Founder of worldwide sensation ‘Riverdance’ takes on Israeli occupation

McColgan’s treatment of the settlement issue is spot-on.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Gripping intensity. A scene from “This is Palestine,” co-produced by Tyrone Productions and Trócaire. (Trócaire)
Gripping intensity. A scene from “This is Palestine,” co-produced by Tyrone Productions and Trócaire. (Trócaire)

WASHINGTON - Irish producer John McColgan, the founder of the $1 billion “Riverdance” sensation in 1995, has marked the 50th anniversary of Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza with the film “This is Palestine.”

The purpose of the documentary was “to [show] how the lives of people in the region have been affected by occupation, segregation, restriction of movement and ongoing violence,” McColgan said.

The film was shown in January at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, which was established in 1922 to serve as a forum to engage in policy discussions. The audience was small but vigorously engaged.

An Israeli-American woman spoke of breaking with her own family over the occupation. An employee of the US Department of State admitted that, for the first time in her career, she was losing hope. She asked how there could be a move forward when even non-violent activists are marginalised and arrested by both Palestinians and Israelis.

Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said the occupation has reached such a point and with the United States having no pretence of being an honest broker, the two-state solution is dead.

Stella O’Leary, director of the Irish-American Democrats’ political action committee, which helped promote the film, explained that many Irish share a connection with and empathise with the Palestinians given their own history. Both Irish and Palestinians, O’Leary noted, have been underdogs amid decades of violent conflict, with many not being able to own land, having their freedom of movement restricted and being subjected to food deprivation.

“The difference in this conflict (Israeli/Palestinian) is that the governments cannot be said to be honest brokers,” she said, noting that during the Northern Irish peace process, US President Bill Clinton overruled the British government’s objection and granted Irish politician Gerry Adams a visa to take part in negotiations in the United States, while she sees no honest broker in the Palestinian case.

McColgan mentioned that some Palestinians had expressed a glimmer of hope that with an unconventional US president such as Donald Trump there may be a chance for peace. That glimmer has whimpered into the ether.

McColgan did a 10-day film shoot, visiting the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which many film-makers avoid. Due to time constraints, the 49-minute documentary treats some topics with great intensity and not others.

He bemoaned the fact that, while the world’s media were focused elsewhere, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued to worsen. He seemed to have decided to highlight the misery, though sprinkling some hope by ending with examples of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

The visual sweep impressively captures the expanding settlement blocks, the Israeli-only roads, property destruction, the checkpoints and military presence in many frames.

McColgan’s treatment of the settlement issue is spot-on. With a strong narrative and the Israeli spokesman’s statements, the duplicity of the government’s policy and facile interpretations of international agreements shine for all to see. The official’s denial of discrimination in utilities is excellent, contrasted by the Jericho and fountain images. The film’s focus on the wall covered key legal points with good footage.

Filming dwells long amid the horrific human tragedy in Gaza, which deserves weight to convey the vastness of this human rights disaster; the vignette about the fisherman offers an angle many film-makers miss. It was valuable to hear Sister Bridget’s witness account of even losing hope herself. However, a callous but calculated edit of both would have opened space for other content.

Besides its purpose to expose what’s really happening to Palestinian lives, one of McColgan’s key film objectives was to encourage the Irish government to recognise a Palestinian state. Conversations with well-attired Palestinian professionals would have gently nudged stereotypes among grassroots viewers and nurtured credence in the capacity for self-governance.

Viewers would have benefited from balanced imagery and dialogue, including with families — for example from Bethlehem and Ramallah — who also face daily restrictions, property theft, shortages, home invasions and grenade firings.

The Hebron visit was powerful. McColgan’s profound shock was visceral; he saw the apartheid of life there as a microcosm of the broader conflict. The settlers’ comments about NGOs perfectly illustrated Israel’s demonisation of aid groups — the origins of the new border blacklist.

Much more could be said. Given Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December, followed by the shockingly draconian cuts in humanitarian aid to Palestinians, the occupation may be facing an implosion. The arrogance of former Israeli General Rafael Eitan’s famous quote haunts: “When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.”

With cuts to security, starvation and unemployment, the power may shift. The film is available on YouTube.