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5 minutes from home

Director: Nahed Awwad (Turkey, Switzerland). Year of Release: 2008

If you’ve ever travelled to the West Bank from Europe, you know that the flight is a nightmare. You have to negotiate either Tel Aviv airport’s aggressive security guards then cross Israel by bus and taxi, or take the more expensive flight to Amman and cross the Allenby Bridge. This is, of course, if you have a Western passport. For Palestinians many of whom lack the appropriate visa or id, the trip is at best arduous – for many it is impossible.

Palestinian film maker Nahed Awwad was born after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 and thought that things had always been like this. This film shows her discovery that in the 1950s and 1960s Palestine had its own international airport. Jerusalem Airport was just 5 kilometres from Ramallah and 10 kilometres from Jerusalem on the road between the 2 cities. In the 1950s and 1960s it was the point of departure for flights to Jordan and Lebanon, Egypt and Germany.

We see photographs of Katharine Hepburn using the airport, and Omar Sharif, who used his visits while he was filming Lawrence of Arabia as an opportunity to flirt with the stewardesses. Then the 1967 war happened, Israel took over, and the airport was shut down. It was briefly reopened in the 1970s, this time for Israeli passengers only. The airport is now abandoned and there is talk of using the area to build settlements.

Nearby is the Qalandia checkpoint where Palestinians from the West Bank queue for hours, waiting to be let in to work in 1948 Israel, the country where they were born. People living West of the border need to apply for one of the very few available visas. If you are allowed to make the short journey, it is constantly disrupted by checkpoints, traffic jams and the Apartheid wall. This film was made 14 years ago, before the wall was completed, making the trip today much worse.

5 minutes from home mixes footage from the present – two sisters who were both born near the airport trying to organise a meet-up – and reminiscences of the past. We hear from people who used to work in the airport – the announcer who still holds his hand near his mouth where the microphone should be and a former stewardess. We also see people who lived next to the airport and watched from their roofs to check for incoming flights when their father was due home.

On one level, it’s a standard documentary. We are treated to old stories and shown model planes. But the message behind the anecdotes is one that had been buried from history. The West Bank – Palestine – which is currently viewed as desert land populated by savages – was once a hub of international travel, decades before most British working people were even able to consider paying for a package holiday to Spain.

5 minutes from home’s strength lies in its sense of injustice combined with a realisation that change is both necessary and inevitable. At one stage someone say that the world is unfair, before defiantly saying that things are not going to remain like this, hopefully not in her lifetime. This is not a film that shows masked gunmen struggling against insurmountable odds. It shows people who remember that they did not always live under occupation, and know that change must come.

This is a film that shows dignity, which is not, by itself, sufficient to succeed against totalitarian oppression. The lack of a Palestinian airport stands symbolically for all the other privileges that we take for granted, but are denied by the cruel realities of colonial occupation. It should invoke in us, the viewing public, an understanding that solidarity is necessary, and whether or not we do anything really matters.

In passing, the film comments on the current leftist belief that the two state “solution” will free Palestinians. Denied both the resources and the authority to build their own airport, does anyone seriously think that the creation of a little Palestinian Bantustan in the West Bank will deliver any serious autonomy? As the reality of occupation – both sides of the wall – is laid bare, the film implicitly shows that the current injustice can only be stopped by democracy in the whole region.

So, please go and see the film, but also organise a discussion afterwards. We were lucky to have Nahed appear in a Q&A after tonight’s performance. If you’re in Berlin, I’m sure she’d love to speak at any event that you organise (contact this blog for her contact details). And if you’re not in Berlin, it will be easier for her to come to you than it is for many Palestinians to make the short trip to their birthplaces. This is something that the film shows with great clarity.

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