“Soon after her mother is released from jail, Walaa decides she wants to train to be one of the few women on the Palestinian Security Forces – a big challenge for a girl who breaks all the rules.” — Director Christy Garland on WHAT WALAA WANTS which screens at the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival.
I hear you are back this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favorite aspects of the city.
I had a short fiction comedy called Dual Citizen in VIFF nearly 17 years ago, but didn’t get to attend, so I’m very excited to be coming to VIFF this time around. Vancouver is a sexy city! Amazing bars and restaurants, lots of green space and close proximity to nature. Also I was born on a (now decommissioned) air force base in Holberg, on Vancouver Island, so it feels like I’m getting closer to my roots when I’m in Vancouver.
So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.
After graduating from film school, I got my first job on The Kids in the Hall as a production assistant, and that led to work as an A.D. on many American features and television shows shooting in Toronto at the time – it was like masters film school for me. Throughout, i continued to make short films before moving on to documentary. Before What Walaa Wants, I made Cheer Up, a Finnish Canadian co-production about the worst (and saddest) cheerleading team in Finland, and before that I made The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song, which, like Walaa, was a Danish-Canadian co-production.
How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!
I met Walaa in 2012 while I was in the West Bank looking for a different film that didn’t pan out, and as soon as I met her I knew I had to make a film about her. She was strong-willed, charming, and conflicted but ultimately determined to control her own life, and I was curious to know what she’d do with all that energy. I shot 10 times over nearly 6 years, as I followed alongside Walaa on this roller coaster of a journey from Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, to boot camp in Jericho as she struggles to become a police woman, then back to Balata for the most surprising twists in the story.
I was a one person crew, which was necessary for the intimacy we have with Walaa, her family and the Palestinian Security Forces who granted me access to the PSF – the very first time a camera has been allowed there.
From an early stage I had an amazing collaborator on this film, Ekram Zubaydi, who works at the Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy. I wouldn’t have been able to make the film without her, she translated, fixed and negotiated us in and out of a million tight spots. She had her head completely inside the film, believed in the story we were telling and made sure I rolled the camera if I was missing something. Walaa, her family and the PSF trusted Ekram, and so they trusted me.
As with all documentaries, you’re funding as you make the film; I continuously pitched the project with Danish co-producer Anne Köhncke at IDFA, Venice, Sheffield and Hot Docs. Matt Code produced the film in Canada and the National Film Board of Canada (Justine Pimlott) was supportive from an early stage. Along the way, we were lucky to get support from the Danish Film Institute, Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, Doha Film Institute and Ontario Creates, among others.
As a Danish co-production, the film was edited in Copenhagen with a masterful editor named Michael Aaglund, after being assembled in Canada with Graeme Ring. We were thrilled, but shocked when we were invited to premiere at the Berlinale and that led to a bit of a rush, and all kinds of crazy adventures, including me overstaying my time in the European Schengen zone, so the picture was locked by skype, as was the sound mix! But the premiere was wonderful and the film continues to surprise us as it has made its way around.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
I make films that follow real people going through a tumultuous moment in their lives, often over years, with an observational style which is obviously quite intrusive. By trusting me they are telling their story with me in a significant way. It’s a very privileged and special sort of collaboration, so the responsibility to finish what we started and the (terrifying) pressure to get it right keeps me going, along with my curiosity about how and when the story will end. Also, I’m always in a different country so I get a lot of energy from the challenges of navigating a completely foreign place that upsets my assumptions and constantly throws a wrench into every plan.
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
What I found most challenging with this project was not the shoot, as most people expect. Shooting on my own there, for the most part, was a very enjoyable experience because the people were so warm and welcoming and there was a lot to discover.
But that region is one of the most sensitive places on earth to bring a documentary camera, and it was very new to me.
I figured the one worthwhile thing I could offer with this film is a very close look at Walaa’s world, and to try to show it through her own eyes. But to tell her story honestly, the complexity and pressures of her environment and how they come to bear upon her story, needed to be accurately described, and that was the tricky part. There are so many contradictions, and her story raises so many political questions that could not possibly be addressed in one film. The challenge was to avoid oversimplification, bias and misrepresentation. So I focused on telling a strong story that simply and honestly presented those contradictions and complications, fostering enough empathy and love for Walaa to prompt audiences to look beyond the film for answers to the questions her story raises about what it is like to be a young woman with a drive for self-determination amid the pressures of the West Bank.
The premiere at the Berlinale, and sharing her story with Walaa there in attendance, was the reward, because she suddenly saw herself from a different perspective that I hope will positively affect her life and choices from now on. She certainly had quite an effect on my life, she taught me a lot.
I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie and how it was photographed.
I shot the film myself, starting with a Panasonic HVX200, Canon 5D, and finally Canon C300, with a mounted shotgun mic and a lavalier mic on Walaa at all times. The approach is observational cinema with an aim to capture events that unfold, so for much of the story that means the raw immediacy of handheld camera work you’d expect, and Walaa was a hard one to keep up with!
An intimate POV was the main thing, but I was also very inspired by the contrast in Walaa’s environments. The crowded, chaotic, fluorescent lit interiors of Balata Camp, which she yearns to escape in the first act (sometimes by sneaking out to ride horses) served the story well until when she goes to boot camp at the Police Academy. There, the architecture, the expansive blue Jericho night sky, the space and rigorous structure of her training perfectly framed a sense of potential for her, an environment we recognize as a normal, healthy learning environment, until she goes home to Balata Camp where she’s back to the kind of pressure she escaped for that short period of time.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Vancouver?
The audiences as always, each one in every city and country is different, and I hope people feel comfortable asking any and all questions, no matter how uncomfortable or provocative they might be. That’s why I made the film. And I couldn’t attend VIFF with my last film, so I’m very excited to experience a festival I’ve heard great things about for a long time.
After the film screens at Vancouver, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
The film will have a busy fall at several festivals in Europe and Canada, that haven’t yet announced and a US premiere at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York which I’m very excited about. Along with Walaa herself, I’ll be travelling to Doha, Qatar in November for the Middle Eastern premiere at the Ajyal Youth Film Festival.
What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?
Depends on where I am, but often an appalled, sustained look in their direction, as if they’re emitting the worst possible smell, does the trick. But in some countries, the cinema going habits are just different.
I once screened a film at an incredible soviet era cinema in Kiev, a full house with 750 seats. During the film, not only were people talking, texting and coming and going through a pair of heavy, creaking saloon-style doors, they were actually making phone calls during the film! In their defence it was unseasonably cold outside.
Film geeks might recognize this: to hear the best response ever to a person who texts during a movie, Google search “Alamo Drafthouse Texting” and watch the video. Brilliant!
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
I have answered this before but I think it’s the most important thing if we care about film as an art form, and that is to avoid cliché. No one has had exactly the same life experience as you, or sees the world as you do, and you’re throwing away your greatest strength if you try to make films like the ones you’ve seen.
I guess it depends on whether your goals are artistic or commercial, but I think the most worthwhile film, the one that will set you apart, is the kind that emerges when you follow your own instincts. I don’t mean you should avoid genres, or narrative conventions, or the necessary elements of a well told story – it has to be worth the audiences’ time and earn their interest, but figure out how to use them to channel your own instincts and be bold with your choices.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
A very important film for me is ROSETTA by the Dardennes!
For more information on the film screenings at VIFF, point your browser to www.viff.org!