Saturday, 11 May 2013

Film review: The People and the Olive

“If the tree doesn’t survive, then I don’t survive” – Palestinian farmer, 'The People and the Olive'

Q&A at the screening of 'The People and the Olive'

28th February 2013 – In a low-key screening at the Khalili lecture theatre in SOAS University, there was yet another eye-opening and inspirational film on display from Palestine. 'The People and the Olive' is a feature length documentary following 'The Run Across Palestine' in February 2012. The Run was organised by an American non-profit organisation called 'On the Ground'. They support sustainable community development across the world and recently had undertaken a similar run across Ethiopia and raised money enough to build three schools.  This was a gruelling run undertaken by six Americans. They ran 129 miles in five days across the occupied West Bank. Their aim was to raise awareness about the struggles of Palestinian olive farmers and their determination to organise and overcome the barriers of occupation by tending their groves. In a show of solidarity, olive tree saplings were replanted along the route at locations where land was lost to illegal settler activity, and olive trees uprooted.

The opening of the film introduces the audience to the concept of the Palestinian olive tree. Palestinian culture, cuisine, proverbs, economy, landscape and peaceful resistance are all intertwined with this special tree and its fruit. This was clearly displayed in the opening of the film through emotive interviews with farmers interspersed with beautiful images of the olive grove landscape synonymous with Palestine. These showed local farmers eulogising about their 'sacred' trees and what they mean to the Palestinian people. “The same hands that raised them are the same hands that raised us” refers the uncountable generations of families looking after trees whose ages span from 200 to 2000 years old, tended from generation to generation within the same families. It was therefore difficult to watch these same farmers' testimonies of the Israeli practice of olive tree uprooting and land expropriation by illegal settlements and the state, preventing farmers from reaching their ancient trees. The pain was palpable - it was much akin to grieving a lost family member which was edified by one who said “when one tree is destroyed it’s like destroying our children”. The figures speak for themselves. The film pointed out that 500,000 olive trees have been destroyed by Israel since 2004. Of a total of 7.1 million olive trees, Palestinians are denied access to 2.1 million due to the multifaceted Israeli occupation. Indeed harvesting olives, pressing them into oil and exporting the product has been seen as a form of resistance. It serves as a reminder that Palestine exists, and that the roots of the Palestinian people are entwined with those roots that have tunnelled the soil for generations.

This introduction set the scene for an important and much undermined cause. Six fresh and energetic Americans self-labelled as “ultra-marathon runners” came to run the demanding but beautiful Palestinian landscape. Their aim was to show solidarity, to experience the hardship of Palestinian farmers and to pledge support for co-operative groups of farmers working to ensure the future of fair-trade organic Palestinian olive oil. They ran from a village outside Hebron in the south to a village called Birqin in the north, home of Canaan Fair Trade olive oil. They were subject to harassment and arrests by the Israeli police and army. Armed with nothing more than olive tree saplings intended to replace uprooted Palestinian trees, they were met with Israeli bullets and tear gas. 

Despite their challenges the runners persevered. They crossed the West Bank stopping at villages and towns on the way. At each village they were greeted by the local people in ceremonies of celebration, food, scout parades, musicians, dancers and drummers. The runners were taken in as heroes and they expressed their delight at the renowned Palestinian hospitality. In an emotional ending they finished at the Canaan Fair Trade olive oil company in the village of Birqin, where they were honoured to have an ancient olive tree named after them. 

Canaan Fair Trade olive oil
Following the screening, a question and answer section took place with Claire (one of the runners), Odeh (an olive farmer), Atif Choudury (from Zaytoun CIC) and Manal (from the Canaan fair trade olive oil cooperative).  They really gave a face to Palestinian olive oil and passionately spoke of the benefits the Canaan cooperative has yielded to its members. Odeh spoke of being able to send his children to university and building a house whilst his community have invested in their infrastructure and their arable lands with the cooperative proceeds. Manal also reminded us that there is a story and family behind each bottle of olive oil. This product and the cooperative is a marvel in two ways. Firstly, each bottle is subject to the occupation. This means restrictions in movements, land expropriation and demolition, and soaring costs of exportation through an apartheid system. Its arrival at European and American dinner tables is an achievement in itself. However secondly, despite the conditions, Canaan olive oil is of an exceptional quality. In a taste competition in a German food festival with olive oil connoisseurs, Palestinian organic olive oil came 9th out of 94 specialty highly refined organic olive oils. Most of these oils came from heavily subsidised European groves against which Palestinian oil more than holds its own in quality. I for one will be buying organic fair-trade Palestinian olive oil. Visit the Zaytoun CIC website for more details on the story behind Palestinian produce and how to buy it.


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