A Decade Filming Israel’s Sderot and Gaza
Ose Oyamendan spent a better part of a decade, amidst challenges of all sorts, filming a documentary on Israel to capture a story hardly told, Godwin Ifijeh writes
It was an assignment that demanded total courage, commitment and confidence, and Ose Oyamendan, a Nigerian-American filmmaker, residing between Los Angeles, Lagos, and London, got it all.
A winner of several film festival awards, including Tribeca, Rome, and Worldfest Houston, whose works have also been played at several film festivals around the world on streaming platforms, cable, satellite, and national television stations before world leaders, parliaments, and international Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs), for nearly all of a decade, Ose Oyamendan worked on a critically acclaimed Middle East award-winning documentary, Aswat Acherim (Other Voices), focusing on unlikely friends in Gaza and Sderot, the war zone of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to bring viewers to the unexpected and unusual peace efforts and unwavering friendship between the residents as the two bordering nations continue to endure the unceasing war, animosity and conflict.
A most tasking effort as it seems to have been, talking about what initially took him to the region and what it was like using 10 years visiting and spending time in the area in the course of the podcast, Oyamendan said: “ I have known the protagonists well, learning how they cope with living in the region and experiencing some of their lives.
“People on different sides of a story find a way not to talk to each other,” declining for that reason to talk politics in the film, or painstakingly editing it, “and take off the politics out of it makes it become a very strong human interest story.”
In Israel, recently, to premiere Other Voices at the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Cinematheques, just as it’s also being shown on Amazon Prime, Oyamendan threw more light on what exactly took him to the Israeli-Palestinian region from Nigeria, and how he got into the story and the protagonists involved: “ Where I grew up, there were Jewish kids, Lebanese kids, and Lebanese Arab kids. We played together, played soccer together, and when we got to high school, they stopped talking to each other, and I was struck at that. I started life as a journalist and I think I subconsciously carried that story with me. I then wrote a short story about two kids who became friends, playing football in Jerusalem.
“I‘ve never been to Israel then, and never thought I will ever be there, it wasn’t in my plan at all, but in 2010, I went to Haiti when they had an earthquake there, and I ran into an Israeli NGO. I never knew there were NGOs there and they told me the politics of it, and why they don’t make it known that they were Israelis, stating that sometimes if they announce themselves as Israeli NGOs, some people may pull out. That aside, I was staying in the best hotel in Haiti at that time, because we were having power for six hours a night, I think from 6-11, ABC network guys were there, CNN network, everybody, trying then to get their work done. Then, some came to me and asked if they could use my computer because they were not able to send messages home. But I didn’t think I was very approachable, so, I thought it was very interesting that it’s with me that they had the chutzpah.
“I consented. From their looks, it was like it would be a quick thing, but they were there for an hour or so, and we started talking and I said to them, I wrote this story, this short story. I’ve never been to Jerusalem. Can you help me with the geographical accuracy? So they read it, they said oh, it’s a great story, what do you want to do with it? I said, well, I want to publish it, I want to try to make a film or a TV series one day about something like this, something I’m passionate about. They said there is another story that is true, and asked if I have heard of Gaza? And I said yes. Have you ever heard of Sderot? And I replied no. Then, they said they were next to each other, stating that it was where the war is fought for most part of the time and that there were people on both sides that want a return to the old times when they were in peace.
“In their words, they were very friendly with each other, and had a group called Other Voices, pointing at a man amongst the three there, saying, this man, Eitan, was one of them.
Then, I said to them, I love this story. I would like to follow it up, and asked if I could come?
“We communicated by email and then I went to them, and became blown away by how close they were to each other, talking on phone to some people there regularly and genuinely showing that they cared about people on the other side. Then I met Natan, who had lost his daughter in this conflict, and he said, I don’t want the other person’s daughter to suffer what I’ve gone through.
“I met a whole swath of people from both sides, and I decided I would love to tell this story. And that’s how it started about 10 years ago. It’s very tough to get financing for something like this. I did what a poor filmmaker would do. I wanted to do my own observation, and know how true these people are.”
Oyamendan’s determination to know how committed the activists, and protagonists were to peace and his quest on how the people were trying in their own little way to live a normal life greatly contributed to the time it took.
“ I wanted to see how committed they were, just as I wanted to go to Gaza, and they all made it longer.
“The idea was to show the kind of life people live there, how they cope with it, and why it shouldn’t be like when you have a child, for instance, and you’re not sure if you are to say goodbye to the child in the morning, as you are likely to see them in the afternoon.
I felt like just getting the story of how these people were trying in their own little way to live a normal life in a place like this right now”, the Nigerian born film maker said, revealing that for the almost a decade project, he was always in .Sderot, the Palestine enclave, filming.
“Yes, because this group is mostly in Sderot. Though they spread out around the region, around kibbutz there, but Sderot was their base and I didn’t just want to be flying helicopter in and out, I wanted to feel it all, the heat of the other thing and be able to talk about it though not with authority, but with some form of knowledge,” he added, but not without again giving the terror of being from time to time at either end and the often grenade and rocket attacks that pervade the areas without restrain.
According to him: “It was very interesting because we tried for a couple of years to get into Gaza and I could not. I always felt like I don’t have a film without going into Gaza. There are many ways to go into Gaza, but you have to get Israeli permits, and then a Palestinian permit. But there was an option, you could go in through Egypt, which I thought was easier, but wasn’t the world of the story for me even though you could actually walk into Gaza. The gate was open, so I wanted to go in without the idea that I needed a permit to do that. I had thought that I just need an Israeli pass to go into Gaza, but they refused me entry when I got there, justifiably angry that I didn’t think it was like an anchor, like a country on its own. I tried to explain that I didn’t know, sitting there convinced that it was my chance to go in. It became obvious that I needed a connection, and they were talking football, and I realised that a lot of them were Real Madrid fans while on my part I had been following Barcelona.
“So I joined them in the soccer discussion, and we became human, normal people. Though they were not speaking good English neither could I speak Arabic, but we were able to discuss soccer. Just then, another man came and I asked him if he was Real Madrid too? He said yeah, and he called me to come and see, and I found that he was the head of the whole place, the entire thing. He may have thought that I was either crazy or something, I gained entry and I was there for five or six days the first time, saw all my subjects, turning out a kind of thing I’ve never seen before, and dawning on me that it was tough to describe Gaza, more so when I didn’t want to get into the politics of it, but the human aspect only. On their part, however, they were free to talk politics or their relationship with the Israelis, or even people that were subjects of the film. They were very bold,” Oyamendan went deeper on the Other Voice escapade, explaining that he came against a lot of oppositions, but rebranded them on the whole as people expressing their opinions.
“I came against a lot of oppositions, but I try not to see them as that, but a people expressing their opinions. That’s how it is in the free parts of the world, we take it for granted that we are able to have an opinion.
“Like I said earlier, a lot of people know Sderot, and Gaza, but just all they read in the newspapers. On Sour part, we want to showcase the human aspect of it, show it geographically, see the way it is and make up your mind about it,” he added, pointing out that much as he has done a lot on this, put in so many years in it, he has equally lost some story lines, those he would have loved to talk to that he didn’t talk to for the fear that it might not be too safe, and of course, those that were shy about it in Gaza,” reassuring: “I’ll be going back to what I originally wanted to do, including developing a TV series about two kids that one day brought Jerusalem together with soccer, I like the inner sense of kids, I like the global nature of soccer, it could make another avenue to say, just take a look at what can happen,“ he said, adding, “of mote also is that something is most interesting about Jerusalem, it’s a rich place, well-endowed, historical, and blessed with everything.”