Apples of the Golan. Directed by Jill Beardsworth and Keith Walsh. Austria/Ireland/Syria, 2012.
A man places four apples on the ground in a rectangle. He paces back and forth between them. “The cell was seventy centimeters by 1.8 meters. I was sleeping with no mattress…twenty-four hours in darkness. I was there for seventy-three days.” He describes his torture: he was placed, exposed, in a tire, and lashed with a cable. He was lifted by his arms and tied up with ropes, left to support his body weight on the tips of his toes for hours at a time. Other prisoners had their entire bodies covered in cigarette burns.
Since what we are seeing is set in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the viewer is led to believe the subject is describing his time in Israeli prisons. But Apples of the Golan is a film that undercuts the viewer’s expectations with each scene. While the scenes in which he describes his torments are explicitly cut so as not to reveal to us whose prison he was in, viewers familiar with “al-falqa” and “tashbeeh” (torture techniques used in Syrian prisons) become privy to the secret sooner. The interviewee, a Syrian Druze from the Golan Heights, is in fact describing his time spent in a Syrian prison as punishment for escaping across the closed borders in search of his beloved, who had left to Damascus. If this is a surprise to the viewer, it was no less of a surprise to him. “I expected to be interrogated, but the first question they asked me was, “Why did Mossad send you here?…They took me and we went downstairs…and to my surprise they started torturing me.” In this scene, and throughout the film, we are continually pulled in different directions as the complexity of a society is revealed, with each character contradicting others in ways that are sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring.
The characters throughout the film are slowly placed into dialogue with each other, at first in an unclear, disjointed way. The film uses a complex, achronological time order, which prioritizes dialogue over sequence, and very effectively highlights the complexities and ambiguities of life in the Golan Heights. We revisit the same core characters throughout the film, at different points, with their conversations spliced and rearranged, in a way that eventually creates a conversation between them. But within each scene, each interlocutor is left to present her perspective on her own terms; most people are interviewed by themselves in their own home or work environments. In the beginning of the film, the viewer may not even realize that a given topic has a great deal more controversy around it than one interlocutor articulates until someone with a contrasting perspective readdresses the topic much later in the film. The interviewees are never brought into actual face-to-face conversations, but through the unfolding of the film, the presence of a larger dialogue between becomes increasingly explicit, as more perspectives and interviewees fill in the gaps, or completely overturn previous explanations.
For example, we also meet a mother, Fauzia Ali Khatar Zahwy, whose son Assem Abd Wili was imprisoned for twenty-seven years in Israeli prisons. He is released during the course of the film. Throughout his stay in prison, his mother keeps his clothes carefully hung in a closet, exactly as they were the day he left. Every fifteen days, she goes to visit him.
All the footage included in the film is from between September 2007 and July 2012, largely in the community of Majdal al-Shams. Through the course of the filming, its subjects, Golan Heights’ residents, found themselves trapped and involved no longer within just one conflict—the Israeli occupation of Syrian lands—but two, as the uprising against the Syrian regime came to the political fore.
Apples of the Golan does an admirable job of attempting to grapple with both. Israel took control of the Golan Heights during the June 1967 war, and it remains occupied to this day. Over one hundred and thirty thousand Syrians were forcibly displaced from the Golan Heights. Some twenty-two thousand Syrians remained, most of them Druze. Currently, there are also an estimated twenty thousand Israeli settlers in the mountainous region, who increasingly dominate the region’s cultivatable land and water resources. The 2011 uprising against the Syrian regime might seem disconnected from the Golan Heights, which is no longer under its formal control. Indeed, while the filmmakers Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth filmed in the area for five years, they purposefully chose not to travel across the Syrian border in order not to break with the reality of the Golani experience, in which the few instances of passing to the other side of the border are for Golanis, for the most part, journeys into the unknown.
Interestingly, the most moving scenes in the film are those of “crossing over” at the border, done very rarely in the case of cross-border marriages, Druze pilgrimages, or Golani youth leaving for university on the other side of the border. People weep at the borders as families are separated or just temporarily reunited—often never knowing if they will see each other again.
Weddings between Syrians across the border often offer a short window for families to come together in-between the Syrian and Israeli checkpoints. One Golani bride, wearing her full wedding attire must undertake a border crossing with a full bureaucratic change of status before she can meet her groom. As she and her mother sit clutching their bouquets of white roses, the border guard explains that he will be taking her ID and giving her Syrian residency, and “there are no visits” back across the border. She and her family are let across the checkpoint crowded by soldiers, and brought into a fenced-in paved area on the other side of the gate. Family and friends across the border approach singing wedding songs but the mood quickly changes as family members see each other and began running, embracing in tears and weeping as the border patrols watch on from a distance.
Despite this abject isolation from the rest of Syria, conflicting positions on the regime reach deeply into the community of Majdal al-Shams, where an exaggerated version of the familiar generational divide around the Syrian uprising seems to exist. In one scene, an older man unravels an enormous banner of the Syrian flag across the length of his house, passing through two rooms. In another scene, he stands with school children at a lookout point, inculcating them with his perspectives on the current events in Syria. “Over there,” he says, pointing across the border, “there are weak-willed people who accuse the President of killing his own people. This is a lie. All the Syrian people love him.”
Apples form a focal part of Golani identity. The steadfast apple orchards constitute the Golanis’ roots to their land, so to speak. Throughout scenes of the film, apples form a backdrop in all their stages of production, as they are sowed, harvested, exported, and eaten. Since 2005, the only trade between the Golan and other Syrian communities is through the export of apples, which is facilitated by the Red Cross. Syria pays better prices than Israel for these occasional shipments, which pass through Quneitra Crossing. Apples are one of the few ways the Golan stays connected to Syria in a tangible way. They are also a talking point for Golanis to define themselves as a region within Syria, distinctive from other regions whose climates are not as favorable to the cultivation of apples. It is thus no surprise that they are also a source of distinction from the Israeli settlers nearby.
The Golani sense of “belonging to the land” is strongly articulated through the planting and cultivation of apple orchards. At times, such articulation even takes a much more explicitly nationalist form, folding in the symbolism of state emblems. For the older generation especially, the unfurling of Syrian national banners serve as an articulation of defiance of resistance to Israeli rule and forced severing from the rest of their country. Though the filmmakers never venture across to the rest of Syria for the course of the film, there is a peek into the reciprocity of this sense of comraderie by Syrians across the border in a scene where Syrian protesters try to cross into Majdal al-Shams on the 2011 anniversary of the 1967 Naksa, and are pushed back by Israeli fire. We meet a farmer in the Golan who slices open an apple down the middle. He counts the seeds: “One, two, three, four, five.” He goes on to explain the significance, making a connection to the Syrian national flag, which has a strong presence throughout the film: “Strangely, in the Jewish settlements, there are six seeds. The Syrian flag has a five-pointed star, and the Israeli flag has a six-pointed star.” Much later, the filmmakers meet an Israeli farmer on an illegal settlement. They ask him to slice open an apple, revealing five seeds inside.
However, the film also introduces young people with a less nostalgic relationship to a country they are a generation removed from. One young man declares: “the Syrians, who we are originally from, forgot about us....If they wanted to free us, they would have done it a long time ago.“ They describe an antagonistic relationship to the Israeli occupation, but they do not articulate it in their parents’ rigid language of Syrian Arab nationalism, depicted through marches in the street carrying Syrian flags and pictures of Bashar al-Assad. Rather, many of them choose to describe life under occupation through music—in particular, rap music: “Between me and my country, fifty meters to the east, every meter inside my heart, burns and desires,” one lyric declares, but continues, “all the Arab money does not bring us freedom, or any hope that we will see victory.” Even though the occupation “makes everything incomplete, everything has a limit,” Golani youth throughout the film hardly seem different than their counterparts anywhere else in the world. Despite the exceptional political situation they live in, they skateboard, dance, form rock bands in their cramped bedrooms, and make fun of their parents’ outdated values. Two of the main youths in the film drive aimlessly around the town at night, smoking cigarettes and, with a Golani twist, eating apples while listening to Arabic rap music about Damascus.
It is interesting to note that throughout all these discussions about Arab and Syrian identities, none of the film’s Golani interlocutors ever bring up their Arab neighbors under Israeli occupation, the Palestinians. The absence from the film is striking: it’s difficult to imagine that the residents of Majdal al-Shams do not define their identities in relation to Palestinians – whether in contrast or affiliation. Many of the daily struggles articulated by the Golanis in the film are the same as those of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza: the usurping of water and other natural resources by encroaching settlements, severe limitations on freedom of movement, and even shared prison cells. The question of Palestine’s absence from the film looms in the background, though it is never clear whether this is attributable to the interlocuters or a choice on the part of the filmmakers themselves. On a similar note, female interviewees seem to be somewhat underrepresented in the film, in contrast to the diversity of perspectives otherwise.
Apples of the Golan tries to show the many contested identities and narratives in the Golan; as a result, we can only catch a glimpse of each aspect. The film makes no claims to be deep study of any one particular issue or aspect of life in the Golan Heights. But it is worth watching, as a nuanced and sensitive sampling of life in a deeply contested slice of land whose intricacies are paradoxically unknown across both its East and West borders.
*Editor`s note: Apples of the Golan will be released online through the film`s website in March.