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These Israeli And Palestinian Women Came Together To Make Music - And So Much More: BUST Interview

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Anyone who’s ever tried to get a band together knows what a hassle it can be to get musicians to commit to a schedule. Now imagine if you also have the added obstacles of seven decades of violent ideological conflict between your singer and members’ homelands, military checkpoints on the way to practice, religious taboos around music and gender, and—oops—the fact that some of your members never really learned an instrument.

American filmmaker Jen Heck decided to take on the nearly-impossible when she assembled a (mostly) female band of Israeli and Palestinian (sort of) musicians, the subject of her latest documentary, The Promised Band. The film premiered earlier this month at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, Calif., where it won both Best Documentary Feature and The Canon­Atomos Documentary Filmmaker Award.

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It’s clear early on that the “band” is really just a pretext for getting people together across borders, allowing international friendships to develop and grow, and examining the conflict from a side we rarely see. The idea came to her when she separately befriended a Palestinian woman named Lina and a group of queer Israeli women, and realized how much mutual curiosity they had about each other. Heck began illicitly bringing one of the Israeli women, Shlomit, to Lina’s hometown of Nablus, which lies in Area A, a region of Palestine off-limit to Israeli citizens. After a few close calls with border patrol, Heck realized she needed a cover story. As Lina and her teenage daughter are both musicians, and Jen is a former MTV producer, the band idea seemed like a plausible excuse.

After securing Lina and Shlomit, Heck began recruiting more people to join. There is Viki, a pianist, political science teacher and former Israeli army officer who describes herself as a Zionist. Then there is Alhan, an Arab-Israeli—a Palestinian woman living in Israel—who also happens to be Christian, and a musician. There is Noa, another queer Israeli woman, and finally Shimshon—an American rabbi from New Jersey who now lives in Israel, and adheres to an orthodox taboo against being in the presence of a woman singing. Throughout all their incongruent religious and political beliefs, Heck struggles to unite everyone through music, and give a human face to one of our era’s most enduring and publicized conflicts. I spoke to her about The Promised Band and her experiences.

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Your initial trips sneaking Shlomit into Palestine were just to satisfy her curiosity, correct?

Yes. I would go back and forth a lot and I would be with friends in Israel ... It was very, very common for people to say “Can I go with you?” and I would always say yes, and then they would always get afraid. They would always cancel on me, every single time. Until Shlomit. She had a very different situation because she had just been in China for a year or two and was a little less connected to the immediate politics of the moment.

Have you seen other films that attempted to do something similar, in showing how the conflict affects regular people in each country?

I feel like a thing that’s fairly common with this kind of movie, on this particular topic, is that people take a side. I certainly have my opinions, but I wanted to make this movie not so much to pick a side but to show that we have to all kind of be on the same side if we want to move forward. I felt incredibly frustrated by what I was experiencing... People seemed so similar and at the core of it really want the same things—that being security for their families, and just to have a chance to prosper and live their lives.

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What was the general attitude of Palestinians toward you as an American? Were they friendly?

Yeah, definitely. I had a lot of questions all the time. One thing with both Palestinians and Israelis that I found [was that] people were really willing to talk to me and be incredibly open because I wasn’t going in there with a specific agenda... People would try to convince me of how to see the world through their eyes, but in doing so they were very generous. It was kind of amazing. I felt like I had a front row seat to everything. And one day I would be with the [Israel Defense Forces] on the border of Gaza getting a tour and seeing missile damage and meeting people who had had their homes hit with a missile, and you get that perspective and take it in. And then the next day I would be in a refugee camp where it’s the complete flipside of that scenario. Old women who thought they were leaving their homes for two weeks in the ‘40s and still haven’t gotten home and refuse to leave the camp. They won’t go tot an apartment somewhere because they’re making a statement. And all kinds of stuff like that. It made me really think, "What does home mean?" because everyone’s talking about home and what it means.

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Do you think you were you naïve at all? Was that something you came across, that people were not receptive to your idea because you’re a foreigner, did they think you were in over your head?

Yes. I think probably everyone thought that. That’s pretty common. People liked me, and they didn’t think I was stupid, but I think what happens is that people from the outside come in and take a look at what’s happening and say, “I can fix this,” or “I want to fix this, here’s a suggestion,” ... [But] I just had way more questions than answers and I was able to let these other people connect and just watch what happened. That was my role.

I was fascinated by Shimshon, this American man who was by far the most conservative voice in a group of Middle Eastern women. Did you meet many men like him?

Yeah, that’s very common... I’ve definitely been in settlements and you hear people speaking in American accents all the time. ... There are entire communities in Jerusalem as well. There’s a neighborhood that’s the American neighborhood. So it’s definitely common. And the Americans are different than the people who were born and raised there. They’re not always going into the army. Very religious people don’t go into the army at all.

In my experience, the Americans are very open to the settlement thing. I’ve seen Israelis be more conflicted about that. It’s a different thing for them too, because they’ve grown up in Israel, it’s not this new shiny thing to be like go to the West Bank and get your 40 acres and a mule, which is kind of like what it’s like. They’re trying to attract people to go there, and people who already have a home somewhere else in Israel might not be as attracted to that. But again, I have to emphasize that’s juts my outsider perception. I don’t speak for the whole community or anything like that.

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There is a lovely scene where Lina is criticizing Shimshon’s adherence to the Orthodox taboo of women singing—he ultimately refuses to join to band because he can’t be around a woman singing. I thought it was such an interesting juxtaposition, this Palestinian woman in a headscarf criticizing an American man for his conservative religious beliefs.

Yeah, well, that kind of stuff happens all the time. I was always nervous to ask questions. I don’t want to offend anybody, and there’s so much nuance. But at a certain point I was just like, I’m just going to ask this question. And then you ask and people actually aren’t offended. And then you find out, like with the singing with women thing, I knew that was a rule, but I just assumed that it didn’t apply to him because he was clearly participating in our band. ...I still to this day have no idea what his plan was. I sent him the movie recently. I guess he has to turn it off when they start singing. I didn’t warn him. His policy is, If somebody starts singing, you don’t walk out of the room, you’re polite. You’ll stay there and then excuse yourself. But some people are to the letter, they’ll run out of the room and be angry or something like that. I think he always thought we were going to ambush him [laughs]. I don’t know. We wouldn’t have done that.

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There isn’t as much footage of everyone actually playing music as I would have expected; the story is centered much more on the friendships that form and the conflicts. Did you actually play together more than you showed?

Yeah. It didn’t get better than what you saw in the movie, but there was more of it. There was no secret amazing moment where people were blowing us away with their abilities. If Viki had been able to get in front of a piano, I think that would have been different. I think if we had gotten Shimshon in the room that would have been different. But none of that was possible... Just trying to find a room that had a piano, it was a whole thing where I was just trying to find one place where we could have a piano in the room, and in a place where everybody could be, I couldn’t find it.

Shimshon was like, “We can go to [an Israeli settlement in Palestine], it’s fine, Lina can come there, I can get a room there.” And it’s like, it’s very weird to bring a Palestinian to a settlement. And he acted like it wasn’t, and of course, she was like, “I’m not going to a settlement,” and none of the other Israelis were comfortable going. So all these weird things. Just trying to get a room with a piano.

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In the closing credits, you have the band performing a cover of “In A Big Country.” How did you choose that song?

I thought the words had a certain relevance to what was going on. They were kind of familiar with it.

The band is kind of a metaphor for the overall situation, and this is a very intellectual way of looking at it, but I think it’s still apropos. You’ve got people from all different parts of the two societies coming together to make this one thing. And when it falls apart, it kind of falls apart for the same reasons that things fall apart in the bigger picture. You’ve got Shimshon, who’s a great guy who means well, but ultimately he cannot do this thing because of the religious rules, and I meant that’s exactly how it happens in real life when you’re talking about the bigger picture. I don’t want to put it all on Shimshon... there’s a lot of complications for everyone on all kinds of different levels. But if you can’t even come together in one room to make a song, how are two entire people going to come together?

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Catherine Plato is a freelance writer and editor from Oakland, California. Follow her on Twitter @catherineplato.

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