Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, documentary filmmaker

Showing the beauty and connecting it to the tragedy is exactly what people should be doing 06/05/2013

Laura van Rij (LR): What is your connection to Lifta?

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon (EUS): My family moved to Israel when I was thirteen years old, we moved from Boston to Ramot, which is in what they call Northern Jerusalem. It’s mostly on the other side of the Green Line, which no one seems to care about anymore. Technically, it’s a settlement. It’s also just opposite Lifta, it’s a short hike from where my family lived. From their house you can see the ruins of Lifta from the backyard. When I was young my father used to take me and my brother to Lifta to hike there. We would go to get the ritual bath, something religious Jewish males do. That was my original encounter with the place, I had no… I mean, it was always a beautiful place and I didn’t know anything about the history. I think I heard some stories about the village going back all the way to the time of Joshua. Over the last ten years the Israelis have made different signs for the village. When I went there as a child it was still called Lifta but now it´s called Mei Niftoach, which is again this strange biblical reference to Joshua, I don´t think it´s accurate. I didn’t know anything about Lifta until I started filming there and I met Eitan from Zochrot and talked to some of the New Historians, like Benny Morris and IlanPappe.

LR: How was it to go back while knowing the history? 

EUS: It is very painful. It was painful because this was an important place for me when I was growing up. I always had a strong connection to Lifta, I thought it was beautiful. Now I learned that it is sort of emblematic of a much larger tragedy, to what it represents. The last time I went there it was really, really painful. I went down and I saw that they had blocked the spring. The water had stopped flowing into the basin. According to Jewish law you are not allowed to swim in a certain time of the year. When I´m around my family, they don´t have the same awareness that I do about the politics of the place. They just say come on let´s go to Lifta to hike, or for whatever reason. It´s to painful for me nowadays, so I don´t go.

LR: You also don´t go on your own anymore? Or just not with them?

EUS: It´s difficult to go with people who are unaware but it´s also difficult to go alone. I don´t know, being an Israeli is a very complicated thing right now and Lifta is emblematic of this. I try to resist the kind of psychological separation that is built into the place. So I haven´t been back. I made three or four trips to Lifta to get the footage for the film I´m making about the place but I haven´t been back since then. 

LR: Is there a specific site that you like or used to like in Lifta?

EUS: I love the place but it kind of represents my changing awareness about what is really going on in Israel, that makes it complicated. I have very fond memories from my childhood about spending time there. I´m still trying to figure out how to relate to all of this with my new awareness. Lifta is a very important visual and thematic anchor in the film but I don´t want to be exploitative about the place.

LR: You have the feeling you are exploiting the place?

EUS:  No, I think showing the beauty and connecting it to the tragedy is exactly what people should be doing. I do feel that just going there for the hell of it as a pleasure hike is a little uncomfortable. My family has a pool in Ramot, from the pool you can see the ruins of Lifta. It brings home all these feelings of privilege and I´m trying to use my Jewish privilege in a responsible way.

LR: How did people react to you filming there?

EUS: I had this encounter with a teenager. It was a pretty profound kind of experience for me because he goes there like I did, for fun. He is probably in the army now… He went to the same high school as I did in Jerusalem. He is Israeli and I come from a slightly more complicated background but we went to the same high school, he comes from the same world as I came from, he was telling about that we have to expel the Arabs while standing in Lifta, that was a really powerful experience for me. The Zochrot tour was another, to hear from a refugee who had lived there and actually to have him point at the forest where my family´s house is and say Lifta used to expand all the way there, that was a big realisation. Part of Ramot was built on the land of Lifta.

LR: How did your conversation continue?

EUS: We kept talking but it’s like being on a different planet. It was disturbing for me to see things like that. I grew up with religious Zionists; I remember some of my high school friends being really happy about the Goldstein massacre, but most people were not so extreme. These kids just said they wanted to kick all the Arabs out, for me it was a tragic marker that things have deteriorated way beyond what I thought it had. When I was young it was never socially acceptable to say that we just have to expel the Arabs. So the conversation didn’t go anywhere, I tried to reason with him a little bit, but that´s usually futile. 

LR: How did you manage to change your point of view, being surrounded by Zionists?

EUS: I was raised as a religious Zionist. Both religion and Zionism were important parts in my upbringing and I rebelled against both at an early age. I moved to Israel when I was thirteen so my values were already partially formed. I´m not sure why people resist the dominant narrative that they are raised on, but I know that when you apply reason to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the narrative falls apart.

LR: What do you think will happen to Lifta?

EUS: I think the refugees should decide what happens there. We know who they are and the Palestinian refugees know who they are and I think they should decide on the future of the place. If they want to return they should be given the resources to do that.That´s in an ideal world.I think a lot of fundamental changes have to happen in the region before anything constructive can happen in Lifta. I think it´s just an accident of history that the structures of the houses of Lifta are still there, and that it´s such a beautiful place. I think the beauty of the place in itself is really compelling, but its beauty can also help people to imagine the future. Because there are still physical structures the leap of imagination is not that dramatic, you don´t need as much visual reconstruction while imagining return, that is very powerful. People can take in the stillness of the place that is required to meditate on a more positive future. I hope that´s what happens.