by James Stratton (@atxfornian)
Parkour offers a seductive freedom: When you know you can grab that ledge, make the jump between two roofs, a new world is born. You see paths hidden to others. It’s your little secret, a dazzling display of dexterity and athleticism that no one can take.
Those feelings are what drew Michael Rowley, a Dallas-based director, to Palestinian parkour. His upcoming film, Hurdle (set to premier early 2019), shows the lives of Sami and Mohammed, two young men living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Mohammed takes up photography; his camera is his escape. Sami finds an outlet as a traceur (a parkour athlete).
In the following dialogue between Human Influence and Rowley, we learn about the circumstances surrounding Sami and Mohammed’s existence as Palestinians, how daily oppressions grew into their creative outlets, and why this subject lends itself to the documentary film:
Human Influence: How did you become interested in parkour in Palestine? When did you first become aware of it?
Michael Rowley: From the time I was young, Israel and Palestine was an interest and topic of conversation in my community. Growing up in an evangelical Christian context typically comes with a certain narrative about the conflict and people who live within it. As is most people’s experience, in high school and into college I went through a pretty radical deconstruction and reconstruction of my worldview. I investigated the stereotypes and often misguided narratives surrounding this conflict and was surprised at what I discovered.
After college, I was a freelance filmmaker for all different types of organizations. One of my clients was an NGO based in Israel / Palestine. I had been working with them for a few years before I found out about these particular young men who were practicing the sport of parkour under military occupation. I reached out to them online and began communicating in the Spring of 2016.
HI: Why parkour as a subject for documentary?
MR: If this was a film just about parkour I would have made it a bit easier on myself by finding a parkour team in Dallas where I live! All kidding aside, this film is more about investigating the lives of a new generation of Palestinian Muslim men - a group who are often dehumanized and marginalized whether that’s in Western mindsets, or in the region that they live. It is a story of how they choose defiant creativity in the face of injustice and harrowing odds. Palestinians, in general, face everyday challenges to their freedom of movement. This film tells the story of young men living on both side of the Israeli separation wall and how they respond to the restrictions placed upon them.
Initially, I didn’t know how long the film would be and I was solely interested in these young parkour players practicing in this extreme and disturbing environment. I was definitely struck by the metaphorical resonance of a sport focused on freedom of movement in a context where freedom of movement was greatly restricted.
As I began production, the film had a way of revealing itself and I sort of followed its lead and my intuition. This resulted in a second narrative of a young man named Mohammad, living on the opposite side of the wall from the parkour players, being woven into the film in a major way. The film jumps back and forth between the two main characters and documents their similarities and differences when faced with difficult challenges. On one side of the wall, Sami turns to parkour. On the other side of the wall, Mohammad picks up a camera. You’ll have to check out the film in order to see how it all pans out for them.
HI: Parkour is a global phenomenon. What was the inspiration to choose Palestinian youth in particular as the subject for this film?
MR: Definitely! I learned a lot about the sport from observing and hearing from the parkour players in Hurdle. Don’t ask me to do a move, though, because I can’t.
As mentioned before, I had a lot of interest in the region and knowledge about the conflict. Granted, it is not my world or experience, so I’m not claiming to be telling their story - Hurdle is ultimately a product of the creative team behind it.
With that necessary caveat out of the way, I think there are a couple of things that really fascinated me initially about about Palestinians doing parkour. Most obvious is the fact that around ten years ago Israel constructed a massive set of walls and barriers to control the movements of the Palestinian population. What many don’t know is how constrictive and suffocating these physical barriers, policies and permit systems are for Palestinians. At a fundamental level, Palestinians lack basic freedoms for simply being who they are, not necessarily because of anything they’ve done.
So with that stage set, quite literally jumping on the scene, is a group of Palestinian youth taking freedom of movement into their own hands. There is a profound and poetic magic to these young men using the very walls that were built to keep them from moving, and turning them into a launch pad - a fuel for their freedom. It’s a punk rock, flipping of the bird thing to do, in my opinion.
The second thing that was more important to me from the onset might be better conveyed by example. The number one question I get when I tell people that I was filming a documentary in the Palestinian territories is: “Were you scared?” I don’t necessarily blame people for asking and there were times that I was afraid (for reasons that are probably unexpected), but I think this notion comes from the misguided or intentionally misrepresented narratives we’re fed about the Palestinians, or Muslims, in general.
This idea that groups of people, identified by race or nationality, are inherently violent or should be feared is not only outrageously false, but extremely counter-productive. It is an embrace of the message conveyed by the Israeli walls: that some groups need to be contained and controlled rather than embraces as rational and complex people such as ourselves. I think that by watching Hurdle, the audience might find themselves relating to or at least better understanding these Muslim Palestinian men more than they initially thought possible.
HI: Describe reaching out to the parkour artists. How was the process of getting to know them and building enough trust between both parties to film an intimate documentary like this?
MR: I first reached out to one of the players and said: “Hey, I have this idea to do a short doc or maybe something longer. If I book a plane ticket, will you at least meet up with me?” For a few of them, I was the first American they had met. So in some ways I think they were excited about the idea of someone from the U.S. coming to check out what they were doing, but in a lot of ways skeptical and guarded about this random dude invading their life.
I have Palestinian/American friends living in the West Bank. One of them graciously showed up to our first meeting to make sure the language barrier wasn’t an issue and he, in effect, vouched that I could be trusted. You have to understand that this is very much a conflict environment where life is ruled by often arbitrary and arguably unjust military law or violence. The nature of the occupation they live under results in them not knowing what is going to happen from day-to-day. Whether they will be arrested, shot, or have their home demolished by a bulldozer are all very real and unfortunate possibilities. Understandably, living within such uncertainty and trauma creates a sense of wariness, skepticism and survival-based instincts. It takes a long time if you’re an outsider to make your way in to their circle of trust.
I shot the film in different phases over the course of 2016 - 2017. I’d come for a few months and then leave for a few months. I think the second time I showed back up from overseas after our initial couple of weeks together, they started to open up more and trust that my intentions were what I had originally communicated. The longer we spent together, the more our relationships built and some of those tough outer layers began to fall away.
I ended up having barbecues with them, spending the night at their homes and meeting their families. I’m extremely grateful to them for allowing me to not only witness, but to be trusted with documenting and sharing a story that showcases elements of their life. By the end of the whole process I was lucky to have gained strong friendships built on trust, intimacy and understanding.
HI: An intense political atmosphere exists around Palestine and Israel. Did you try to work outside of the political issues? Did you feel that they were inescapable at a certain point?
MR: Yeah, I think there are some people out there that wish I would avoid the politics. I have the privilege of making that choice, but unfortunately my subjects do not. If they can’t escape the daily reality of occupation, then in my opinion it would be sugar coating of their reality for the sake of a feel-good movie showing outdoor gymnastics and people practicing photography. With that being said, I tried as much as possible to only address the politics when it came crashing into their personal lives.
If people are tired of documentaries about the politics of Israel / Palestine, then I challenge them personally to do their part in making drastic changes to the reality on the ground. As long as there is a lack of security, dignity and freedom for all people in the region, there should and will be stories coming out of it that aim to shine light into the dark places.
HI: The film’s website describes these parkour artists as operating “in the shadow of a wall”. This wall, of course, being part of the security walls constructed by Israeli Defense Forces around Palestinian territories. As film-makers and film-subjects, what difficulties did you encounter centering your project in a contentious area?
MR: In regards to the the characters, I don’t want to give away too much of the film. But yes, there were some very real and intense moments that resulted in both physical, psychological and emotional pain they had to wrestle with on and off camera. You’ll have to see the film to find out more.
As a filmmaker, there were definitely a few moments that I thought to myself: “Well shit, this could get bad.” Luckily, nothing terrible came of it, though. Whether it was being put in the back of a military jeep and being whisked away and questioned by soldiers or having rubber bullets, tear gas, and possible live rounds fired in our direction. There were some pretty wild moments that I hadn’t experienced before. In those dramatic times the best way to describe it is feeling like a bad dream - like an out-of-body experience in a way. Later when you get home and the adrenaline wears off you can process what happened and that can get you a little freaked out.
I’m not trying to heroicize myself, it was just a necessary part of capturing the story. I knew from the beginning it was probably in the cards and that there was an amount of risk involved. I remember one evening playing Playstation on the rooftop of one of the character’s home with an Israeli sniper tower about a hundred yards away. We were just two friends playing FIFA, but in such a bizarre and nightmarish scenario of uncertainty. That paints a pretty good metaphor for how it felt most of the time - just an ever-present feeling of dread for what could happen next. I, however, have the privilege of being able to escape that reality.
HI: What message do you intend this film to send to youth, in Palestine and around the world?
Keep at it and don’t lose hope. You matter more than what the world may be telling you. The most profound thing you can do is to love yourself, others and then with that as your center create something beautiful.
Thanks for the time, guys. Peace to you all.