“That a 17-year-old boy who’s supposed to be naïve and dreamy can’t tell you what peace means is this country’s problem.” The boy making this observation appears to be the very picture of “naïve and dreamy”, and yet, as he tells his interviewer that he’s “kind of forgotten what [peace] is,” his melancholy half smile and glance off-screen hint at the varieties of weight he carries.
Such weight is the focus of This is My Land, Tamara Erde’s contemplation of a series of six schools in Palestine and Israel, an effort to trace the effects of education on self-image, national identity, and the many meanings of land. The boy’s self-reflection comes near film’s end, when you might believe that his education, at non-governmental mixed school in the cooperative village Neve Shalom, also called Wāħat as-Salām, might have offered more hope, or at least more of a sense of possibility, than others. But as he remembers his late grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who “felt safe” in Israel, who believed in “peace and dialogue”, the boy can only “hope it will be good herein the end.”
As the film — screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival — presents it, Neve Shalom offers one path toward fulfilling that hope, at least in theory. The students discuss history and politics with two teachers, the Israeli and a Palestinian, Hezi Shuster. “It’s very important that no one feels like a minority,” explains principal Raida Aiashe-Katib, identified as a “Palestinian in Israel”. Jewish and Arab students gather for discussion, pondering what the word “homeland” might mean. The kids note that they bring different languages, backgrounds, and expectations to their classroom, as Hezi’s Israeli colleague suggests that knowing both languages might be a path to working for the Israeli Intelligence Services, when on of the students says her other told her she should “learn lots of Arabic” because such a job “pays really well”. The students laugh, the camera offers brief looks at a range of their young faces, open and at ease with one another.
You might pick up the darker nuances of that story, that working for the Intelligence Services isn’t exactly a means to peace and dialogue. Still, Raida insists in her interview, “We live together and study, we come together to learn about each other.” In that moment in the classroom, the children so comfortable with one another, you might share that hope. This despite more than because of the other schools This is My Land visits, where students learn to feel dread and distrust. At the Hareali Israeli national school in Haifa, high school students in Oren Harzman’s class lament “living in constant fear.” Seated in a half circle, boys fall silent, unable to get past this sentiment, before the camera cuts to Harzman, who observes, “Reality isn’t easy in this country.”
Surely not, especially as any reality is constructed according to where you live. The land that may or may not be yours remains contested, possessed, settled, and occupied, redefined and seemingly perpetually under attack. Harzman asks his students to wonder about “the main question [of our lives] from a moral point of view,” the “huge problem of occupation”. How to have the land you might claim? Is massacre a reasonable or even a practical answer? How to make a land out of land where others already live? How can Zionism be managed without violence?
In his Palestinian classroom, the writer Ziad Khadash tries to bring innovative teaching methods to his classroom, wearied by 17 years of “monotony, the weight of time, the routine, the harsh regulations imposed on teachers.” As he speaks, you see his students in an exercise, tape across their mouths, imagining what it’s like not to be able to speak. “What is freedom?” he asks them. The kids offer abstractions, and he tosses a table to the floor, worrying them with the noise and aggression. “Freedom stops,” he declares, “Where other people’s freedom begins.”
Freedom might also end in the face of fear, where efforts to control land as identity supersede efforts to see others as you might see yourself.
And what if you can’t see yourself reflected in a national mirror, if you have no land by definition? Teaching at the Jaber Unrwa Boys School Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, Noor Jaber observes the lines she does her best not to cross, the discussions she avoids in the classroom. But even as she might dodge subjects “that make me feel uncomfortable”, her students, she says, “also learn indirectly from my way of being. I don’t feel I am forbidden to speak, but anything to do with a flag, with politics, I don’t touch it.” Then her students go home, where they might listen to their family and friends and worry about what happens the next day.
In observing these many experiences, as children are trained and identified by adults, This Is My Land doesn’t connect them or even offer explanations so much as it presents them for your contemplation, poetic and chilling. Between schools, Erde drives, her camera pointed out the window or the windshield to show long stretches of green, walls, hilly streets, all different aspects of the “land,” whether cultivated or broken, populated or empty. All the land goes on, of course, and none of it can be aware that it belongs to anyone. The land can’t be naïve and dreamy, though you might project your own ideas onto it. And that’s what education does, daily, whether in a classroom or in an apartment or on a street. Children learn, and so they become adults.