Times Will Tell

Podcast: Nigerian-American filmmaker takes on Sderot and Gaza

Filmmaker Ose Oyamendan spent the better part of a decade filming documentary, “Other Voices,” in Israel’s Sderot and in Gaza

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

This week’s Times Will Tell brings us Nigerian-American filmmaker Ose (pronounced OH-SE) Oyamendan, who spent the better part of a decade filming his feature documentary, “Other Voices,” in Israel’s Sderot and in Gaza, to capture a story that is not often told.

The film brings viewers to the unexpected and unusual peace efforts and unwavering friendship between residents of Sderot, Israel and Gaza as the two bordering nations endure ongoing war, animosity and conflict.

“People on different sides of a story find a way not to talk to each other,” said Oyamendan, who refused to talk politics in the film, or edited the topic out of the film. “When you take the politics out of it, it’s a very strong human story.”

During the podcast, Oyamendan talks about what initially brought him to the region, and what it has been like to spend ten years visiting and spending time in the area.

He’s gotten to know his protagonists well, learning how they cope with living in the region and experiencing some of their life as well.

Oyamendan is in Israel this week to premiere the film at the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Cinematheques. “Other Voices” is also being shown on Amazon Prime.

The following transcript has been very lightly edited.

The Times Will Tell: I wanted to understand what brought you to this region from Nigeria, and what introduced you to the story and the protagonist in it? Tell us a little bit about that, please.

Ose Oyamendan: Where I grew up, there were Jewish kids. There were Lebanese kids, Lebanese Arab kids, and we played together, played soccer together, and when we went to high school, they stopped talking to each other, and I was struck by it. I started life as a journalist and I think I subconsciously carried that story with me. And I wrote a short story about two kids who became friends playing football in Jerusalem.

Now, I’d never been to Israel at that time and I don’t even think I thought I would come to Israel, it wasn’t on my radar at all. And so in 2010, I went to Haiti during the earthquake and I ran into this Israeli NGO there. I didn’t know there were really NGOs there and they told me the politics of it, why they don’t announce it.

Why they don’t make it clear that they’re Israeli. I’m just explaining that for listeners.

As they told me, sometimes if they announced themselves as Israeli NGOs, maybe some people will pull out. So I was staying in this hotel that was the best hotel in Haiti at that time, because we had power for 6 hours a night and I think we had power from six to eleven, So that was where ABC network guys were, CNN network was, so everybody tried to get their work done then. They came to me and asked if they could use my computer because they’ve not been able to send messages home. And I didn’t think I was very approachable, so I thought it was very interesting that it’s with me that they had the chutzpah.

So I said, of course. And while they were looking at it, it was like supposed to be a quick thing, but they were there for like maybe an hour or so. So we started talking and I said I wrote this story, this short story. I’ve never been to Jerusalem. Can you help me with the geographical accuracy? So they read it, they said oh, it’s a great story, what do you want to do with it? I said, well, I want to publish it, I want to try to make a film or a TV series one day about something like this, something I’m passionate about. They said there is another story that is true. Have I heard of Gaza? And I said yes. Have you ever heard of Sderot? And I said no. So they are next to each other and that’s where the war is fought for the most part. And there are people on both sides that want a return to the old times when they had peace there.

And they were very friendly with each other, and they had a group called Other Voices. And this man, Eitan, who was one of the three people there, was one of them.

So I said, okay. I said, I love this story. I would like to follow it. I would like to see. I said, can I come? So we communicated by email and then I came, and I was blown away by how close they were to each other. And they were talking on the phone to some people there. And I said they genuinely cared about people on the other side. And then I met Natan, who had lost his daughter in this conflict, and he said, I don’t want the other person’s daughter to suffer what I’ve gone through. And so I met a whole swath of people from both sides, and I decided I would love to tell this story. And that’s how it started.

So that was ten years ago?

Yeah, it’s very tough to get financing for something like this. I did what a poor filmmaker would do. I have these other jobs that I do, so when I have enough money, I put enough money together to get the crew to come and film, because I wanted to have my very independent, my own observation. And I also decided that I want to know how true these people are.

The activists, the protagonists.

Because it’s very easy to want peace until you lose something. So I wanted to see how committed they were, and I also wanted to go to Gaza. So those days make it longer.

I was also struck by how neutral the film was. It felt to me and this is not surprising, really, that it’s a relatively small group of activists on both sides.

When you compare to the population or even the region where they are, it’s small. But I also think one of the reasons why it was fascinating to me is I also felt that a lot of people get lost in the politics of it. And there’s this thing that I found, not just here but all over the world, like people on different sides of the story find a way not to talk to each other, like they just stand there. And my whole thing for me was when you take the politics out of it, it’s a very strong human story, like a very strong, tragic human story. And that’s why I said we will not talk politics. Even the people in Gaza, when they will talk about Hamas, I was saying we’re going to edit those things out. Because I just felt that the moment you bring politics into it, it just becomes like this fire you can’t contain. And of course, there’s politics there, but my own passion was to show people the kind of life people live there and how people cope with that life. And for me, why it shouldn’t be like when you have a child, for instance, and you’re not sure if you say goodbye to your child in the morning, you see them in the afternoon.

And when I come into Israel at the airport and they said, Where are you going? I said, I’m going to Sderot. They say, Are you crazy? I just feel like we had to get the story of these people trying in their own little way, to live a normal life in a place like this right now.

Was Sderot your base for filming?

Yes, because this group is mostly in Sderot. I mean, they spread out around the region, around the kibbutz there, but Sderot was their base and I didn’t want to be one of those people who just helicopter in and I want to feel it. I felt I wanted to feel the heat of the other thing and be able to talk about it not with authority, but with some form of knowledge.

You must have been caught in rocket attacks as well. Can you talk about that? About staying on both sides of the fence, so to speak?

Yeah, I think it was very interesting because we tried for, like, a couple of years to get in [to Gaza] and I could not. I always felt like I don’t have a film without going into Gaza. There are many ways to go into Gaza. You have to get Israeli permits, and then you have to get a Palestinian permit. Now, I had an option. I could come in through Egypt, which I thought was easier, but that is not the world of the story for me. I wanted to go because you could actually walk into Gaza. The gate was open, so I wanted to go. So when I went, I had no idea that I needed a permit to go into Gaza. I thought, I just need an Israeli pass to go into Gaza. So when I got there, they refused me entry.

And they were justifiably angry that I didn’t think this was like an anchor, like a country on its own. And I just tried to explain. I didn’t know. But I sat there because I was convinced this was my chance to do this. So I tried to find a connection. They were talking about football, and I realized that a lot of them were Real Madrid fans. I followed Barcelona.

So we’re talking about soccer. So I think we became human. We just became normal people. We could be in Tel Aviv, we could be in Glasgow, anywhere. And then after a while, this man came. I still remember. I can see his face. He came. And the strange thing is, they don’t speak good English. I don’t speak any Arabic, but we’re able to talk soccer. And then this man came. And I said, Are you Real Madrid, too? He said yeah. And then he called me to go and see. So I found that he’s the head of the whole place, the whole thing. And I think he just thought I was either crazy or something.

I was there for five or six days the first time, so I had to see all my subjects and it’s the kind of thing I’ve never seen. And I tell people it’s tough to describe Gaza and I don’t want to get into the politics of it, but the human aspect of it. They were free to talk politics or talk about their relationship with Israelis, even people that were subjects of the film. They were very bold people.

They were bold to say, there has to be another way. And there are people that will say to me, you put my name in, like, this is what I’m saying. But I think because I come into this as a journalist, my life started as a journalist. And you have to protect your subjects sometimes. And there’s so much stuff we have on the edit room floor that is just amazing, amazing revelations and stories, but also it may not be good for them or their families. So we have to trade that a little bit gently to protect them, in a sense.

Did you come up against anyone on either side who said, I don’t agree with what you’re doing?

I came against a lot of opposition, but I try not to look at the opposition as opposition. I look at it as people expressing their opinion. And one of the things that we do take for granted in the free parts of the world is the fact that we are able to have an opinion. And it’s a great thing. A lot of people die so we can have opinions, we can speak, that we can vote and do all sorts of things. So if you come to me and say, I don’t agree with this, and I say, yes, it’s fine not to agree with it, but do listen, watch the film, listen to the other side. And I’ve met people that are, so I hate to use the term left or right, that are very right. And they watch the film, and you’ll see the scales just for life, because they’ve never understood it like this. They’ve never seen that world like this, because that world is a very political world that people find themselves in. Like I told you, a lot of people know Sderot, a lot of people know Gaza, but all they know about our world is the few inches of print they read in the newspaper or like, they want to make, and that’s it.

I want them to be able to show the human side of it, to be able to show people mentally. I wanted to be able to take people into that geographical place, just put yourself there and see the way it is and then decide what to decide.

How did the protagonists feel about it at first?

I would say a lot of the people we talked to, they wanted to tell their story. And because we did it for a long time, so we’re able to just take the time, get all these people, and then decide what is the story. I think there were a few people that were a little bit shy about it in Gaza. There were people that I would have loved to talk to, I did talk to, and I felt it may not be too safe, some of the things they said. So we just lose those storylines, right?

What happens next with this now? Is this the end of the story for you, or did working on it bring up other storylines here in this region that you think about?

I’m actually going back to what I came to do originally, like developing a TV series about two kids that brought Jerusalem together. I just like this. There’s something about Jerusalem that I find. It’s such a rich place. It’s so rich, it’s so historical, and everything is there. So I’m working on this TV series I’m developing this TV series about two kids who brought Jerusalem together for one day with soccer. I like the inner sense of kids. I like the global nature of soccer. And I think it’s another avenue to say, just take a look at what can happen.

Times Will Tell podcasts are available for download on iTunesTuneIn, Pocket CastsStitcher, PlayerFM or wherever you g your podcasts.

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