The American filmmakers knew they were taking risks. They couldn’t expect to smuggle Israelis-passing-as-Americans in and out of the West Bank—not to mention pointing a camera at everything while they were there—without facing any consequences. So when they pulled their car full of women off the road in Nablus to film a b-roll shot, and looked up to see a man walking toward them with a machine gun, they kind of panicked.
As director Jen Heck recalls, “I thought to myself: Tonight is the night I’m going to jail in a Palestinian prison.”
One of the women, a Palestinian named Lina Qadri, talked privately to the armed man, and ultimately, he let them pass. But the scare made the filmmaker realize that their idea to film Palestinian and Israeli women getting to know each other was attracting too much attention. Lina, in particular, was “the most vulnerable person in the movie, just by virtue of the fact that she hung out with us,” Heck recalls. The camera made them even more conspicuous. And just like that, Heck concocted the perfect cover story: Let’s form a band. Throw in some props like guitars and percussion instruments, and the women would look “weird, but not scary.”
The filmed result is what happens when a director spends four years trying to get a Palestinian mother of three, an Orthodox rabbi, a “pretty Zionist” former IDF soldier, and some Israeli lesbians into the same room to play some music together, on camera.
They call it The Promised Band. It premieres at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose. (Editors’ update: the film won the festival award for best documentary.)
This new, feminist documentary that views Israel and the West Bank through the eyes of Heck, the “clueless” American, as she makes friends on both sides of the border and attempts to bring them together to record a song. “I am not religious at all,” says Heck, “just a random Catholic girl from Massachusetts.” Through a series of unexpected events, “I found myself in this place where I never really thought I would go.” The film’s key producer, journalist and UC Berkeley alum Maria De La O, remembers how daunting the idea of making an Israeli/Palestine documentary was from the beginning. “Everyone immediately asked, ‘What’s your take?’ ‘What side are you on?’ ‘What authority do you have to something like this?’ We knew that the best way to do it was to be honest—obviously you should be honest in a documentary, but I guess honest in a way you aren’t used to seeing.”
“We knew we couldn’t do this without putting ourselves in it,” explains De La O, noting that the film reflects strains of Heck’s background as a producer and director for shows like Teen Mom, Secretly Pregnant, and House Hunters. “It’s documentary, but it has reality TV elements,” she says. “It’s not your traditional 1970’s documentary.”
Heck and De La O originally set out to make an adventure film about Mount Everest, traveling to Nepal in 2008. Says De La O, “I love those cheesy glaciers-are-falling-on-you type of things.” But while there, Heck befriended a Palestinian mountain climber and peace activist named Mostafa Salameh, piquing her interest in the West Bank.
“This film happened in the way I guess a lot of films do, where you find yourself in a situation where you have access to a particular story you are intrigued by,” says Heck. “I had a couple of personal relationships that took me to Israel and Palestine. It felt like the universe was telling me to do this.” De La O admits that her first answer to filming in Israel and Palestine was “No way, no way!” but eventually, she gave in. “ I didn’t want Jen to go there by herself,” she acknowledges with a laugh.
Their first trip there was in March of 2011. “At first we were terrified,” De La O says. “We being, I guess, typical Americans, didn’t know anything.” She remembers standing in front of Jaffa Gate, one of the entrances into East Jerusalem’s Old City, thinking “What will happen if we step foot in the West Bank?” They hopped in a taxi that took them over the Green Line, past the separation barrier–“The Wall”– and through the checkpoint at Qalandiya to Ramallah, a city just north of Jerusalem. There they met with Lina.
“We had no idea of how things were,” says De La O. “I had my images of people fighting, people being blown up, people being abused by soldiers, all of those things that the news goes for, but it’s not really the day to day existence of people. And the day to day existence to us was more shocking than that, than the violence.”
Both Heck and De La O were surprised at the confusion, misinformation, and disconnect they came across on both sides of the border. “Nobody seemed to know the rules,” about who could go where or what types of permits were needed for filming. “We tried to get permission to film, but it wasn’t happening so we just went,” says De La O. “We just said we were tourists.”
To call navigating one’s way through Israel and Palestine “complicated” is an understatement. The pre-1967 border between the West Bank and Israel is commonly referred to as the Green Line, but inside of that line and surrounding the West Bank runs a combination of fencing and a 25-feet-high concrete separation wall, which Israel began building in April of 2002. The West Bank itself is divided into Areas A (Palestinian-controlled), B (Palestinian/Israeli-controlled), and C (Israeli-controlled). In late 2000, the Israeli Defense Forces made it illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Palestinian-controlled Area A, which includes Ramallah and Lina’s city of Nablus. Movement for Palestinians both inside of the West Bank and between the West Bank and Israel is restricted by an estimated 96 fortified checkpoints strategically placed throughout the West Bank. Israel issues different types of identification cards to Palestinians–as a Palestinian from inside the West Bank, Lina had a green ID, which meant she could not enter Israel or even East Jerusalem without applying for a special army-issued permit, which can be difficult to obtain.
Because Lina was unable to enter Israel, Heck’s challenge was to convince her Israeli participants to go into the West Bank and meet her there. The first to agree was Shlomit Ravid, a woman who, despite growing up in Israel and traveling around the world, had never even seen the Wall. “I’ve never talked to a Palestinian before,” she says in the film. “Nobody knows what’s going on there. Ignoring the situation is the real danger for Israel, and for all of us.”
After a few successful visits to the West Bank, their fear of crossing over began to fade. “Everybody was incredibly friendly, nothing like what we’d been told to expect,” says Heck. “I didn’t feel danger at all. Ramallah is very cosmopolitan. We went with Lina one night to a bar, and it might as well have been a bar in Brooklyn. That was kind of funny.” De La O adds that “Looking at the news you’d think that everyone is poor, and throws rocks, but it’s like everywhere. Some people have more, some people have less.”
The film also reveals some painfully awkward moments when all of the women finally meet for the first time in Lina’s house. Heck says that the band rehearsals gave women a purpose and “something to talk about other than the elephant in the room…The joke of the band itself was something people really bonded on. But everybody knew what we were really doing.”
“One thing I noticed about being in Israel and in Palestine is that the system is designed so that you don’t have to look people in the eye. And when you do look people in the eye there’s a scariness to how much you recognize of yourself,” says Heck (in her Filmmaker Intro to Cinequest’s trailer for the film.) “I don’t think it’s coincidence that the band members that stick together, the people that make the final song, are all women. It’s easier for women to talk to each other.”
Heck and De La O both think that their naive “outsiderness” helped the film. “This was the one place I thought was too confusing for me to get involved in. (But) I think that because I was such an outsider, people really wanted to tell me their side of the story.” says Heck. “I would ask a lot of questions without having a lot of baggage attached to them–not that I didn’t have any preconceived notions before going there, but I looked for the “why” and was very open to trying to understand what their fears were, what their motivations were.”
By the end of filming, Heck had become very close to all of the women, which she describes as being “one of the best things about making the film and also one of the hardest things…I think everyone came to care about each other and to trust each other and that’s a big part of the reason why any of this was possible.” But in the editing room, Heck struggled with her competing roles as a filmmaker, journalist, and friend. “The lines are definitely blurred at times.…On the filmmaker’s side, you don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but you still have to tell the story.” She was grateful to have De La O to bounce ideas off of and argue with. “I’m way too soft,” she laughs. “Maria was the tough journalist, and I was the person who’d do the relationship thing. She operates in a completely different way.”
De La O had never produced a film before, and admits that she’s “kind of learning on the job,” but years of experience as a freelance journalist and managing editor for various San Francisco magazines helped prepare her. “Managing editor is a lot like being a film producer—the person who understands the creative side, and can do the creative side, but who is also very detail and deadline oriented, and who can pull you out of the bar, put you in front of the computer and get you working….the person who says ‘No, we can’t pay for that’ and the person who has the heart attack so you don’t have to.”
Ultimately, Heck says that The Promised Band “is a story of what it looks like when women are in charge,” where despite their physical and social barriers, they come together and meet face to face.
De La O ponders whether she expects anything to change from the film. “Not really. At least it may open some people’s hearts,” she says. “Somebody may learn something they didn’t know before…Clearly what is going on right now is not working. I’ve always believed that as Americans, one thing we do really well is media. I think that’s one way we can get things to change, is through pop culture.” She pauses, laughs and asks: “Is that silly?”