By Hogan Short
What Walaa Wants is a conflicting documentary in many ways. Walaa lives within the Gaza strip, which in itself is a conflicting area between Palestinians and Israelis. Walaa’s mother was branded a hero by some and a terrorist by others. Walaa herself is a conflicting young girl. She can be a bully and also so kind, a great asset when attempting to engage with civilians as a women working for the police force. It was this conflict that intrigued director Christy Garland as she decided to move forward with a documentary on the young girl’s story.
“In 2012 I was in the West Bank. I had never been before. Our final stop was at a Balata camp. At the refugee camp there’s a lot of people who engage in protest of the military occupation. It was there I met Walaa,” she says. “She’s the first kid you notice. She was rambunctious, funny, disruptive. The other girls liked her and looked up to her but she was also kind of a bully. She was very compelling.”
Garland’s instinctual eye is obvious as we follow Walaa’s story. Garland noticed her and wanted to know more about her on one of her last days of the trip. It was then that Garland knew she had her next film as she heard about Walaa’s story, a story that could represent so many people and women in her area. It was what she learned about Walaa’s history that intrigued Garland so much. “Her mother was involved in a very famous trade for one Israeli soldier for 1000 Palestinian. Walaa was eight years old when her mother conspired to bring a bomb into a nearby settlement. She was caught and went to prison for terrorism related charges. So Walaa was just learning to become a family again. I was focused on Walaa.”
Being a young woman in Gaza is incredibly difficult and her willingness to take part in a documentary about her life shows her bravery before we even begin watching. This bravery did not come easy for Walaa as she had no idea what to expect.
“She assumed she was living under her mother’s shadow. Her mother was celebrated as a freedom fighter. In this region martyrs are celebrated. There are parades for people like her. She assumed I was more interested in her mother.”
As Walaa begins her training we are placed beside Walaa, in the yelling and physical regimen required. The camera being allowed into this process is so necessary for the documentary, but it is amazing the crew was allowed in at all. “A lot of people don’t know what the Palestinian Security Forces are. They are living under occupation but they do have their own police force, looking at crimes like narcotics. They are policed by Palestinians themselves but they are under the Israeli Defence Force. So talking to the PSF they agreed a film that showed it as a regular police force with a young girl wanting to be a good cop was good for them. They welcomed us.”
Just like any art form there are rules to be followed and rules that can be broken. Many documentarians keep a distance from their subject to maintain objectivity. Garland is no such director. Walaa’s willingness to dive into this adversity for something so important to her is inspiring, but to watch it from so close and personal had its challenges. “We were close. We were like family. We had loads of fights. Walaa would ask when is this gonna be done what is this gonna do for me. It attracted a lot of unwanted attention for her. She was teased and mocked. We care a lot about each other.”
What Walaa Wants has been on the festival circuit and has become a beacon of inspiration. She was not portrayed as a hero or a villain and that is why her story resonates so well with audiences. She is a human with flaws but despite them she has done so much more than most people ever dare to. Having this recognized by millions would bring a profound change to the conversation about this kind of story, but also within Walaa and how she sees herself. “She had strangers come up and it was then she realized she was representing Palestinian women. She’s grown up quite a bit and she is a spokesperson now. This is a girl who has had tear gas canisters rattling outside her door and is now getting interviewed by BBC. And she acted like she had years of media training. She is impassioned. She spoke about being a Palestinian in the context of the conflict and she was extremely articulate and diplomatic.”
Garland herself feels changed after the experience as well. She knows the impact this could have, should have, and is starting to have. Garland knows the change she saw happening within herself and hopes that audiences can achieve that as well. “I was so ignorant on every level about the conflict there. I knew about the news, we hear about terrorist activities. So I hope people will ask more questions. It’s so complicated. I hope they will see and be touched by a film about a Palestinian girl showing a different, nuanced view of the story. It does bring us into the home of someone convicted of terrorist activities. The way young people get radicalized is at home. People assume that young people are just going to be involved in the same activities as their parents and I wanted to tell the story that every person who lives in Gaza just wants a normal life, to have a family.”
What Walaa Wants is such a complexly layered story and so obviously truthful. It is not pretending to be anything, it’s jut showing the good and the bad of a situation, one that in the end is a tale of feminine dignity. It is that exact way of layering that makes Walaa herself so incredible. And Garland is aware of that.
“I owe it all to her,” she says.