When I started shooting for what would become Degrees of Incarceration in 2003, I had no idea that it would entail anything more than a day’s work. I showed up with a camera because a dear friend and colleague asked if I had a day to document a youth play about prisons. I ended up spending the night (leaving Bethlehem by public transportation after 4pm was impractical, my new friends told me) and then regularly returning to the youth center that organized the play.
As I got to know the activists who worked on the play, I heard about the night arrest raids that stunned the camp awake on a regular basis, about the youth detentions that took children from school, friends, and family, and the unending ache of having relatives in prison for decades. It struck me that even among Americans interested in Palestine, there was little awareness of the procedures and effects of political imprisonment. I wanted to learn more, and so I embarked on this film.
Even though Israeli restrictions would have made it impossible to visit prisons, I did not have to leave Aida Refugee Camp to understand something about the toll political prison takes. The line between prison and the world outside was not so clear. Whether or not people had actually been in Israeli prisons, they had, as they said, “`ashu hal-tajriba,” or lived this experience, every day of their lives: as political prisoners or those wondering when or if they would be arrested; as visitors to prison or those forbidden to visit; as siblings of prisoners or children of mothers who longed for their missing relatives. Even if they had never seen the inside of a prison, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories lived amidst hundreds of checkpoints and other barriers to movement. On top of it all, by 2003, the separation wall was under construction in the West Bank.
A youth organization called Lajee Center played an important role in the film. Lajee had produced the youths’ play that first brought me to the camp. Former political prisoners who led Lajee had written it to prepare a new generation for the traumas of arrest and to educate them about how to avoid confessing or to making accusations against their friends. This was critical because, as they knew from experience (and as researchers have confirmed), a great majority of convictions in military court are based on such confessions. As we followed the youth who had been in the play over the next several years, a number of them experienced arrest and many stayed involved with Lajee Center, which had flourished as a veritable “center” of this community. Leaders of Lajee Center became my advisors and collaborators in making the film, as well as its featured characters. Most important among these collaborators was Nidal Al-Azraq, who directed programming at Lajee and whose brother has spent more than two decades in an Israeli prison. He produced, helped to shoot, and narrated the film, and later became my life partner as well.
Seven years after that first day of shooting, we had produced an hour-long documentary that can be used in the classroom to examine several subjects, including: the politics of imprisonment, life under military occupation, NGOs and youth, and masculinity in the Middle East. First, Degrees of Incarceration speaks to the social and political effects of prison on individuals and on a community. A woman who was first imprisoned as a teenager explains, “You struggle against more than one enemy in prison. You fight the occupation, in the form of the prison and its administration, and you also fight against your own frailty as a human being.” Later in the film, two men imprisoned as teenagers—one at age fifteen and one at age nineteen—detail their arrests and detentions. From these interviews, one grasps the emotional and economic toll of these imprisonments.
As those working on the prison-industrial complex in the United States are well aware, prison has widespread impact beyond the detained individuals. In the opening scene of the documentary, we meet Um Qasim, whose son, Khaled, has been in prison for twenty-one years. With an air of restrained anticipation, she packs a bag of supplies to take to her son for her first visit to him in two years. She holds up the permit that allows her to make the brief visit. According to international law, occupying authorities are not allowed to remove prisoners from the territory they come from, but Israel does just this with almost all political prisoners. Consequently, people are often denied permits to visit their relatives, because visits involve receiving security clearance to enter Israel. As much as she longs to visit her son, Um Qasim dreads the encounters she must have with Israeli soldiers and prison guards.
Prison affects children, too. Later, we hear a ten-year-old girl at the community center inquire of Lajee’s leaders as to what a solitary confinement cell (a zinzaana) looks like. Prison is on her mind, too, since her brothers are locked away.
The film also speaks to other forms of violence that are embedded in military occupation. Having a grasp of the everyday implications of military occupation is critical for those seeking to understand this form of rule. Aida Refugee Camp is adjacent to Bethlehem, on the northernmost edge of town. It is home to over 4700 refugees. In the film, we watch an eight-meter wall being built perhaps twenty meters from the houses of the camp. In agricultural villages, the losses of land from the separation barrier have hurt farmers` income and have threatened a way of life. The wall has had serious consequences, too, for residents of Aida Refugee Camp. Until the wall was built, they had been hired to pick olives in the neighboring groves. This was also the only open space left for children to play soccer. Furthermore, the wall deepened the militarization of space within the camp. In the middle of an interview in which youth catalogue how many of their friends and relatives are in prison, an armed jeep passes by on patrol of the wall and fires a gunshot. It is, the youth say, an everyday occurrence.
But this film is at least as much about resilience and community resources as it is about the violence of occupation. From this perspective, Degrees offers an important perspective on small Palestinian NGOs. Large and foreign-funded NGOs in the occupied Palestinian territories and elsewhere have been widely criticized for their depoliticizing effects. In the Palestinian context, they are censured for not directly challenging, and even enabling, military occupation. They also indirectly compel Palestinians to follow imperatives established abroad, undermining possibilities for democracy. Last summer when I was in the West Bank, prominent billboards paid for by the European Commission proclaimed, “Our priorities are your priorities”—but I doubt such billboards convinced many.
Small community-based organizations like Lajee Center often receive foreign funding. The work of Lajee Center suggests that low-budget NGOs can prioritize and value local resources and experiences, even if, as Lajee Center does, they take money from international donors. They are not unaffected by donor politics, but creative and smart activists can work within these constraints. These small NGOs can be a means for extending networks of care that reach beyond other strong institutions in Palestinian society, like the family or the political party. When they produced the youth play, for example, adult volunteers drew on their own experiences in Israeli prison, and it made a difference for the young actors. One youth in the play who was later arrested at age fifteen insisted that the experience of being in the play gave him the knowledge he needed to not be tricked into confessing. For another, Muhammad, having acted in the play gave him a private moment of amusement and strength as he remembered the play during interrogation. After Muhammad was released, he became an employee at Lajee, directing youth programming.
But it is not only adults who support children through organizations like Lajee. In one of my favorite scenes of the documentary, the children of Lajee Center’s popular dance troupe perform for the commemoration of a prisoner’s twenty years in jail. It is mostly an occasion of official speeches and hanging banners. In the big hall filled with officials and other relatives of prisoners, the elderly mother of the prisoner improvises a sung tribute to her son and other prisoners until her voice breaks and she grows unsteady. The only brightness on that day is from the children dancing dabka, light on their feet, with a lilt in their shoulders. Lajee Center provided a forum through which children could contribute to their community.
Scenes like this and others of children participating in solidarity activities when the political prisoners are on a hunger strike inform a discussion about the figure of the Palestinian child. Never depoliticized, sometimes she or he is seen as embodying hopes for a peaceful and democratic future; more often he (especially he) is seen as an impending threat. Degrees of Incarceration complicates such binaries, in part because it stays within the boundaries of one community, evoking the lifeworld of these children. What kinds of co-existence are possible when most Palestinian youth encounter Israelis only in army uniforms, when Israeli society is blocked off by an eight-meter wall? Youth organizations like Lajee Center attempt to limit violence inflicted on youth, and this sometimes means encouraging them to tread carefully in their own political activities. Yet they also encourage youth to recognize their rights and to be active in their community.
Because of local political and cultural dynamics in Aida Refugee Camp, and because of trends affecting the second Intifada as a whole, the second Intifada saw disproportionately less participation from women and girls than did the first Intifada and earlier periods of resistance to Israeli occupation. Although Lajee Center has certainly played a role in opening spaces for conversation and collaboration between young men and women, leaders are almost entirely men. This is one reason we hear from more men than women in this film (though a few key interviews are with women).
However, this documentary promotes a different vision of Palestinian masculinity than many viewers might expect. The documentary gives audiences a chance to see Palestinian boys and men in a new light. Unsurprisingly, they talk a good game. But we also see how men are involved with caring for members of their family and community. For example, as the youth prepare for their dance performance, they dress in shiny shirts and billowing pants. But their costumes were made on a budget and lacked buttons. The documentary shows men from Lajee Center carefully inserting safety pins to affix belts and sleeves. It was a patient ritual, with children standing in line as men’s thick fingers were pressed into delicate service—not one’s usual vision of what politically active Palestinian men spend their time doing. The children seemed not to mind at all the individual attention this entailed. It is subtle, but it speaks to broader dynamics about gender, about men nurturing children and parents and friends in moments of crisis.
One of the best elements of this film for teaching purposes has nothing to do with the film itself. Lajee Center has a thriving media production unit, to which some of the “stars” of Degrees of Incarceration have contributed. After viewing the documentary, students can listen to podcasts about the day when one of the youth featured in the film was shot at close range by an Israeli private contractor working on the wall, or about the time when one of the young dancers was shot from one of the watchtowers embedded in the wall. Students can hear a young woman from the dabka dance troupe describe how she feels free only when she dances, or listen to a girl narrate her dream of going to Jerusalem. Youth have also done a great deal of photography work about the camp and about the villages from which their families came. The study guide available from the film’s website provides links to these resources and more.
Thanks to prisoners’ protests and high-profile prisoner exchanges, the issue of Palestinian political prisoners is finally receiving some more attention, but it is not, unfortunately, on the cusp of resolution. In the film, we see that in Aida Camp, experiences of violence and incarceration are so mundane as to have become part of the texture of everyday life alongside moments of relief and joy. These experiences may be contemplated through tears, matter-of-fact political analysis, or dark laughter. Ethnographic documentary made over many years and in close collaboration with community members is an effective medium through which to explore the complexity of such experiences.
[For more information on Degrees of Incarceration, to order a copy of the film, or to arrange for a screening, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.]