Documentary Review - Apples of the Golan

A look at life in a village in the Golan Heights over the course of five years.


Directed by: Jill Beardsworth, Keith Walsh



Apples of the Golan is a documentary feature by Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth, the filmmaking partnership that operates under the name ‘TwoPair Films’. The film represents the culmination of five years work, embedded among the people of the village of Madjal Shams. The village is sited in the Golan Heights, a mountainous region located on the border between Syria and Israel. Since the events of the Six Day War in 1967, the region has been under occupation by Israeli forces, and Apples of the Golan is a document of the lives of the villagers who have lived under nearly three generations of that occupation.
In terms of style the film is conventional in the best possible way, favouring a ground floor view of the situation. The filmmakers avoid narration or direct editorialising in favour of a multitude of interviews. Content comes first, compared to the formal play and variation of an Alex Gibney or Errol Morris.
The title comes from the main agricultural output of the area, a breed of apple. The Golan people are of the Druze, a monotheistic faith distinct from Islam and Christianity (although influenced by the former) and have a strong sense of cultural identity. The apples, which are lampshaded in the title, become a leitmotif for the local culture. This is journalistic filmmaking however, and more direct attempts at visual metaphor seem hackneyed and unoriginal. I had to wonder, is the film clichéd in this sense, or is it simply a consequence of the subject matter: the Occupied versus the Occupier will tend to follow the same pattern wherever such a conflict plays out, given that the engine is human nature and life during wartime.
Apples is at its strongest when it sticks to its agenda and shows rather than tells. The complexities of the Middle East are made plain early on in the film when we meet a devout nationalistic man whose allegiance to Syria includes a respectful veneration of Bashar Al-Assad. Given the coverage of the recent Syrian Civil War, many Western viewers may find this disconcerting, but it is certainly 'Truth in Journalism'.
The straightforward style of the film means that what’s great about it is what the people say in interviews. The independence movement is mainly composed of middle-aged men who would have been young during the annexation of their home. The young people are more disillusioned, almost pre-emptively jaded. Their citizenship is undetermined, they mainly just want to play music and travel freely. There is a nice shot towards the end of a young couple salsa dancing in the apple groves, which stands in contrast to an earlier scene where a man discusses the symbolic significance of the Syrian apples having five seeds like the five pointed stars of the Syrian flag, compared to the Israeli breeds, which he asserts have six seeds, like the Star of David.
Apples of the Golan accumulates short sequences without much overarching context other than the broad historical story described in a few captions. The result is a very thorough sketch of the region and its population and their troubles. The landscape is very beautiful and contrasts the simmering tensions that exist there. The main merit I think is that it is rare to find a film which deglamourises the idea of conflict without contriving to replace that glamour with a darkness or sense of foreboding. The film presents a historical struggle as it is lived on the ground, at the pace at which people live.




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