up with him for a brief chat about the film’s purpose and its future.

SMP: What encouraged you to pursue this project?

Amr Kawji: I first learned about this project through the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization committed to promoting lasting peace with justice. It was a project for AFSC’s No Way To Treat A Child campaign. The organization reached out to me and asked if I was interested in putting together a video for the campaign. I took on this project because there is so much that we don’t know about Israel’s detention system. Each year, an average of 700 Palestinian children are unlawfully prosecuted by two Israeli military courts. This statistic shocked me because it only applies to children. In addition three out of the four children suffer from some sort of mental and physical abuse during their detainment. All these facts had me thinking about my teenage brother or his friends. What would happen if my brother was taken away from my family and thrown behind bars only because he was accused of doing something he didn’t actually do? These children have had their lives and their dreams taken from this. This is what compelled me to produce Detaining Dreams. It is important that we highlight the illegal arrest, torture, and prosecution of children.

SMP: What do you wish to achieve through this project?

AK: I want this film to spark a movement and to encourage new discussions in the activist circle. The project will be presented to a panel of Congressmen at a briefing next week, as part of the “No Way To Treat A Child” campaign. We hope to explain to Congress the legal and structural components of the military system and situate the detention of Palestinian children within the larger context of the conflict. It is unfortunate that the four teens interviewed in the film cannot fly out to testify about the brutality they have gone through, so this puts a lot of pressure on us as a team because we want to make sure this film stays true to their testimony. These are stories that need to be shared. Hopefully they will educate the public about the occupation.

SMP: If you could describe the entire experience — from concept to finished project — in one word, what would it be, and why?

AK: This is really difficult to answer. There are so many words to describe this project. But I will settle on the word ‘depressing’. This project was extremely difficult from start to finish. The tone of this video is entirely depressing. I have to admit there were times when I wasn’t able to sleep because of the horrific details that I would hear and replay while editing the footage. One particular instance was when I was working on editing Abed, who was 15 at the time of his arrest, the youngest of the four Palestinians featured in Detaining Dreams. He explained how he was put in solitary confinement where he had no food, no clothes, no windows, and no access to the outside world. When he asked to speak to his father the Israeli soldiers ignored him. Even his own lawyer tried to force a confession out of him and when Abed refused, the lawyer proceeded to beat him. It’s a system. I would not be able to live with myself if I hadn’t tried to help in some way.

SMP: What kind of impact has this project had on you?

AK: This project has impacted me emotionally because we hear these stories every day but rarely in the form of a live testimonial. It hit me hard after watching these teens talk about their arrest, torture, and false imprisonment. I was already somewhat aware that Israel commonly mistreated and arbitrarily detained Palestinians but the amount of detail shared by these teens about their experiences under Israeli military detention has helped me to understand the details of this whole prison complex.

SMP: What was the hardest part of putting this film together?

AK: The hardest part was definitely conducting the interviews themselves. I cannot imagine the amount of pain these Palestinian children went through. Watching all the footage was tough at first. The stories these teens shared were so traumatic to a point where I had to step away from my computer a couple of times. There are five stages of Israeli military detention of Palestinian child prisoners: arrest, transfer, interrogation, hearing, and sentencing. I had to make sure that each one of these stages were covered by every child in the interview. While it was difficult on my end, it was much more difficult on the child’s end to have to relive their traumatic experiences. Sharing these stories was not easy for them.

SMP: Who collaborated with you on this project, or was this simply a personal endeavor?

AK: I cannot take full credit for this project. AFSC approached me with the idea. My task was to make their vision a reality. I served as the producer for this film and I was mainly in charge of putting the pieces together. But this project could not have been made possible without the wonderful work of AFSC’s Middle East Program Director Jennifer Bing and her fellow Nawal Musleh. They both believed in my creative process. Most importantly, the footage was captured by two volunteers with the Defense for Children – International, John and Joyce Cassel, who traveled to Palestine to schedule the interviews and record the children’s stories. Of course, filming these interviews and simply even sharing these stories is risky, so I am indebted to all of these individuals for helping make this documentary a reality.

SMP: Film has traditionally been used as an effective medium in the treatment of many critical contemporary issues. What role do you think film plays within the context of the Palestinian struggle for liberation?

AK: I think film plays a very unique role within the context of the Palestinian struggle despite it being a young and growing field. In the past few years, we have seen many feature films and documentaries on Palestine go on to receive international acclaim, including some that were nominated for the Oscars. This is the type of publicity we need. Full-length films or even short videos really do help get the message across. People want to see stories on the big screen. Many feel motivated by what they see. It is an excellent opportunity to teach and to express.

SMP: How has your personal background impacted the outcome of this work?

AK: I am a Syrian-American. I know my background cannot speak for the Palestinian struggle but I definitely do believe that the struggles I face as a Syrian can relate to the struggles faced by Palestinians. It is widely understood that Syria is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Women and children die daily at the hands of a brutal regime. Many are arrested, many are tortured, and many more are killed. There are teens, like 13-year-old Hamza Al-Khateeb, who are arrested and tortured to death for spraying words like “Freedom” on walls in their hometowns. Hamza’s story would never have been heard had it not been for local activists here in the U.S. who brought enough attention to his tragic death that the media was compelled to cover it. Palestinian children face similar experiences, and their stories are similarly not heard. It would be hypocritical of me to neglect Palestine and focus only on Syria. The awful things experienced by the teens in this documentary are just as critically important to me.

SMP: What are your future projects, plans, or goals?

AK: My future plans involve taking on bigger projects and seeking more opportunities to share stories that lack honest media attention. This includes issues related to Syria, Palestine, and Ferguson among many others. This is one of the reasons why Detaining Dreams is so important to me. I get to play a role in sharing a story that people would otherwise never hear or know about. In the immediate future, one of my upcoming projects involves traveling with doctors to Syrian refugee camps where I will be able to document how the lives of Syrian refugees have been impacted by what is happening back home. Hopefully, the finished project will be strong enough to push for further action from the international community.

To learn more about the No Way To Treat A Child campaign, visit their website at nowaytotreatachild.org.

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