Think Twice – For the Sake of Our Children
-an interview by Mary Liepold
Shelley Hermon is the director and producer of Within the Eye of the Storm, a 2012 documentary about the remarkable friendship between Palestinian Bassam Aramin and Israeli Rami Elhanan, each of whom lost a daughter to the conflict. Peace X Peace published Shelley’s account of the film’s making in October and is hosting a series of screenings in the Washington, DC area from Feb. 21 – Feb. 26.
Shelley, for this interview I’d like to focus on you as a person. Who are you? How would you define yourself if you had to choose just a few words?
I would say I’m a seeker. I question a lot of things, and I seek answers. I’m a peacemaker/mediator. I’m a film-maker. And I have a strong sense of justice.
What is your greatest personal strength?
It’s my outgoing nature, my ability to relate to people, to connect with people no matter who they are or where they’re from, to see and bring out the best in people. I’m an eternal optimist.
When you were a little girl, who did you imagine yourself being as an adult?
I don’t recall having a when-I-grow-up fantasy. If there was one, it would be a dancer. And I am one, though it’s not my profession. I do a dance called 5 Rhythm Dance, developed by Gabrielle Roth in the US. I also do social dancing wherever there’s music and opportunity. Dancing makes me happy.
What pointed you in the direction of film?
My journey started when I finished my studies in product design and went traveling. For the first five months I was all over Asia. Then I landed in Hong Kong and somehow knew I was meant to stay there. I applied for a job in an ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, as an Art Director and was given a trial of three months, which became two years. It was a great experience and I loved working in a team, but it became very clear that advertising was not me. I don’t really believe in the products or the whole mindset of consumerism and manipulating people. When I looked for something else, I looked at my traits and saw that film combined all my strengths. I took a course for a year and I was hooked. I worked as an assistant director, a producer, a researcher, a production manager, a camera person―tried out all the different roles to see where I am strongest, and landed on directing and cinematography.
What drew me to film is that it has in it all the elements I love and believe in: exploration of societies and the human condition, psychology, the potential for impact, and the audiovisual means of expression. Documentary-making is my way to be an activist. Every film I choose to work on has the intention of raising social awareness and puts my skills and energy to making the world a better place. Some documentary makers are about art form and telling a story first, but for me it’s always first and foremost about delivering an important message. All the way through, my experience in life is of touching different cultures and being touched by different cultures, about celebrating diversity.
So far in your career, what has surprised you the most?
I was surprised by the amount of patience and persistence that is required to make a documentary film. Before this I would hear people say, ‘I worked on that for seven years,’ and I’d think ‘What the hell?’ I’m by nature efficient and hardworking, but I had to learn patience. This is my first feature film, and it took over six years. There’s a natural process of life that just has to be. With Rami and Bassam, I wanted to see their process through. Then, fundraising takes time and you have to wait. I really had to learn patience.
What’s the hardest hurdle you’ve run into so far―and how did you get over it?
The hardest in making this film and the hardest in my life in general was finding myself two years into making this film alone, financing it myself, with no money to continue the film or my life and no idea where to turn. People were showing interest but they weren’t backing me up. I felt like I was holding a gem in my hand and I would have to let it go.
I wound up asking my parents for a loan so I could work with a scriptwriter, and then it all went forward. Working with someone else was the breakthrough. I was broke, I was owing money, and I had to go one extra mile―and it took off! The bottom line is trusting what you believe in and going all out. I need that to live with myself.
Emotionally and psychologically, this was a very difficult film to make. There were days when I drove back from Jerusalem or Ramallah crying all the way. I got so close, so attached to Bassam and Rami both. This became a part of my life, not just a story to be told.
So, you were born in Israel, grew up in London, then lived in Hong Kong. Did you move back to Israel to make the film?
No. I had wanted to go back for many years. Then I ended a seven-year relationship and said ‘This is the time to pack my bags.’ I was eight when we moved to the UK, so I speak fluent Hebrew. I never really felt I belonged in the UK, and I realized over time that is a very important feeling, to belong. It’s the reason why I deal with difference in my work.
When I came back, one thing that really struck me was how violence was accepted here in Israel, seen as needed, as if there’s no way to live without it. We’re in defense mode all the time; people accept it as part of life. That was not the case in the UK. Soon after I arrived came the Lebanon war, then Gaza, and the media worked overtime. Even before the war would occur we were manipulated into being fearful, ‘standing tall.’ There was a strong sense of brainwashing and I found myself almost getting sucked into it. I kept pulling back, knowing I needed to find my own sources of information beyond the TV screen.
Both sides live in a culture that is both military and bereaved. It’s easy to play with people’s minds because they’ve been exposed to trauma and pain. Fear of the other is easy when you’ve never met the other. From school days and little on you’ve heard one narrative, seen it from one perspective. What else would you believe?
Since what we believe manifests, we create what we fear. Having the perspective of someone raised abroad, I didn’t have that fear of the other. I have met and befriended Palestinians, Arabs all my life. I felt no fear driving into Ramallah, and when I told Israelis that they would say, ‘Are you mad?’
Most important, for me, is offering a picture that includes both sides. We have to get into the shoes of the other, learn about the other, recognize that there IS another, that there are two perspectives. Learning reduces the fear. Most people on both sides have an image of what the other is. There is much demonizing. When people meet actual Israelis and Palestinians they watch the news with a reality check, with a recollection of their own experience, what that person was like. Part of the importance of making a film is to allow people who would not go there themselves that exposure and experience. In a film, if it’s very personal, they can have the feeling of meeting that person. Perhaps that will inspire them to go and have a firsthand experience.
What do you most want people to know about the conflict?
That it’s not about right or wrong or good and bad; that “these people” are so and so. Especially when looking at it from the outside, instead of taking sides and blaming, we have to do something to help both sides come to the table to dialogue and to take responsibility. When people strengthen one side or the other they don’t bring about a solution. I see it happening in wars and sudden outbursts of violence, how people gather support, gather legitimization. I even see it on Facebook, where people try to sway me to take sides. If we would refuse to take sides there would be no need for war. Both sides would be on the same side … the human side. We need to cultivate tolerance and understanding. Outside perspective, outside intervention is needed, pressure put on both sides to end the violence.
What’s the best possible thing that could happen as a result of this film?
That people gain hope that there is another way and believe it. We have become so apathetic and disbelieving of peace. We really need that hope and to be moved into action. That people seek to learn more about the other, to take action in any of many ways―in an activist way, in seeking to improve our education, or in the political arena, for example. My ultimate hope is in the leaders of tomorrow, in the education of the young. Most adults come with fixed ideas and it takes a lot to change them. For young people, especially teens, the film can make them think twice before they act, before they serve in the army―ask how they’re serving, who they’re serving, what they’re up against. For Palestinians, to know there’s another Israeli besides the soldier and the settler and for them to think twice when summoned to a situation of violence. I hope we can all move away from the military and bereaved culture. I believe we must, for the sake of our children!
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.