A Different Occupation

For young Druze from the Golan Heights who leave to study in Damascus, there is no return.

The documentary "Shout," screened at the Haifa International Film Festival, outlines the dilemmas facing young Druze from the Golan Heights who leave to study in Damascus and cannot return

Minarets slice the skyline and gray residential buildings stand among them. Uniformed police pass through the streets scrutinizing passersby. Two young men in fashionable sunglasses and striped shirts walk through a crowded and colorful Middle Eastern market, surveying the surroundings with interest. Later, in the dark, the two sit in the back seat of a taxi: "God, look how beautiful Damascus is," says one of them.

Druze protest
Druze protesting on Route 70, near Yokneam, in May.Tomer Neuberg

"Yeah, Damascus really is beautiful," agrees his companion.

Arabic music is coming from the radio and the two ask the driver to turn it up. "What a great song," they say. They don't stop surveying the city streets through the window. "Damascus is hot," one of them concludes. His companion nods.

Like many from their village, Ezat and Bayan, two young Druze from the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, feel Syrian in every respect. In the film "Shout," which was screened on Friday at the Haifa International Film Festival, they explain to the two women directors that their village is part of Syria even though it is located in Israeli territory. Ever since their childhood, they say, they knew that when the day came they would want to study in Damascus and not in Israel. They feel Syrian and ever since childhood heard stories from their parents about their real homeland. Now, at long last, they are able to realize a dream, break free of the bonds of the occupation and taste a life of freedom.

The film follows the pair as they bid farewell to their families and friends and set out to live and study in the big city. This journey, however, is not a simple one. The authorities allow them to cross the border to study in Syria, but they will only be able to return to their village in a year. Not before then.

Until then, they will not be able to meet with their dear ones or change their minds and return home. The political situation in the region will confront them with an even greater challenge after completing their studies: At that time they will have to choose between continuing to live in Syria or returning to the Golan Heights. This decision is not only difficult - it is also irreversible.

Dutch co-director Sabine Lubbe Bakker, 31, arrived in Damascus six years ago to work on her master's thesis in political science. She became enthusiastic about the city, finding it fascinating and complex, and after meeting a number of students from the Golan who were studying there decided to make a documentary film on the topic.

Ester Gould, 35 and also from Holland, joined her in the project and together they set out for Majdal Shams to choose the protagonists for their film. There they also saw, for the first time, the "hill of shouts" adjacent to the border to which Druze from both sides of the fence come for shouted conversations with relatives who live on the other side.

Two scenes in the film were shot on the hill of shouts. The more prominent of them takes place on Mothers Day, after Ezat and Bayan have already settled into Damascus and embarked on their studies. Ezat is studying theater, making new friends, meeting girls, spending time in discotheques and enjoying the opportunities the big city has opened to them. Bayan, however, is studying medicine, absorbed in dissecting cadavers and anxious about the long years of study awaiting him. After Ezat leaves their shared apartment and moves in with relatives in Damascus, Bayan starts suffering from loneliness.

He goes to the hill of shouts, torn by longings for his family and friends. He smiles as he speaks with friends over an amplification system installed on the Syrian side and later, as he descends, waves emotionally with a strip of cloth, hoping someone on the other side will notice him. When he hears his mother's voice rising among the hills, tears fill his eyes.

"I bless Bayan Amashe. My dear one, my beloved, my child," she calls out emotionally, and he is beside himself.

"For me, this was the most moving scene we filmed. It was so clear Bayan wanted simply to hug his mother at that moment but couldn't. It was very powerful," says Bakker.

"To my mind, this scene was very moving but also very surreal," adds Gould. "When you're standing there, you don't see all the landmines scattered near the fence and you don't even really see the border. From a distance it looks like just a modest fence with a dirt road alongside it, and you really feel like walking up to it and getting close to the people on the other side. But of course it's impossible to do this. It's also surreal because this hill has already become something Syrian propaganda is using in a systematic and persistent way. On Mothers Day, for example, there are always reporters there from Syrian television and they always film the tears of the mothers and students and use this to show what the Zionists are doing to their people.

"It's a situation planned in advance, but also authentic in a certain sense," Gould continues. "For most of the students, like Ezat, it wasn't very emotional but for others, like Bayan, it is really heartbreaking. However, this scene is preprogrammed - the Syrian music in the background, the flags, the amplification system. The Syrian government encourages it. After all, they can also see their families over the Internet. And indeed, this is a tradition that is disappearing, apart from on Mothers Day. In the past they'd go up on this hill every Friday, but now it is dwindling."

Bakker and Gould chose to call their film "Shout" both because of the hill of shouts, which symbolizes the torn families on both sides of the border, and because when researching the film they met many students from the Golan Heights in Damascus who wanted their story to be told.

"They feel the world is always hearing about the conflict in the Middle East, but only about the conflict with the Palestinians," explain Bakker and Gould. "Of course in Israel the Syrians in the Golan are treated much better than the Palestinians. Though they too are living under occupation, but without roadblocks and their lives are far simpler. But because of this, hardly anyone in the world knows about their situation ... and no one really cares."

In the film, Mahmoud Mahmoud, a native of Majdal Shams who is about to complete his lengthy medical studies in Damascus, clarifies the conflict awaiting Ezat and Bayan. "In a few months I will be completing my studies, and then in effect my life here is finished. If I return home, I will not be allowed to come back. I would want to have the possibility of going back and forth. But if I remain here, they will not allow me to return home and I will never see my family and my town again. Ever. And the same thing will happen if I do return home. I will never be able to come back, to see my friends again and Dima [his girlfriend in Damascus]. I can't imagine never being able to see my father, mother and sisters again."

"Shout" premiered at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, and was screened in Damascus in March at the Dox Box documentary film festival. The directors showed it recently in Majdal Shams for the village residents and over the weekend the film was screened in Haifa twice, once at a regular screening and once at the Al Midan hall in the lower city, for an Arab audience.

"In Syria many of the spectators complained, 'In this film we don't see the occupation at all, we don't see Israeli soldiers and rifles,'" relates Bakker, "and we answered them that in Majdal Shams there really aren't all that many soldiers, that it isn't an occupation the way they imagine it. Here, however, they told us we were taking a political stance by using the terminology "Israeli occupation" in the film, and they also accused us of showing only the two protagonists' positions and of not seeking out people in the village who think differently, who in fact like Israel," she notes.

Alongside these comments, adds Gould, both communities shared a complaint: "On each side they said to us: "It was probably very hard for you to film on the other side of the border. Probably they made you a lot of problems,'" she laughs.