Directors: Jill Beardsworth and Keith Walsh
Running Time: 80 minutes
Release Date: January 16th
Occupied by Israel since the Six Day War in 1967, Golan Heights, formally a part of Syria was once home to 139 villages of which only five remain. Irish directors Jill Beardsworth and Keith Walsh’s documentary Apples of the Golan focuses on the residents of one of these villages, Majdal Shams, and examines their complex relationships with their land, their identity and their day to day lives.
Shot over a five-year period between 2007 and 2012, Apples of the Golan takes a non-linear approach to its story, weaving in and out of different characters over that period. What this approach gives us is an idea of all the complexities of life in the occupied territory, and the differences in the outlook of the residents.
Some of these differences are purely generational. At the very beginning of the film we see an elderly man, fiercely nationalistic and deeply devoted to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, telling a group of young children that report of Assad killing his own people are a lie originating from his enemies, including the U.S. and Israel, and that the Syrian people love their president. Later on however, we meet some Golani youth, part of a generation who since the early 80’s when Israel annexed the region have their nationality defined as “undeclared” due to the social sigma of taking up Israeli citizenship. These young people have less of a fondness for their mother country than the older generation, feeling that Syrians have forgotten about their plight believing that ignoring them is the easier option. For these youths, they cannot find solace in the nationalistic marches of their parents and grandparents. Instead they express themselves through music and dance, their disillusionment with their situation summarised in the shot of two young men driving around the near empty village at night, listening to rap music, smoking cigarettes and drinking cans of Carlsberg.
One of the most admirable aspects of the documentary is to provide a balance between the Israeli policy in the land as well as the growing tensions within Syria before and after the uprising in 2011. The film details Israel exploitation of the region’s land for settlements and for military purposes as well as its natural resources such as water. However the film quite cleverly plays with our own expectations, most notably through one of the subjects interviewed. Describing his interment and the torture he suffered, we would believe that given the subject matter that he is talking about his time in an Israeli prison and perhaps he was a member of some sort of a resistance group. When we learn the true nature of his story, that the time he described took place in a Syrian prison, we do get a sense of how complicated the situation truly is and little anything in this region can be viewed in black and white.
Ultimately the main theme of the documentary, as reflected in its title, is that of identity. For the residents of Majdal Shams, their land and the apples that grow on it is a part of who they are. Apples are the only item that is traded from the region to Syria; in fact apples can cross the boarder into Syria easier than the Syrians of Golan Heights. One of the participants interviewed declares that the region must belong to them as when an apple is cut in half, its pips are shaped in a five-point star similar to the stars found on the Syrian flag. He claims that the apples grown in the Israeli settlements have six pips shaped like the Star of David on their flag; towards the end of film an Israeli settler cuts in an apple in his orchard revealing five pips.
This idea of identity is called into question by the man who was tortured in a Syrian prison, who it should be noted at the start of the film uses apples to demonstrate the dimensions of his cell. The man briefly points out that the flag used by many is show their identity over the occupiers, was the invention of occupiers themselves, namely the U.K. and France who drew the lines in the sand after World War One to create Syria and where the ones who designed the flag. Yet again, another layer of complexity to add to region that is already brimming with it.
While Apples of the Golan is not the most insightful documentary on the conflict in the Middle East, there is much to admire in its efforts at bringing to light a group of people whose story tends to be ignored and that is handled with just the right amount of sympathy and understanding.