One of the year’s finest documentaries is Ayelet Heller’s “Strawberry Fields,” which focuses on the challenges and crises facing Palestinian strawberry farmers at Beit Lahiya in Gaza. Strawberries are the only food sold for export as Palestinian produce, but they can only get to market through Israel. When the Israeli-Hamas conflict of May 2005-April 2006 closed the borders, the Beit Lahiya strawberries were prevented from being sold and the Palestinian farmer suffered tremendous losses.
For Heller, an Israeli filmmaker, “Strawberry Fields” provided a rare opportunity to create a film that focused on the economic aspect of the seemingly endless conflict between the government of Israel and the people of the Palestinian territories. The film also offers an uncommonly detailed examination of the hard work that goes into the cultivation of strawberries (yes, it takes a lot of planning and labor to grow those luscious fruits!).
Film Threat caught up with Heller at her Tel Aviv studio to discuss her unusual and remarkable production.
What inspired you to create a film about Palestinian strawberry farmers?
I chose this story because I thought it was a metaphor for peace – I was very naïve at that time. So now, I call this film an “occupation tale” – it had all the elements to be a story with a happy ending, with Israelis and Palestinians working together and making money together. But the only problem is the land, the people, the situation – what is ruling are not the rules of nature, but the rules of evil. Everyone knows that it is important for all to let the strawberries out, to let the farmers grow them quietly, and to let them earn some money and live a quiet life. But evil is stronger.
What were some of the challenges that you faced during the production of this film?
We had so many challenges, so many difficulties I don’t know where to start. First, average Israelis are not allowed to visit in Gaza – only the press has access. So I had a press card, but many times Gaza was also closed to Israeli press.
I knew that in order to film the farmers, I would need access. I needed to be trusted, so I worked with a local team that was very happy to do the film with me. They only had experience in news reporting, but they where eager to learn.
The whole procedure of crossing to Gaza is very complicated and takes time – very often, they close the checkpoint even to press, so I couldn’t cross. So many times I had to call my craw and ask to film without me. The team was great and cooperative. The farmers, after a short while, became very close and warm. I was surprised how they cooperated with me, an Israeli.
My friends and family were very afraid and didn’t want me to travel to Gaza (my uncle was murdered in Gaza 15 years ago, so it’s very traumatic for them). I didn’t want my mother to worry, so she didn’t know how many times I was there. After she saw the film she was very surprised.
Gradually it became more and more dangerous, so I was kind of relieved in the last day of filming. When I look back, I don’t really believe I did it!
However, I had the great advantage of knowing exactly when to begin the film (at the start of the growing season) and when to end it. The whole filming took an agricultural cycle, from June to March and then just one more shooting day for the new cycle, which showed the planting of the mother plant.
Did you have difficulty getting financing for the production? And has the film been shown in both Israel and Palestine?
I won a production prize for the script of “Strawberry Fields,” so that’s how we financed it. Part of the prize was money from an Israeli television channel, so they had to screen it as well, which they did on a late night without any promotion. To tell the truth, I was surprised – I thought they would never show it. The farmers saw the film on television and they were very happy.
What became of the strawberry farmers after the film was completed? Are you still in touch with them?
Since the ending of the film I didn’t return to Gaza. I miss my trips to Gaza, I miss the friends I made. I think about them a lot.
What are your next projects?
I just finished a film about the New York Philharmonic concert in Pyongyang, North Korea. It is called “Americans in Pyongyang.” I am also working on a six-chapter TV series about 60 years of economic growth in Israel, and it is very interesting as well as challenging. I am also developing a film about a conservatory in Acre where Arab and Jewish children perform together.