Drying Up Palestine
a documentary film by Rima Essa and Peter Snowdon
A portrait of the stresses and strains imposed on Palestinian society by Israel’s almost total control over access to water and sewage facilities in the West Bank, told in the words of ordinary people. A compelling picture of the impact of military occupation on everyday life.
In 2003, I was invited by friends who worked in the Department of Engineering at Newcastle University in the UK to make a film about a technical assistance project, SUSMAQ, they were working on with the Palestinian Authority. Their goal was to produce an independent estimate of the water resources that would be available to an independent Palestinian state, and they wanted a film that would present their conclusions to a wider public. The research project itself was a direct product of the optimism (and European financing) that had been generated by the Olso Accords. However, by this point, that optimism had already entered a terminal decline, and the Second Intifada was making the contradictions on which it had been founded visible for all who wished to see.
Shortly after I agreed to take this work on, I chanced to meet the Palestinian filmmaker Rima Essa while she was in Brussels to screen her film Ashes. A five-minute conversation in the lobby of the Flagey arts centre turned out to be the beginning of a long friendship, which led us to spend over a year collaborating on the making of Drying Up Palestine.
The production history of the film became unneccesarily complicated (and - necessarily - politicised) following changes in policy at DfID, the UK ministry that was funding SUSMAQ, while we were still in the middle of editing. In the end, the only way to resolve this was to make two films: one for the University, setting out the technical details of their work; and one for use by the Palestinian Authority, presenting their negotiating position. Drying Up Palestine is the second of these, and was produced for the PA by the Palestinian NGO House of Water and Environment, established by Newcastle researcher Dr Amjad Aliewi.
Our work on the film was supported throughout by the many friends we made while travelling around the West Bank, and by our colleagues and friends in Ramallah, where I lived for four months at the end of 2003. I am grateful to all those who went the extra mile to make my stay there so enriching and, often, so simply enjoyable: Sayel Sawaftir, Abdul-Latif Khader, Suad Abu Kamleh, Janet Foyle, Sarah El-Jarushi, Nadia Abu Zahra and Pierre-Georges Jacques. Extra-special thanks to Ibrahim Kreishi and Clemens Messerschmidt for long-term hospitality, and to everyone in the Newcastle University field office. Clemens’ work, in particular, played a key role in orienting our filming, and leading us to many crucial encounters, both geological and human. Raed Andoni (Star 2000) and Zahran Jaghab (SAMA Productions) provided location video facilities and staunch sympathy. The late Adah and Tom Kay, then resident in Ramallah, were a tower of strength and a model of intelligence for all who had the good luck to know them: this film is dedicated, retrospectively, to their memory.
Drying Up Palestine, as it exists today, is not the film we set out to make, and its present, somewhat unsatisfactory form reflects the compromises and cross-purposes that so often bedevil commissioned audiovisual work. Nevertheless, it is a film we can continue to stand by politically, if not aesthetically or formally.
This same period of work generated the material for two other, more personal films, which were completed later, and in both of which Rima plays a significant role in front of the camera, tho I am solely responsible for the outcome: two thousand walls (a song for Jayyous) and Walking Through Paradise. These can be considered a kind of indirect “making of” for Drying Up Palestine - or rather, for the film we wanted to make, but did not.
Filmed and edited by Rima Essa and Peter Snowdon.
Editorial advice: Matthieu Haessler.
Sound mix: Thomas Grimm-Landsberg and Ludovic van Pachterbeke.
Produced by Gourna Films for House of Water and Environment (Ramallah).
2007, 28 minutes, DV, 4:3, mono.