Two Irish film-makers, Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth, spent five years among the people of the village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied, Syrian Golan Heights to make their powerful film.
Majdal Shams is situated close to the so-called ceasefire line between Syria and Israel. It is one of five remaining Arab villages, a leafy, quiet place, with a history of invasion going back centuries. It is largely reliant on its apple farms for its economy.
Before the Israeli occupation which occurred during the Six Day War of 1967, there were 139 such Arab villages. These villages are now mostly destroyed. 22,000 Arabs of the Druze sect remain under Israeli control. There are also 41 Israeli settlements, containing some 19,000 inhabitants.
In 1982, in violation of a UN resolution, Israel annexed the Golan, forcing Israeli citizenship on the Arab residents. Many refused to accept this, their status classed as "undefined". In the course of this resonant, brilliantly-paced film, a young male student declares that because he was born after the annexation, he doesn’t consider himself Syrian or Israeli. In other words, he feels as "undefined" as the bureaucratic parlance would have him be.
Since 2005, the Red Cross has facilitated the transport and trade of apples from the Golan into Syria. The guy who is loading the apples cannot go to Syria, but the apples can, he wryly observes.
Family members were separated during the Golan upheaval and the pain of such separation continues to this day. The film shows the citizens of Majdal Shams shouting through megaphones to friends and relatives on the Syrian side.
There is a wedding, but the young bride can hardly smile, as she says goodbye to her siblings and hugs her dejected mother. As a bride, she cannot freely return to the Golan once she has crossed the border to live with her husband in Syria. The seeming inflexibility of this travel ban is hard to understand, casting as it does a real shadow on what should be the happiest day in the young woman’s life.
The film uses such human trauma as its flash points, as it were, while otherwise letting the inhabitants talk unmediated to the camera. Many of the contributors have a certain resignation and restraint. Others have chosen the militant path.
A man introduces himself as the last shepherd on the mountain. He has the air of a loner, like many of the older men in the film. “The most beautiful thing in life is freedom,” he says. “Life is freedom. But for us there is no freedom. You don’t have the freedom to do what you want.”
A mountain shepherd would have a keen sense of boundaries. He talks of his paths being blocked to the East and North. "The farthest you can go is towards the West," he says, wearied by a sense of imprisonment.
The terms of the Israeli annexation also forbids married women who have moved to the Golan from returning freely to their original home. “I want to pass, I haven’t seen my family for 10 years," a woman cries, almost hysterical at the border checkpoint. “I want to see my father before they bury him.”
Having been informed of her father's grave illness, it is likely that she did not have adequate time to go through the process of seeking a permit. It is an utterly desolate moment, her husband tries to calm his wife, the Israeli soldiers gently restrain her.
It’s hard to discern how the soldiers feel about the woman’s approach, and her eventual her backing off at this sole crossing point into Syria. Maybe they hate this part of their job, they certainly must feel uneasy about the filming. There is frenetic movement but there is too an air of paralysis, of terrible failure.
Yet after all that, the woman in question did get to visit her family three days after her father's death, the day on which he must be buried, according to custom. And Keith and Jill were there to record the small mercy of her walking through the border.
Apples of the Golan opens at the IFI and a number of other cinemas.