When your head is full of unresolved trauma from being brutally interrogated by Israeli security forces, that you go call? Ghost hunting offers a boldly original solution. Improvised part docudrama and part group therapy session, Palestinian director Raed At Andoni’s This unconventional film project brings together a disparate cast of former prisoners to first rebuild their own former prison as a film set, then to piece together their painful memories on camera. It’s a fascinating experience, though inevitably a bit disjointed and not entirely satisfying.
A co-production between Palestine, France, Switzerland and Qatar, Ghost hunting created at Berlinale, where it won the main documentary award and one of three audience awards. The politically charged subject matter and unorthodox treatment should generate much more interest in festivals, especially at events highlighting human rights and Middle Eastern issues. In terms of wider public exposure, small screens seem more likely than movie theaters, although some specialist attire may be attempted.
A bold and original take on the phantom menace of post-traumatic stress.
Himself a former prisoner, Andoni begins the film by placing recruitment advertisements for other ex-Palestinian prisoners. Most of those who show up for the audition have spent time in the so-called “Russian complex” of al-Moskobiya, the infamous West Jerusalem interrogation and detention center. Their treatment there regularly included various forms of physical and psychological torture, including sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and worse. Stubborn inmates who refuse to crack under pressure are generally celebrated as folk heroes, but Andoni thinks this can prove problematic, as many repress horrible memories that later come back to torment them.
The loose narrative thread of Ghost hunting is the true story of former inmate Mohammed “Abu Atta” Khattabwho appears in the documentary scenes as himself, and is also portrayed in the dramatic vignettes by the professional actor Ramzi Maqdisi. Andoni originally planned to do a more conventional scripted drama, but it instead evolved into a kind of deconstructed documentary that records auditions, rehearsals, set construction, and the filming process. It also includes short-lived episodes of dreamlike animation, based on his own hallucinatory flashbacks to his 18-year-old incarceration, which are eerily beautiful but frustratingly brief.
Overall, however, Ghost hunting is a fairly simple affair with a pocket-sized, fly-on-the-wall feel. Most of his emotional impact comes from the thorny power dynamics at play on At Andoni’s together, especially when the cramped prison cells are completed and former inmates change roles to play Israeli guards, replicating their brutal treatment on the other side of the fence. There are outbursts of anger, cathartic confessions and minor outbursts of violence: some staged, some real. A psychologist was present on set to monitor the cast and crew.
Filmed entirely inside a warehouse in Ramallah in the West Bank, Ghost hunting is absolutely not an exercise in rigorous journalistic investigation. Andoni has no interest in educating the lay public about the larger political context, or even about the stories of his cast. It offers few hard facts beyond a few shocking points: that 750,000 Palestinians have been incarcerated by Israel since 1967, for example, or one in four of the entire male population.
Clearly a passion project for the director, Ghost hunting is a bit disjointed and diffuse in its intent. If it has a strong message to take away, it shows us how the traffic jam of trauma can be very damaging, and also how Palestinian prisoners use art, poetry and music to escape from life. inside themselves during the hard ordeal of confinement. There are more informative films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but few originals.
Production companies: Les Films de Zayna, Acre Movies, Dar Movies
Cast: Ramzi MaqdisiMuhammad “Abu Atta” Khattab, Raed Andoni, Atef Al-Akhras, wadee Hanani, Adnan Al-Hatab, Abdullah Mubarak
Director-screenwriter: Raed Andoni
Producers: Nicholas WadimoffPhilip Coeytaux, Raed Andoni
Executive producer: Palmyra badinier
Director of photography: Camille Cottagnoud
Production designer: Dominique Treibert
Publisher: Gladys Toy
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales company: IDUFrance