After the ScarJo Storm Subsided: A Look Inside the SodaStream Plant

New short film explores what it's like for Palestinians to work in West Bank factory of the company, which grabbed headlines when Scarlett Johansson signed as its brand ambassador.

“Who’s exploiting whom?”

It’s a good question, posed by an Israeli worker in “The Factory,” a new 11-minute film about the SodaStream facility in Ma’aleh Adumim — primarily focusing on what it’s like for Palestinians to work at an Israeli company in the West Bank.

The film is a new balanced voice in the controversy over SodaStream — the home seltzer company targeted by BDS because of its presence in the West Bank, attention which escalated after it signed superstar Scarlett Johansson as its global brand ambassador ahead of the Superbowl. The 29-year-old actress ended her relationship with Oxfam International because the humanitarian group opposes all trade with Israeli settlements.

But in this heated media war, the film manages to be apolitical, showing a more nuanced view of the situation — at SodaStream and in the Middle East.

"The Factory" follows Abdallah Hany Abu Zayed, a 27-year-old Palestinian from al-Eizariya, who has been working for the seltzer machine maker for almost two years.

“Soon after he started at SodaStream, Abdallah was visited at home by Palestinian officials who told him he was betraying his people and should quit,” the text reads as the lanky, good-looking married father of one walks through his workplace. “He told them he would...if they gave him a job that paid what he earns at SodaStream, nearly three times the average in the West Bank.”

The emotional crux of the film is Abdullah’s inner conflict. “No one can blame me for doing this,” he says, adding that everyone would for the paycheck. “I oppose working in a settlement, because I oppose settlements...but here I am working at Soda.”

Is the film for or against the boycott? Is it pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli? “I think that’s the wrong question,” said filmmaker Peter Savodnik, a journalist who founded Stateless Media, which produces documentary-like short reels like “The Factory,” which was produced for The Verge, a website covering the intersection of technology, science, art and culture.

“I don’t have position. This is a very lamentable situation and in an ideal world, this is not how things should be.” If the factory closed, he said, 500 Palestinians would lose their jobs, “and there is zero evidence they would have better options.”

Savodnik said he wasn’t interested in dealing with a political perspective. “These questions were not asked because they’re not the point. What’s interesting here is that there are people who find themselves in a trying situation...it can’t be easily explained away by a political slogan or ideology,” said Savodnik, who worked with a team of Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers that spent about a week at SodaStream. (The company gave them full access to the plant but said it had no involvement — financial or advisory — with the film.)

Even BDS boycott proponents were surprised to find the film poignant.

“I found it very moving,” said Nancy Kricorian, who serves on the National Staff of CODEPINK Women for Peace, and works on the SodaStream boycott. Although she said there was a lot missing from the film, like Palestinians dealing with checkpoints, or what villages look like — “I found it very intense and more moving than I expected.”

Did it change her perspective on boycotts, knowing that many Palestinian workers would suffer if Israeli businesses were shuttered?

“I feel compassion for the Palestinians who work at the factory,” she said, noting that it’s a structural problem. “We’re not saying the people are bad people but the only way to change the system is to use international pressure to sustain BDS.”

SodaStream's new plant near Rahat (Courtesy SodaStream)

Earlier this month, Soros Fund Management, LLC bought $24.3 million shares of SodaStream, which has plunged 18 percent this year, according to Bloomberg news, which said the company “is heading for its worst annual performance since its initial public offering in November 2010 as U.S. sales of its home soda machines have failed to pick up following a lackluster holiday season.”

Actually, said SodaStream Chief Corporate Development and Communications Officer Yonah Lloyd, their revenue this past quarter was “in-line with Wall Street’s expectations, and our profits did better than expected,” he noted, adding that they expect to grow their business by 15% this year.

He said that BDS did not hurt business. “We recently commissioned a survey in several of the key countries where BDS noise gets its widest audience, and the result was that after being exposed to BDS content, a significantly higher percentage of consumers felt positively about SodaStream, and indicated intention to buy our products than those who responded negatively.”

Shortly after the boycott began, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum has said he “never” would have established a factory in the West Bank (he came on board after it was opened), but he will not cave to political pressure, out of loyalty to the nearly 500 Palestinian workers out of the company’s 1,300. “We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he told The Forward, adding that he “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.”

Two weeks ago, SodaStream opened a new plant in Idan Hanegev Industrial Park in the Negev, near Rahat, Israel’s largest Bedouin city. The $90 million plant will reportedly employ 1,000 people. Lloyd said they hope this will become their primary facility.

Palestinians had worked alongside Jews at the SodaStream factory: Mishor Adumim industrial park, Jan. 30, 2014, before the company had to move. The picture shows a female worker wearing blue clothing and a lilac headscarf, packaging.
AFP