Occupied Lives: A Q&A with May Odeh
17.10.2011 - Inspiring and
introspective, May Odeh's feature documentary debut Diaries leads us on a compelling
journey into a lesser-known Gaza Strip through the intimate
reflections of three young women. Before the film premieres in
ADFF's Documentary Feature Competition, Odeh took the
time to answer some of our questions.
Can you tell us about the genesis of your
Two years ago during Israel's mad and massive war on my
Palestinian people in Gaza City, I was at home in Lillehammer, in
Norway. I started receiving emails from an old friend, Safa. I
had studied with her for four years at Birzeit University [on the
West Bank]. But I had lost contact with her when she decided to go
back to Gaza.
With the help of her emails, I followed up on the Israeli
attacks, from a different perspective - Safa's perspective. Safa, a
29-year-old from Gaza, broke her siege and her helpless feelings
through the diaries that that she was circulating to all of her
contacts during the war. Her words encouraged me to take up the
[challenge] of Gaza, which is a Palestinian city that Israel does
not allow us to enter. Israel has been imposing an inhumane and
illegal blockade on Gaza for around five years now. The blockade
applies to land, sea and air. Therefore I determined to get to Gaza
in any way, no matter what price I would have to pay. I started to
think of how I could reach Gaza - whether through Egypt or through
Palestine, I had no idea; all I knew for sure was my own
determination to be there in a short period of time.
What difficulties did you face while preparing and
It took me three months to prepare and make the needed
arrangements to enter Gaza. I also had to go through endless
discussions with my family and close friends. They were all worried
about my safety during the trip, as the situation was very
dangerous there; and they were worried about whether, having once
been there, Israel would ever allow me back into Palestine again.
However, I traveled from Norway to Egypt, and then to Gaza through
the Rafah Crossing. And I made it to Gaza. I met Safa. And I loved
During my stay I met two other girls (Asma Shaker and Asma Al
Ghoul) who introduced me to another scene in Gaza. They told me
about how difficult it was for them to meet boys. I was shocked,
and I realized that the Israeli occupation manages to make it
[twice as] difficult for these people, by imposing the siege that
naturally isolates the people of Gaza, and also makes them live
under conservative and extreme conditions.
What I heard from the two women made me rethink the definition of
freedom for me as a Palestinian woman living under the occupation
my whole life. I grew up dreaming about getting my freedom.
But now that I am 29 years old, I have discovered through these
women's stories that not only by fighting the occupation can we be
free. We also need to fight our conservative society and its
So I decided that with Diaries I will try to ask
questions of Palestinians, who live under the illusion of fighting
against one occupation, and ignore freeing themselves. And
Diaries is a simple example of what women are facing in
this sick society. During the two weeks in Gaza I managed to get a
lot of footage of the remnants of the bombing and the siege, in
addition to the women's stories. The first two weeks I was filming
with a small crew, a camera-man and a driver, both of whom were
from Gaza. Several times the cameraman was hesitant to film because
he was scared of what he might face afterwards from Hamas… [That's
when he] understood the pressure that someone could face living in
such a conservative society. Anyone could be detained for any
reason in this place….
What were your biggest challenges and
After two weeks, when I decided to go out of Gaza, I
couldn't; I was stuck there. I had been promised a way out from
different sides, from the Egyptians and the Palestinian Authority.
But the Israeli side was letting all the efforts down.
I became depressed. I stayed at the house; my bags were packed;
I was constantly waiting on a call any minute, waiting to be
released. This waiting process lasted for days, during which I
moved to my friend's house. Only then I started to live the siege,
not only to film it. I started to hate the noise of the
electrical generators, started to feel what was missing from the
supermarkets. And on top of everything, feeling useless, that you
can't control your own life. Then I decided to get over it and take
my camera and wander around the beautiful city of Gaza by myself.
The camera was my only relief - I documented my days and this gave
me strength. This made me think even more about the film as a
I got stuck in Gaza for two and a half months. None of my
efforts to leave worked - only my Norwegian student card was able
to rescue me in the end. I applied to the Norwegian embassy in
Cairo, telling them that I had to go back to resume my studies in
the university. The permission took one and a half months to be
issued. It felt weird to be able to enter and leave a Palestinian
city because you are a student in a foreign university and not
because you are Palestinian.
How do you position yourself and your work among
Palestinian and Arab documentary filmmakers?
I definitely consider myself one of the young Palestinian
filmmakers who are constantly working to establish a Palestinian
cinema industry that will tell their stories and present their
suffering to the world. I value the role that cinema can play to
change realities, and I believe a Palestinian cinema industry could
one day be a powerful tool for resistance.
After your studies in Norway you returned to Palestine,
where you currently live. Was it challenging to come back? How will
you use the Norway experience in your work?
After living in Norway for three years, I discovered how it is
to live a normal and easy life, away from the complications of our
life in Palestine. However, my passion has always been making films
about something I relate to - Palestine - and I wanted to work on
the ground to initiate an infrastructure for a Palestinian cinema
industry, which can create a change in my society.
Coming back was not an easy decision. In Palestine, we lack
funding, equipment, professional theaters - and of course the
occupation makes everything more complicated, and sometimes
impossible. You cannot move freely, so imagine how hard filming a
simple scene would be! As with anything, it's not easy to
achieve in Palestine, but the tough moments are always filled with
What are the channels, in your opinion, that will help
women fight for their freedom of expression in the male-dominated
society of Palestine?
First of all, as women, we have to believe in ourselves, and that
we can create a positive change; and we have to insist on our right
to education. We have to reach out to the world through blogging,
film and writing. Facebook and Twitter are great tools in our
present day that women can use to deliver a message and campaign
against any oppression they face.
Diaries screens Wednesday, October 19
at 7:00pm and Thursday, October 20 at 4:30pm at Marina Mall's VOX
Cinema. Director May Odeh will be in attendance to answer