Lessons From Belfast

Journalist-filmmaker Yehuda Litani hopes his new film on Northern Ireland will open Israeli eyes.

Charlotte Halle
Charlotte Hallé
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Charlotte Halle
Charlotte Hallé

"Wailing Walls" is not a documentary about Jerusalem, where its creator was born and raised. This latest film by veteran Israeli journalist and filmmaker Yehuda Litani is shot in and around Belfast, at the epicenter of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Yet when one hears the voices in the 50-minute film - both Protestant and Catholic - they sound more than a little familiar.

"It's so idyllic, isn't it?" says one of those voices, Irish journalist Andy Pollak, interviewed on the outskirts of the town of Dumcree in County Armagh. "Look at it: your little country roads, trees, green fields, church spire. You'd have no inkling that just around the corner, there will be a wall of steel, British army and police and tanks."

Like the others Litani spoke to, Pollak knew his remarks were being made for the benefit of Israeli, as well as other, audiences. "It's the absence of trust, the breakdown of trust," Pollak continues. "It's believing the other person, the other group, is the enemy, who wants to oppress you or drive you out or make you second class. That's a pretty common feeling among both [Catholic and Protestant] communities here. They both feel victims, they both feel victimized. Do the Israelis and Palestinians both feel victims, feel victimized by the other side?"

Serving also as narrator, Litani opens the film by describing the Jerusalem he grew up in: "Divided by barbed wire, walls and minefields ... Divided then and still is ... Like Belfast, Jerusalem exudes the feeling of deep pain."

The film could be viewed as an allegory of the situation in Israel, says Litani, although it is aimed at a broader audience. In his eyes, the people of Israel, Northern Ireland, South Africa, the Basque country, Kashmir and Cyprus, all belong to one family - "the no-man's-land family." The location may be different, he says, but the feelings are the same: of "being locked in a place, fighting over the same territory. One feels the other also has a right, but one is locked into his own mythology and beliefs."

In the film, notorious Loyalist killer, Michael Stone - who was jailed for six murders, but released as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace accords - explains what led up to his murderous gun and grenade attack on mourners an Irish Republican Army (IRA) funeral in 1988. Bernadette Collins is seen watching an interview with her husband, former senior IRA commander Eamon Collins, filmed by the Israeli crew just two weeks before he was killed for informing on his former comrades in the IRA. She reveals to the camera - with an intimacy Litani says took three interviews to achieve - that when she visited her husband in jail and he told her he had "broken," she told him: "If I had a gun, I'd shoot you myself."

`The possible'

Litani sees the film as "a message to us Israelis: that despite 800 years of conflict and continuous hatred between Loyalists and Nationalists, or Protestants and Catholics, they have reached a point of mutual understanding." Not that their peace process is without flaws, he admits, but the goal is "the possible, not the impossible."

It is the filmmaker's hope that Israelis will understand from "Wailing Walls" that in Northern Ireland, "after so many victims, they felt they had had it." He fears that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this point has not yet been reached, "because the cup of blood is still not full and we will have to pay with more blood in order to reach the Northern Irish situation in 2001," when the film was made.

The idea for the production came to Litani (who had begun to report on Northern Ireland back in 1983 for Ha'aretz) while he was covering the 1998 Good Friday peace accords for Channel Two news in Israel. Standing in Belfast, transmitting to Israel alongside an Northern Irish television journalist, he considered the possibility of an "exchange": sending an Irish journalist to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to see how it looks from his point of view, while Litani would investigate the Northern Irish conflict from his own, Israeli perspective.

Litani approached veteran Irish television journalist and writer, Brendan O'Brien, who agreed to be his counterpart. O'Brien's corresponding film, "Balance of Fear," has already been broadcast in Ireland; it will be screened in Israel later this year.

To make his film, Litani joined forces with producer Dan Setton and co-director, photographer and editor Tor Ben-Mayor, who would later process some 80 hours of film, shot during four trips to Northern Ireland during 2001. Originally produced for Channel Eight in Israel and for Irish national television (RTE), "Wailing Walls" was broadcast on Irish television last month and is due to be screened locally at the end of next month. The local version will be narrated in Hebrew and subtitles will be added; the Northern Irish accents are too heavy to be understood by many Israelis.

This is Litani's second film about Ireland. He has recently completed a translation of works by Irish poet Seamus Heaney into Hebrew, called "Station Island," which is soon to be published. Earlier this year, he published a book entitled "Irish Mythology," co-authored with his wife, Levana Litani.

Litani believes his "special attachment" to Ireland is shared by many Israelis. The "nature [of the Irish] is much warmer, completely down to earth, and moods between melancholy and laughter are much shorter than [those experienced by] the other inhabitants of the British Isles. The moment an Israeli arrives there, he feels at home, far more than in England." When Israelis tell Irish people where they are from, he adds, they respond with: "Ah, so you understand."

"They don't have to explain so much," says Litani. "I feel closer [to some of them] than I do to my real American cousins, who can't empathize with me. [The Americans] look at me from above, as if from a pedestal."

What unites "the troubles" in Northern Ireland with "the situation" here and other prolonged conflicts, he explains, is "the psychological situation of the people - the stress, the fear which prevails, the tendency of repression, of trying to ignore reality." Yet, Litani is cautious not to overstate the similarities between the Irish and Israeli conflicts.

"Each situation," he says, "is different and unique." He does not see the film as offering a blueprint for Israel: "We can't change reality with films, we can just reflect it."

Yet he believes, because Israelis are "so depressed, the lowest of the low," it is "very healthy" to watch films about others embroiled in conflicts, so they can see "they are not alone in the world."