Director Julia Bacha on ‘Naila and the Uprising’

In her 2017 “Naila and the Uprising” (Tuesday, March 26 at 9:00 p.m.), Peabody-winning director Julia Bacha shows the central role Palestinian women played in the First Intifada through the story of Naila Ayesh.

The documentary uses 2D animation to illustrate some horrific life experiences including the destruction of an 8-year-old Naila’s house in Ramallah on the West Bank and the suffering of an adult, married and pregnant Naila who spends nights in the cold rain and eventually miscarries. She is only saved when her husband Jamal finds a sympathetic Israeli journalist to investigate her inhumane treatment.

Responding via email to questions for a article, Bacha explains how she came upon the story of Naila Ayesh and what is cut in the TV presentation for  “Women, War & Peace II” on PBS.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?

A: I’ve been working with the Just Vision team for 14 years now, always training the lens on grassroots organizers in Palestine and Israel. Over the course of those years, countless activists and organizers harkened back to the First Intifada as a golden age of nonviolent civil resistance. We decided it was a story that had to be told, given how central it is to the framework of nonviolent resistance in the region that has taken place since. But we didn’t know when we started research six years ago that the film would center around the women leaders of the First Intifada. The theme of women’s leadership grew out of several interviews with leaders and organizers from the time who kept pointing to the vital role that women had played in sustaining the most strategic, unified and popular phase of the uprising. When we learned more, we knew the story had to be shared on the world stage.   

Q: How did you choose Naila Ayesh?

A: There were several factors that led us to follow Naila’s story as a way of showcasing the women’s movement during the uprising. Her experience before and after the Intifada encapsulates so much of the typical Palestinian experience. Her parents were refugees from 1948, her family had their home destroyed under the harsh measures of the occupation, she spent time in jail as a political prisoner, her husband was deported. As a woman, she bore the brunt of the repressive measures of the occupation, tragically on her own body. And like countless other Palestinian women, she had to juggle the demands of being a mother, wife and daughter while following what was for her an imperative struggle: for her freedom and dignity, and for the freedom and dignity of her community. We were also drawn in by archival footage about Naila’s life during that time that came to us via a Finnish documentary about Naila’s life by Iikka Vehkalahti called “Amal, Inam, Naila.” That footage became central to our ability to tell the story of the women’s movement during the First Intifada through Naila’s experience.  

Q: I understand that the original film was 1 hour and 16 minutes. What had to be trimmed out for this TV version and are there other things that had to be left out and what were they?

A: Most of what we cut was around Naila’s backstory – her studies in Bulgaria, her courtship with Jamal, and their wedding back in Palestine. We had to trim some sections that had gone into greater depth around the organizing that was taking place, but the main themes remained intact. There were far bigger choices to be made with the first cut. We had interviewed dozens of women during our research phase, each with complex, emotional, and poignant stories. Stories that really should be told. Ultimately, we felt that Naila’s story was the best frame to tell the broader story of women’s resistance during the uprising, and in doing so we had to leave out some activists altogether or significantly trim the stories of those we included. 

Q: What is the main theme or ideas that you’d like an American audience to take away from this film?

A: The most important theme – and it’s one that the entire “Women, War & Peace II” series aims to tackle – is that women are so often central to movements for justice and social change, but are routinely ignored or edited out. Palestinian women took the helm of the First Intifada in crucial ways and had an indelible impact, both on the quality of resistance that took place (largely unarmed, strategic and mass-led) and the durability of the uprising. “Naila and the Uprising” is our attempt to fill in the gap so that audiences have a deeper context while honoring the women who made incredible sacrifices for their community. Another theme is just how vital women’s resistance is to the success of movements for justice. We see in Naila and the Uprising something that researchers have known for a long time — movements that ideologically include and value women in public life are more likely to employ nonviolent resistance, and those that employ nonviolent tactics are more likely to achieve their aims. We’re grateful to have the force of the WWP series behind this film, as each film covers a unique aspect of how important women are in civil resistance and peace processes. Finally, the film draws out a theme that’s central to every Just Vision film: nonviolent civil resistance is an age-old and widely employed tactic in the region that gets far too little attention in the mainstream media. We’re all inundated with incident-by-incident reporting on the region or coverage of failed political machinations. That’s an incomplete narrative that overlooks daily grassroots organizing and the crucial context in which it takes place. “Naila and the Uprising” is one film in the Just Vision canon that aims to fills in that gap and provide a more holistic and accurate portrayal of reality on the ground in Palestine and Israel.  

Q: What impact do you feel your film has had in Palestine and Israel?

A: The response from audiences in Palestine and Israel to “Naila and the Uprising” has been overwhelmingly positive. We opened the film in the West Bank to a packed house of over 800 audience members from across the region, including community organizers from Hebron, Budrus, East Jerusalem and beyond, as well as women leaders from the First Intifada and today. Our Gaza premiere had over 300 Palestinians gather in Gaza City with hundreds more on the wait list. Since then, we’ve had screenings across the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in classrooms and community centers to reach youth, women, students, educators and activists across the region. The film has generated countless conversations – on social media, in the news, and among families who had lived through the First Intifada – about how people can amplify women’s leadership in the current context and draw on the lessons learned from that iconic time. Our film screenings in Israel have also generated healthy conversation. We opened in Jaffa with over 250 journalists, human rights advocates, Members of the Knesset, veteran organizers and young activists in attendance. After our Israel premiere, and because we wanted the film to reach as broad an audience as possible, we hosted the film online on Just Vision’s Hebrew-language news site, a partnership with 972 Advancement of Citizen Journalism. For the six weeks of the online broadcast, which garnered thousands of viewers, our journalists covered content related to women’s leadership, nonviolent resistance, the First Intifada and the role of the media, ensuring that the film reached audiences unfiltered and with deeper context. Israelis who have seen the film through Local Call or at community events have shared that it served to reframe the activities of the First Intifada and Palestinian nonviolent organizing in a way that was both informative and inspiring. Some expressed that the discrepancy between what they understood about the uprising before and what they saw in the film was so significant that it has motivated them to think more critically about how events in the Occupied Territories are covered by the media and discussed today. More often than not, the film has sparked a productive and forward-looking discussion among Palestinians and Israelis.  We hope it will continue to catalyze conversation, spurring reflection and generating learning both for those who lived through this period and for the rising generation of activists and organizers working for the rights, freedom and dignity of everyone.

The reality is that we are just getting started. Given the traction around the film and the sheer number of screening requests we’re receiving, we expanded our outreach teams in Israel and Palestine for the community and educational campaign around this film that will take place over the next two years.

Q: I understand that Naila and her family were at first resistant to participating in this documentary. What were their reactions to the finished product and did it change them in any way?

A: As Naila’s son Majd mentions at the beginning of the film, it’s hard for people to revisit painful memories. Several women in the film were reluctant to share their stories at first but they came to trust us as a team and felt their stories needed to be told. Naila herself is incredibly humble – she sees the film as an homage to the women leaders of the First Intifada rather than a personal history – and is grateful that it’s reaching audiences across the world. She’s been with us at several screenings from London to New York to Dubai and Amsterdam and has been moved by how resonant the message has proven to be.

Q: How did being a female director impact your work? Did it help or hinder?

A: I was pregnant with my first child when we started researching this film and gave birth to my second child during production. I was tremendously lucky to have two exceptional female producers who were also mothers, Rula Salameh and Rebekah Wingert-Jabi, as my full creative partners on this project. I believe that allowed us to bring a level of sensibility and empathy to the topic and to understand Naila’s experience – and that of countless other women we interviewed – on a more visceral level.

Q: What does your film say about the importance/impact of women in war and peace? 

The easy answer is to point you toward our TED Talk! That’s where I speak about a few points that I think the film draws out: First, certain models of resistance tend to be more effective than others. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolence Conflict,” is one of the more impressive and thorough studies about the power of strategic civil resistance. Their research shows that nonviolent campaigns are almost 100 percent more likely to succeed than violent campaigns. And now, a whole body of research is pointing to the fact that women tend to be better at waging nonviolent resistance than men – in other words, movements that uphold the role of women in civil society are more likely to engage in nonviolent resistance – and therefore are more likely to achieve their aims. That’s a theme, now backed by the research, that all of Just Vision’s films have drawn out. Our team also came to learn a great deal about the role of women in negotiations and peace processes. Our film offers an anecdote about what happens when women are excluded from peace processes, but we’ve come to realize the extent to which this phenomenon has damaged countless other negotiations or peace deals. There’s some great research out of the International Peace Institute that spells that out and it’s a theme that shows up in other films in the WWPII series.   



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