As violence escalates on all sides, Gillian Mosely, director of The Tinderbox, believes we will never see peace until we address the roots of the conflict
A tinderbox is similar to a powder keg, liable to ignite at any moment. The more I learn about Israel/Palestine the more apt this description. Five years ago I set out to make a single film that would allow audiences to understand what’s been happening in Israel/Palestine for the past century and used this metaphor as the documentary’s title. Despite being told that there must already be historically rigorous, balanced films marrying past context to the present, I have not found another. When I began making The Tinderbox, little did I realise the film’s preview screenings would be running as I watched the escalating violence in Jerusalem and its reverberations around Israel and Gaza.
I am a British-American Jew raised in London and New York and am descended from three rabbinical lines, including one of Britain’s earliest Chief Rabbis, Haham De Sola. In 1805 he took his post at Bevis Marks Synagogue, now the oldest functioning synagogue in Britain. But it was left to his son-in-law, my great-great-great-grandfather, Hazan DA De Sola, to translate the Sephardi prayer book into English. On my mother’s side my great-uncle Gershon Sirota was a Cantor known as the Jewish Caruso. With this background it will come as no surprise that I was raised Zionist.
But my relationship to Zionism changed because of a lifelong friendship that began in a London nightclub when I was eighteen. Because Tamer and I were primarily interested in fashion, parties, and clubs, it was at least five years before either of us realised that I was Jewish and he was Palestinian. Around this time I started hearing about how his family (an ancient As violence escalates on all sides, Gillian Mosely, director of The Tinderbox, believes we will never see peace until we address the roots of the conflict Jerusalemite family which holds the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) were litigating for the return of property that had been taken from them after the formation of Israel. This was not the story I’d been told so I started reading every book I could get my hands on.
I soon realised there were a huge number of myths circulating, widely presented asfact, and wondered how any kind of effective peace can ever be brokered if so many falsehoods dominate the conversation. It was this situation that I sought to address with this film. One of the most common myths is that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. The Tinderbox clarifies that while the events of WWII cemented the foundation of the State of Israel, the story actually begins in 1917, against the background of WWI. The motivations for this move, and indeed the people involved, turned out to be very different to those commonly perceived.
A second trope in common circulation is that Palestine never existed prior to the last century. The country in question has been known as Canaan for most of its recorded history; however, in the fifth century BC Herodotus first referenced Palestine. The Romans called it Palaestina Prima, Secunda, and Tertia, and antique maps name it as Palestine (and Transjordan.) The Ottoman Empire was in its final days and the film details a number of the changes going on. It’s during this period, in 1915, that the historical investigation that runs through the film begins. This narrative also briefly explores who ruled Canaan and when, and the roots of contemporary Zionism. Again, there is a lot of widespread mythology around this timeline.
It is also worth clarifying that, as you will see in the film, the catalyst for today’s violence was neither Palestinian nor Jewish. Rather, Britain and the early members of the League of Nations (preceding the UN) kicked off patterns that still dominate today. This took place in the era of dying colonialism, and this fact is also important. I chose to tell the historical story using archive and diary readings, and working with these resources was a delight. The archive (mostly newsreel footage) tells its own eloquent story.
As a filmmaker I have long felt it’s important to include a picture of the present day to show how history relates to us now, so the film also follows my journey around Israel and the West Bank, where I spent time with a wide range of people, from a Jewish settler to a political member of Hamas. If the film is to be taken seriously as a film to aid understanding of Israel and Palestine, we feel it is crucial to be as balanced as possible.
It was this physical journey that I found most challenging. Part of this was logistics. On one occasion it took us two hours to drive 25-odd miles because of the chaos created by the partition wall and roadblocks. Imagine having to do this on a daily basis. Additionally, even left-wing Israelis cautioned me that going to the West Bank could be dangerous. This was not the experience we had on any of our three filming trips. However, what became increasingly apparent is that in addition to creating second- and third-class citizens, the wall has fostered an escalating sense of fear and mistrust among both communities. If people wish to create genuine peace this seems a poor way to go about it.
It is also worth clarifying that the catalyst for today’s violence was neither Palestinian nor Jewish. Rather, Britain and the early members of the League of Nations kicked off patterns that still dominate today
The film goes into a lot of depth about today’s current climate, but as I don’t want to give too much away, I’ll just touch briefly on my experience meeting a wide array of people. Firstly, almost nobody conformed to the stereotypes originally held by my cameraman and myself. I spent time with four key characters – Muna Tannous, a Christian Palestinian, Israel Medad, a Jewish settler, Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist, and Kobi Farhi, the Jewish frontman of Israeli metal band Orphaned Land. Alongside this, we also vox-popped a number of people, mostly randomly, including Mrs Mansour, a physics teacher, elected member of Hamas in Nablus and the wife of a prominent martyr. And although we were told we couldn’t go to Gaza, we spent time on the Gaza border. Again, I do not want to pre-empt the film, but I do want to stress that few of the people I met were what I expected, and I ended up liking everybody on a human level.
The third narrative of the film is my own personal journey. This reflects not just my reactions to what I experience but also discoveries about my family and its ties to early Zionism.
Finally I want to turn to the challenges of making the film. Although WWI and the British Mandate of Palestine set the scene for today’s violence, our search to find programmes on British TV about this era that lasted more than a few minutes harked back to an ITV series in 1978. A small handful of other historical films can be seen on YouTube. It’s pretty easy to see why the roots of today’s violence have been forgotten – how many of us want to wade through 600-page tomes?
We originally wanted to make the film for British TV to mark the centenary of The Balfour Declaration, but after two years of trying to raise money to make The Tinderbox it became clear that despite being a BAFTA/RTS-winning, Oscar-nominated documentary film team, we were going to have to make this film unpaid. No one was interested. Thankfully crowdfunding enabled us to pay for many of the costs that couldn’t be deferred and three years later the film is being distributed.
The Tinderbox reaches a number of conclusions. It clarifies how the roots of this continuing saga still affect the lives of Israelis and Palestinians to this day. I was surprised by how strongly questions around democracy came to the fore, and by the interwoven patina of racism that is far more complicated than most mainstream dialogues suggest. But, ever the optimist, I am convinced that in identifying these roots, The Tinderbox also points the way towards a solution. But only if we are willing to face and address historic wrongs.
A preview screening of “The Tinderbox” is being hosted by The Balfour Project and The Amos Trust on 17 June at 7pm. The screening will be followed by a director’s Q&A. Visit watch.eventive.org and enter The Tinderbox in the search bar.
Gillian Mosely is a Bafta Award-winning and RTS-winning producer. “The Tinderbox” is her directorial debut. More info at medialabuk.com and TheTinderboxFilm.com