Initially conceived as part of a larger series covering the worldwide intergenerational trauma of colonisation, Where Olive Trees Weep, a feature documentary from Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo, offers a window into the continuing struggles of the Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation through a series of interviews with residents of the West Bank. Footage for the film was captured over three weeks, between May and June 2022, and was supposed to be the last episode in their series in which audiences could track different phases of colonial projects repeating themselves over the past few centuries. However, after filming 12 international locations in 18 months, it was immediately obvious to both Zaya and Maurizio that these films were each meant to be larger explorations of their own. Where Olive Trees Weep soon became a priority in the series and is now the first to be released as the filmmakers realised they couldn’t (morally) delay it in the wake of recent events. Where Olive Trees Weep is now available to stream online as part of their 21 day event World People’s Premiere, with all donations from the screenings going to aid organisations in Palestinian communities. With the film now available to the wider public, DN spoke to Zaya and Maurizio about their decision to get Where Olive Trees Weep out to the wider world as quickly as they could, the reality of filming in the occupied West Bank and approaching their edit with over 23TB worth of footage.

Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and at what point you decided that Where Olive Trees Weep needed to be a standalone feature?

Zaya and I are the executive directors of a non-profit organization based in Northern California, Science and Nonduality. The last film we directed and produced, The Wisdom of Trauma, was self-distributed from our website (by donation) and seen by over 15 million people worldwide. The incredible success of the film gave us the possibility to get involved, right away, in the next production without having to secure external funds.

Our original idea was to make one movie about intergenerational trauma visiting indigenous populations worldwide. We heard that Gabor Maté, our Wisdom of Trauma star, and now a good personal friend, was planning to go to Palestine to run a workshop on trauma with Palestinian women released from Israeli prison and we instinctively knew we had to be there as well. As we arrived, in May 2022, it became immediately evident that our naive assumption of the ‘complexity’ of the situation was only based on false information and propaganda. I can assure you that after only a few hours in the West Bank no ‘reasonable’ human being cannot avoid seeing the evidence of Apartheid and the amount of human rights violations that have been perpetrated for decades with total impunity by the occupying forces protected by our western media propaganda. It’s quite disconcerting that people do not understand that as it is done in full light, shamelessly and unapologetically.

The plan was to use the series to present the case of the impact of colonialism via the various episodes and then, when the case has been presented clearly, then, and only then, release the Palestine film showing how the same exact plot has been happening there and is still happening now, in front of our eyes.

As we continued our journey to more Indigenous communities worldwide the film concept became more and more geared toward the impact of colonialism on Indigenous culture and the exploration of what colonialism has tried to eliminate for the benefit of the Euro-American ideas of modernity, capitalism and individualism. To cut a long story short, after a few stops it became apparent that it was not one movie but a series of 13 feature films, one for each location, one as an overview and one each for each specific location we visited. The plan was to use the series to present the case of the impact of colonialism via the various episodes and then, when the case has been presented clearly, then, and only then, release the Palestine film showing how the same exact plot has been happening there and is still happening now, in front of our eyes. Needless to say life always has a different plan and Oct 7th happened so it became impossible for us to sit on this film while seeing the horror that is being perpetuated daily with total impunity.

We are well aware that for our ‘career’ it would have been better to withhold the film for last but it is also evident that, as a moral human being, there are things you cannot be silent about and feel in integrity with yourself. As it was said: if you were in Germany in 1939 and heard about the holocaust, what would you have done? Well, you are doing it now.

This type of filmmaking requires in depth and detailed research, how do you approach that side of the process?

As they say, it takes a village. The beautiful aspect of this is that as much research you can possibly do, once on location, you will be presented with openings and obstacles that are guiding you and we believe in doing the hard work beforehand but also, to be able to flow with what wishes to happen in the awareness of the larger design of things. We believe it is necessary to let go of this idea of control and of ‘knowing what we need’. Especially in docs with a mission, but all around in life in my view, it’s important to be open to different kinds of guidance. And that does not mean you do not do the hard work prepping… as they say: start carrying water and ‘god’ will help you once he/she sees you doing the heavy lifting. It’s an approach to life.

How did you connect with the incredible subjects who guide us through the interweaving stories that form the narrative?

As you arrive, as a team of white people, often it takes a while to be accepted. We had to wait days to film a ceremony, had to follow a subject for a week in the weirdest situations in which she then denied to film until she ‘felt’ we were OK, that we could be trusted. It’s only fair as ‘people like us’ have gone (and still do!!!!) into these communities to steal, extract and destroy for centuries. Ashira, the main character of Where Olive Trees Weep did not sign a release until we showed her a solid rough cut of the film and it’s only fair! She wanted to ensure that her story and the stories of the other participants were not misrepresented. We had to trust the process. We have been making these films with them and for them, not for us!

What is your approach to interviewing contributors and drawing their stories out of them in a respectful and considerate manner?

Our approach involved a significant amount of research and building personal relationships with our main characters, particularly Ashira, ahead of time. Once on location, we discovered additional stories and characters to visit and interview. The main request from our subjects was to avoid what Palestinians call ‘normalization’ – presenting ‘both sides’ of the story. We made a deliberate choice to listen to and center the voices of the underrepresented, the oppressed, the colonized, and the dehumanized – voices that many Western audiences rarely have the opportunity to hear or connect with on a human level.

We made a deliberate choice to listen to and center the voices of the underrepresented, the oppressed, the colonized, and the dehumanized.

We were well aware of the complexity of historical details, the intricacies of opposing narratives, and the convolutions of psychological projections. We anticipated finding the same complexity on the ground: a multifaceted scenario of shared responsibility and denial. However, within a day or two, like anyone who has traveled to the region, we realized that the big picture is surprisingly clear: a brutal settler-colonial project imposing a very harsh form of apartheid bent on ethnically cleansing an Indigenous population by all available means.

What lay behind your decision to include those scenes of normalcy and everyday life in the film?

There is often a tendency, in movies, to go for the sensational, the extreme and we all know very well that life is not that or at least not only that. We have no intention to manipulate or distort what happens in front of us, yes, we like to make it look good but not to manipulate it! Again, that will be part of the hold denigration or glorification of Indigenous people, seeing them as either savages or enlightened, and that, alone, does not help to understand they’re exactly like each and every one of us just expressing their culture in a different way. They eat, they drink, they breathe, they live, they love, they hate, they feel, they will die one day.

Cinema can be a powerful force for change, and our aim is not only to educate but to truly move hearts and minds and inspire audiences to echo the calls for freedom, equality, and dignity.

Can you talk us through the challenges and your approach to filming in such dangerous conditions?

Filming in the occupied West Bank was nerve-racking due to the necessity of crossing multiple checkpoints each day. We often felt as though we were being monitored or even listened to. One of our subjects was stopped at a checkpoint on her way to the interview and interrogated for over an hour. She worked for UNRWA and had been threatened by the IDF with expulsion from the country because of her work protecting children who were being tear-gassed at school each day.

To ensure the safety and security of our footage and our subjects, we often had to leave our phones in the fridge and develop an elaborate system for taking the footage out of the country. We also had to make the difficult decision to exclude some of the interviews we conducted from the final film in order to protect the individuals involved. The challenges we faced while filming in such dangerous conditions were significant, but we remained committed to capturing the stories and experiences of those living under occupation. Our approach was to prioritize the safety and well-being of our subjects and crew while finding ways to navigate the complex and often threatening environment.

How much footage did you have and can you talk us through your editing process of honing the film into its final form?

We began with an enormous amount of footage – 23TB in total. We shot with two cameras, a Red Gemini and a Blackmagic Pocket 6K Pro, to capture as much as possible. Initially, we started working with one editor, but unfortunately, the theme of the film proved to be too mentally taxing for her, and she eventually burned out. After eight months of work, we realized that we needed to bring in a new editor to complete the project. Our new editor was able to completely re-edit the film within six months. We started by editing the larger context of the story first and then focused on the story of our main character. The process involved gradually reducing the length of the film from a three-hour cut to two hours and finally to 1 hour and 40 minutes. Although the final film might still feel a bit long for some viewers, we found it extremely challenging to fit such a multilayered story into a shorter timeframe while still doing justice to the subject matter and the experiences of those involved.

To help illustrate the stories and provide historical context, we also resorted to finding a significant amount of archival footage. This additional material helped to enrich the narrative and provide a deeper understanding of the issues faced by those living under occupation. Throughout the editing process, our goal was to create a compelling and emotionally resonant film that would engage audiences and shed light on the realities of life in the occupied territories. Despite the challenges we faced, we believe that the final film succeeds in telling a powerful and important story.

Although the final film might still feel a bit long for some viewers, we found it extremely challenging to fit such a multilayered story into a shorter timeframe.

Can you tell us more about the way in which you are releasing Where Olive Trees Weep, streaming through the website?

As previously mentioned, we planned to release the film as the last episode of the series. We anticipated facing some pushback, so we wanted to first educate our audience on the history of colonialism and its impact on indigenous cultures, communities, and land around the world. However, when the events of October 7th occurred, we knew we couldn’t wait another year to release the film, and we started actively editing. As the horrendous assault on Gaza was unfolding, we felt a moral obligation to release the film as soon as possible.

We hope these stories touch viewers’ hearts, stir compassion and understanding, and inspire a pursuit of justice.

The film provides background to the current crisis in Israel/Palestine and sheds light on the lives of people we met during our journey in the occupied West Bank. Their universally human stories speak of intergenerational pain, trauma, and resilience. We hope these stories touch viewers’ hearts, stir compassion and understanding, and inspire a pursuit of justice. For without justice, peace remains an empty slogan. Cinema can be a powerful force for change, and our aim is not only to educate but to truly move hearts and minds and inspire audiences to echo the calls for freedom, equality, and dignity that have gone unanswered for far too long.

The film is our modest contribution towards our dream of an end to the occupation in Palestine, the attainment of equal rights and fair treatment for the Palestinian people, and the spreading of healing for all intergenerational cycles of trauma in the region. Regarding our release strategy, making the film available for people to host their own screenings or view online through our non-profit from June 6th to 27th is a model we believe can be effective in raising awareness and sparking important conversations. We used a similar model in 2020 for the release of Wisdom of Trauma. By empowering individuals and communities to host their own screenings, we hope to create a ripple effect of awareness and inspire more people to take action in support of justice and equality for all people in the region.

When can we expect the release of the other films?

We are deep in the editing of the 13 films planning to finish that phase no later than early spring 2025. The film you will now see is fully completed, two other segments will have been completed at the time of this writing and nine more are in different, advanced, stages of post-production. Currently, we are actively working on the ‘main film’ and plan to have it ready to be released by late Fall 2024.

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