At Berlin Fest, Palestinian Film Tackles Prison Trauma

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Haunted by his own time behind bars, Palestinian director Raed Andoni recreates a notorious Israeli interrogation centre -- and has ex-prisoners re-enact experiences in a bid to set their demons free.

In the running for best documentary at the Berlin film festival, Andoni's "Istiyad Ashbah" (Ghost Hunting) examines the rarely documented collective trauma suffered by former Palestinian prisoners.

"In Palestinian society, to survive detention and interrogation is like a rite of passage, you either come out a hero or you come out totally broken," the celebrated Ramallah-based filmmaker told AFP this week after the film's Berlinale premiere.

"And then people compare notes: how many days without sleep? How long in solitary?" the 45-year-old said.

Having been imprisoned himself in his youth, he said he remained "haunted by flashbacks" such as the sound of doors slamming shut and the feeling of a fabric bag being pulled over his head.

Shot over seven weeks in a hangar in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the film brings together around a dozen former detainees of all ages and backgrounds, who are asked to recreate the notorious Russian Compound jail in west Jerusalem from memory.

 - Role play - The participants rebuild the detention centre in painstaking detail, from the size of their cells to the colour of the tiles and even the pulley they say was used to lift inmates off the ground during what they described as torture sessions.

Slowly they bring the place of their nightmares back to life -- and as the walls go up, the memories come bubbling back to the surface, forcing the men to confront their memories and breaking taboos in the process.

"I use everything I can in the film to help them dig into their subconscience," Andoni said, explaining that he wanted to peel away layer after layer of repression to find "the ghost inside".

For some of the ex-detainees it was too much and they walked away from the project.

"I told everyone from the first day of shooting that you have the right to quit," he said, adding that there were psychologists on set to provide emotional support.

His quest to push the men to their limits makes for uncomfortable viewing at times, particularly in the drawn-out torture scenes when the former inmates play the roles of Israeli interrogators or prison wardens.

Having already explored the topic of trauma in his first feature-length film "Fix Me", which delves into his own psychoanalysis sessions, Andoni said this time he wanted to face the painful memories of his detention through the eyes of others.

The experience has been cathartic, he said.

"When I think about it now I (think) back more to the movie, and that was the idea," he said.

His young assistant director Wadee Hanani, who was held at the Russian Compound detention centre for 45 days in 2009, said the film had helped him find some closure as well.

"I haven't yet digested everything that happened, I am on the way, I am more connected. But I need time."

Israeli NGOs have accused Israel's Shin Bet domestic security agency of abusing Palestinians under interrogation in a manner so systematic it points to official endorsement. 

The country has also come under fire at the United Nations over allegations of prisoner abuse -- charges it rejects.

"Ghost Hunting" is being screened in the Panorama sidebar section of the Berlinale film festival.

The award for best documentary will be handed out on February 18.

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