West Bank Story

U.K.-based producer Sally Aitken had never shot a doc in a conflict zone. She quickly learned the intricate diplomacy and improvisation required to get the job done while filming. KIMBERLEY BROWN reports
April 1, 2003

U.K.-based producer Sally Aitken had never shot a doc in a conflict zone. She quickly learned the intricate diplomacy and improvisation required to get the job done while filming. KIMBERLEY BROWN reports

December 4, 2002, afternoon

On the outskirts of Bethlehem is a hill of dirt and rocks that serves as an unofficial entrance to the biblical city. Local taxi drivers know the place well and use it to ferry people in and out of Bethlehem whenever the main checkpoint is closed. It’s a dangerous practice; an unmarked vehicle on the road illegally is simply a moving target. London, U.K.-based producer Sally Aitken and director Ed Kellie were about to film the story of these taxi bandits when a driver pulled up with news from the local grapevine. ‘Don’t go into town,’ he warned. ‘The Israeli army have come in their tanks and they’re starting to throw tear gas and mortar bombs.’

Aitken turned to Kellie for his reaction. ‘I think it’s a hoax,’ he said. After only a week, the pair were growing immune to the idea of looming danger. Still, they decided not to risk entering the city, and instead waited to see if the situation improved. They sat down on the dirt pile and reviewed the day. This was the second story to fall through, but another was planned for that night.

Just then, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier came racing over the mound, his gun pointed at two Palestinians running on the road below. Also in the soldier’s sights was the doc-makers’ Bethlehem-based fixer, Yousef, who was waiting on the street near his car. Aitken absorbed the grim possibilities of the situation only after Yousef started yelling, ‘Don’t shoot, I’m a journalist!’

Maybe this wasn’t the best place to be hanging around.

Time together with no time to spare

Trying to make a documentary in a volatile environment is never easy, but at the end of 2002, filming in Bethlehem was close to impossible.

It was less than three weeks before heading to Israel that Aitken, a freelance producer, received word from Nick Catliff, director of U.K. prodco Lion Television, that Channel 4′s news and current affairs department had finally greenlighted Twelve Days in Bethlehem. The 12 x 4-minute series gives a dozen different perspectives on celebrating the holidays in a conflict zone and is loosely based on the 12 days of Christmas. C4 wanted the vignettes to follow the evening news during the holiday season, which allowed approximately five weeks to pull the production together from start to finish.

The team at Lion immediately set about planning the shoot in Israel – hiring local fixers to accompany Aitken and Kellie, securing the necessary press badges and trying to do leg work on the stories that would be filmed – but soon realized the country’s complex political situation made preparations from afar difficult. ‘We thought all that would become easier when we got there and met people, but that wasn’t the case,’ recalls Aitken. ‘The ground shifts all the time.’

On November 21, 2002, four days before the 27-year-old producer flew to Tel Aviv, advance planning became even more futile. A Palestinian suicide bomber from Bethlehem blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing 11 people. The Israeli government responded by placing Bethlehem under 24-hour military curfew, confining residents to their homes and prohibiting entry to and exit from the town.

‘I was told during my hostile environments [training] course that there are ways around every curfew,’ says Aitken. ‘I thought, ‘You’re kidding yourself if you think I’m going to go around a curfew.’ And what do you know, it got put under military curfew. That meant we were going into Bethlehem illegally. Fantastic.’

December 4, 2002, late afternoon

After the soldier disappeared down the road in pursuit of the two Palestinians, Aitken and Kellie decided to drive to Bethlehem’s official checkpoint. They had filmed a story there less than 24 hours earlier and remembered the location provided panoramic views of the town.

The curfew confined Yousef to Bethlehem, but the pair’s Jerusalem-based fixer, Massad, was also with them, so they jumped in his car. When the filmmakers arrived at the checkpoint, however, the military turned them away. A suicide bomb alert was in effect and the soldiers weren’t willing to risk cluttering the area with a film crew. The warning also meant that everyone was being thoroughly inspected at all checkpoints, creating heavy traffic on the roads. Aitken sank into the car’s front seat and watched the sky turn crimson as they inched through the gridlock. ‘Great,’ she thought. ‘The sun is going down on the Holy Land and I’m stuck in a car.’

At least there was that night’s filming of idf soldiers celebrating Hanukkah. The holiday commemorates Jewish victory and is traditionally spent with family, so the topic would be poignant and timely. It took several days to arrange, but that morning they made plans to shoot on the military intelligence base near Bethlehem.

Hurried and worried and…

Inconvenience in the name of safety meant even the best-laid plans were subject to change. ‘We had to operate like a news crew,’ says Aitken. ‘Observational documentary filmmaking means you go with the flow, but this was plus 10, because we had such a limited time frame.’

When the crew managed to get into Bethlehem, says Aitken, they usually had only a few hours to film before the army rolled in and forced them to leave again. ‘We had all the typical production worries, like is the light okay? Is there enough battery left in the camera?’ she explains. ‘But, then we were in an environment that was dangerous and unfamiliar and constantly changing. We often didn’t have the luxury of worrying about technical things.’

Even outside of Bethlehem, things had a habit of going pear shaped. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ran for reelection in January and the army’s presence was stepped up to promote stability. ‘Movement was really difficult,’ says Aitken. ‘There was nothing uniform about anything. The only constants were that you had to constantly evaluate your situation, constantly refigure your plans, and not be despondent when the story you planned seven times fell over for the eighth time.’

This latter task was among the most challenging. ‘We were emotionally concerned, more than rationally concerned, that we were doing a terrible job,’ recalls Aitken. ‘We worried that nobody in England fully understood the situation. Every time we called, it sounded like we were whinging: We can’t get this, we can’t get that. We could have made the decision not to go in at all, but then we wouldn’t have had a series. We didn’t take undue risks, but we didn’t feel we could come back with nothing.’

December 4, 2002, early evening

Because of the congestion on the roads, Aitken and Kellie decided to head straight to the army base. To film the IDF, a military spokesperson had to be present. By the time they met the rep and settled any last-minute logistical wrinkles, they reasoned, the soldiers would be readying to light the candles for Hanukkah.

Massad’s mobile rang and the fixer, who was translating, indicated it was the rep confirming that night’s shoot. ‘Yes,’ said Aitken, noting that they were almost at the base.

‘Good,’ came the response. ‘Can you pick me up then? I’m in Jerusalem.’

Aitken looked at her watch. Although Bethlehem is only a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem, the checkpoint procedures and traffic meant it could take 90 minutes. How could they make it back in time for Hanukkah at sundown? Yet, without the rep, they couldn’t film on the base.

The producer eventually negotiated to meet the spokesperson just outside Jerusalem. This still meant passing back through the checkpoints, but Aitken decided it was worth it. She needed to keep the rep happy to ensure things ran smoothly that night and to keep the door open for future shoots. She also estimated that despite the heightened security measures, they had just enough time to get back to the base before nightfall.

Massad turned the car around and headed for Jerusalem.

When you’re A fixer, you’re a fixer all the way

Aitken says fixers Massad and Yousef were invaluable for finding stories. ‘We were trying to get documentary stories – the absurdities of life in the West Bank,’ she explains. Often that meant working outside official channels, where fewer people spoke English. One potential story, for example, looked at a family that has tended sheep on the hills surrounding Bethlehem supposedly since before Christ was born. ‘They only spoke Arabic,’ says Aitken. ‘And, we wouldn’t have even known how to find them, because they’re nomadic.’

She adds, however, that because fixers work mostly with news reporters, they have to be alerted to the needs of a documentary crew. ‘We needed to speak to people before we turned up, to get a sense of the story,’ she explains.

Local know-how was also important for weighing the risks associated with getting a story.

‘If the fixers say, ‘It’s bad in Bethlehem today,’ you’re not going in,’ says Aitken. ‘If they say it’s okay, you put your bulletproof vest on, climb over the rubble and hope for the best.’

This second duty was as important as the first. Back in London, Lion Television had hired two Jerusalem-based fixers. Both were highly recommended, but when one showed more interest in answering his phone than watching their backs, they decided to let him go. ‘I felt we couldn’t proceed without his full commitment,’ says Aitken. He was quickly replaced by Yousef, who was recommended by a bbc crew Kellie bumped into at the government press office in Jerusalem.

‘I wasn’t worried about the physical things [such as being shot],’ explains Aitken. ‘If a riot went off, our mission was to get out. I was worried about being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ This, she continues, is what a fixer helps to avoid. ‘That’s what you’re doing all the time, avoiding trouble,’ she adds.

December 4, 2002, early evening

Massad was doing his best to shorten their travel time. They had already passed through one checkpoint, and he was expertly weaving through traffic in an effort to beat a few cars to the second checkpoint that was at the bottom of the hill they were now descending. Aitken looked past the driver as he overtook a truck and gazed out over the ravine that plunged down the left side of the road. Suddenly, Massad succumbed to a seizure.

Kellie lunged forward from the back seat and grabbed the steering wheel just as Aitken leaned across to do the same. The convulsions locked Massad’s right leg onto the accelerator, and they picked up speed. Aitken looked at the speedometer and considered trying to crash the car. ‘I am not going to die in a car crash,’ she thought, ‘not after going in and out of Bethlehem under curfew.’

Neither filmmaker spoke, but they managed to coordinate their responses. Kellie took command of the steering wheel while Aitken tried unsuccessfully to pull Massad’s leg off the accelerator. She looked out the windshield at the checkpoint now only a few meters away and yanked on the hand break, then threw the car into park. Nothing worked. They went hurtling past the soldiers and waited for the volley of gunfire.

Miraculously, none came. When the car finally stopped, Aitken and Kellie jumped out, their hands in the air, chests swaddled in bulletproof vests, yelling, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’

The border guards were already beside the car, rifles ready. The doc-makers explained the situation and handed over their documents. The soldiers checked both passports and press cards without lowering their guns. Massad was still convulsing in the driver’s seat.

‘I thought you were going to shoot us,’ ventured Aitken.

‘We would have,’ answered one soldier, ‘but it looked strange and we heard weird noises coming from the car.’

She replied, ‘That was us screaming.’

Once the soldiers were satisfied that Massad was truly in trouble, they lowered their weapons and called him an ambulance. Eventually, they started chatting with the producers. When it was revealed that the film the doc-makers were producing was for Channel 4 in the U.K., the armed men started to chuckle. ‘In Israel, Channel 4 is the action movie channel,’ explained one grinning soldier.


Aitken and Kelly eventually filmed the Hanukkah story, although not until the following evening – and without a fixer to guide them. Indeed, when the filmmakers met the soldiers assigned to escort them onto the base, the IDF spokesperson they had picked up earlier jumped out of their car, quickly dressed in a helmet and bulletproof vest, and then climbed into an armored patrol vehicle. Aitken and Kellie were instructed to follow (in their unarmored car), and were warned the trip could be dangerous.

‘You can understand why everyone there is so religious,’ says Aitken, reflecting on her time in Israel. Yet, she continues, the conditions in Bethlehem offered little opportunity for those beliefs to be celebrated. ‘We were making a series about Christmas, but we had to keep finding stories about other things,’ she explains. ‘Everyone in Bethlehem kept telling us there was no Christmas.’

Aitken filmed a Muslim family in a refugee camp at the end of Ramadan, on the Feast of Eid. Like Christmas, the holiday is celebrated by exchanging gifts. But, there were no presents, because the curfew made shopping impossible. And, rather than no room at the inn, the Santa Maria hotel in Bethlehem had only a few guests, despite $4 million in renovations. Says Aitken, ‘What struck me when I came back to England was Christmas.’

The New Zealand-born producer acknowledges that her experience in Bethlehem was particular, given the demands of time and the limitations imposed by the curfew. But, she says, ‘The importance of what we were documenting has stuck with me, if that doesn’t sound terribly arrogant and worthy. I realized back in Britain how much we don’t know about the place.’

The producers eventually shot 15 stories and delivered Twelve Days in Bethlehem to C4 on time. Other episodes include a look at the Jewish National Fund’s efforts to provide Christmas trees to the expat and peacekeeping communities, a profile of a tourist visiting Bethlehem, and a glimpse of the risks facing expectant mothers who defy the military curfew in order to reach a maternity hospital in the West Bank. ‘Our intention was always to do the series in Bethlehem and I think we achieved it, which is remarkable, given the conditions,’ says Aitken.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.