(Daoud Kuttab) - Torture is an ugly act. Prisoners throughout history have always suffered the deep psychological scars
that have continued to haunt them for years after facing the interrogators’ torture.
Raed Andoni was one of them.
In 1985, at 18 years old, he was arrested and taken from his Bethlehem area home by Israeli soldiers. He was blindfolded and thrown into Al-Mascobia detention center in Jerusalem. His charge was that he belonged to one of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) factions.
He was not able to see the facility where he was held. The only thing he was able to see was the sneakers of his tormentor. During the entire interrogation period Raed’s mind was racing. Like so many prisoners in similar situations he tried to keep his mind away from the pressures he was under by triggering other more pleasant images. After the blindfolded interrogation in Al-Mascobia in Jerusalem, Andoni was transferred to various Israeli jails.
“I was taken to the Israeli prison in Hebron, then to Kfar Yona north of Israel and finally I was dumped in the Nafha prison in the Negev.”
The entire interrogation and prison term lasted a year but the memories continue.
Andoni never went to film school, but he has always loved movies. He set up a small video studio in his home in Beit Sahour (the Biblical Shepherds field) near Bethlehem and quickly became involved in filming, editing and animation. Around 2000, he set up a production company appropriately named Star 2000. His production and editing experience allowed his company to win a tender to provide production services to Al-Quds University’s Institute of Modern Media, which was producing “Sha’a Simsim,” the Palestinian version of Sesame Street.
The more he learned about film and animation the more he wanted to be in the driver’s seat as a creative storyteller articulating the Palestinian narrative. He established Dar Films in Ramallah and produced a number of documentaries including “Improvisation,” a film about three Palestinian musical brothers from the Jubran family in Nazareth. Another film allowed him and his audience to travel from Nazareth to Ramallah and capture the huge gap between Israel and Palestine.
He took storytelling a step further when he conducted 20 sessions with the Palestinian psychologist Dr. Fathi Fleifel. He used the interviews to write and produce “Fix ME,” his first feature film that opened in 2009. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and the Festival de Cannes and released in European cinemas. It won several prizes, including the SCAM award for Best Documentary of the Year and the Tanit d’Or for Best Documentary at the Carthage Film Festival in 2010.
“All these projects helped me develop my own cinematic language,” Andoni told Arab News by phone from his home in Paris. “Waiting 25 years also allowed me to mature and better reflect on my own experience. I was able to take all these personal and creative experiences to a much bigger step forward.”
His latest effort, an award-winning documentary, “Ghost Hunting,” won the documentary film prize in this year’s Berlin International Film Festival on Feb. 18. The film allowed him an opportunity to carry out a deeper, inner search of his own mind as well as examine the ghosts of fellow former prisoners.
Andoni said that he, like almost everyone he knows, has had his own trauma. His statement is a reference to the fact that according to Addameer Prisoners Support and Human Rights Organization four out of 10 Palestinians have spent time in Israeli jail.
Andoni admits that the film he wanted to produce “Istyad Ashbah” (“Ghost Haunting”) was a complicated project.
“The film deals with an intangible issue of what goes in your own mind. It needed courage and creativity to turn this intangible issue into a cinematic production,” Andoni said.
He said “Fix ME” opened Andoni to the study and reflection of the multi-layered human mind. But the Palestinian filmmaker knew that he needed something more proactive to loosen up images and thoughts that had been laying dormant for years. He decided on a physical act that could help trigger the subconscious. And he needed to do all of this in a creative visual way.
He decided to rent an open parking lot in Ramallah and made a casting call to former Palestinian prisoners who were held at the same notorious prison that Andoni was first held.
“The casting call had a condition,” said Andoni. “It required that those auditioning for the film had to have been held at Al-Mascobi prison and to have building construction experience.”
Andoni wanted former prisoners help with the film’s project design.
“I wanted the prisoners who were blindfolded at Al-Mascobia prison to be pushed to try and imagine what the prison looked like,” he said.
Andoni’s goal was that by jarring their memories to remember the location of corridors, walls and rooms, he could get them to come to terms with their own memories and hopefully conquer their own ghosts.
Andoni used a series of methods to tell the story. In addition to straightforward interviews with former prisoners, he also included actors reenacting interrogation scenes. He also used animation techniques to help present the complexity of issues that he needed to convey.
“While we used different cinematic languages, we were careful to have a unified single narrative,” he said. “This is what made the film full of energy, anger and sarcasm, but in the end it has scenes of happiness as the film subjects got all their anger out and they (started) talking about love and children.”
In receiving the top documentary award at the Berlin festival Andoni refrained from personal glorification.
“I know that the honor of the Berlin festival is an honor to the art in the film but at the same time I know that this art is the result of collective effort,” he said. “I want this film to be the narrative to those in the dark who no one hears of.”
British film director Ken Loach praised “Ghost Hunting.”
“This is a daring and shocking film, made with fine cinematic judgment,” Loach said. “It leaves the audience with a challenge: What do we do in the face of such illegal brutality? Sooner or later the world will have to wake up to this cruel injustice. Raed Andoni, through his talent and commitment, brings that day closer."
Reflecting on the long-term goals of the film, Andoni goes back to the emotional aim of the project.
“The building of the prison allowed us to be released from our own prisons, I hope it can liberate people from the jail within them,” he said. “Many Palestinians did not see the prison they were held in because their eyes were covered. By forcing them to confront their past, hopefully those watching the film will be able to conquer their own ghosts.”