Occupy hearts, foster peace 

CE speaks with Pranav Pingle Reddy, director and producer of the five-part docu-series ‘Occupied’ exploring the lives of young Palestinian artistes in the midst of harsh realities
A still from the documentary series
A still from the documentary series

HYDERABAD: Directed and produced by Pranav Pingle Reddy, through his production house Mirage Media, ‘Occupied’ is a gripping documentary series of five episodes that explores the lives of young Palestinian artistes, their choices, and uncertain futures in the midst of harsh realities. A screening of the docu-series was held recently at Prasad Labs, Banjara Hills. It aimed to foster dialogue about the ongoing Palestinian crisis. Pranav and his teammates visited the area in 2018-19. In a chat with CE, Pranav shared the challenges of shooting the documentary, choosing the narrative and his inter-connected history with Palestine. 

Could you tell us about the challenges of shooting this series? 
My first landing was in Jerusalem and I could sense the tension. It felt like the walls were closing in, there was so much security at the airport in Tel Aviv. I had never seen any airport where the military was so jam-packed. We took the bus going to Jerusalem in the middle of the night. It was extremely deserted. There are separate sections for the Jewish communities and a separate neighbourhood just for the Muslim ones. You can sense the hate, the divide, the pain and the suffering oozing from the walls. The gentleman who owned the hostel where we were living, was so scared to come out in the night. He said you don’t know the kind of things we have to go through. The next day we realised what he was saying. We saw and filmed the atrocities of IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers and what they have done, right in Jerusalem. If you want to go from point A to point B, there’s a separate road for an Israeli and a separate road for a Palestinian. I have more rights as an Indian in that place than a Palestinian. So it was all quite shocking for me. 

What kind of resistance did you face while you were filming there? 
There were situations where we could have gone to jail while flying a drone. Tear gas being shot at us while we were filming at the Qalandiya checkpoint. There were attempts where the camera almost got confiscated in Hebron, which is the worst in terms of the settlers and the way they behaved with the local communities there. It’s apartheid in the 21st century. There are certain aspects where I couldn’t shoot because I would never be able to tell their story. So I had to limit myself. There is a shot in the film of an IDF soldier, who was asking a Palestinian many questions and telling him to take his pants off. I went to the guy, I spoke to him and the IDF soldier said, why are you talking to that guy and started getting aggressive with me. Luckily he knew that I was a filmmaker. I thought that situation could have got more aggressive. It could have taken us to be put into confinement because that’s what usually happens. I’ve seen Israeli soldiers come and break into Palestinian houses in the middle of the night and completely take control of their homes. It all takes a heavy toll on your mental health. One of the guys that you see in the film shouting at the Israeli soldiers, his house was demolished by the soldiers. The same guy comes to me and says, let’s have a cup of tea. You’ve come from a different country to film this. Now what does it take for someone to say that? He’s lost his entire house. His whole life is packed in a suitcase. I was 27-28 years old at that time. When you are exposed to these things, it changes you. Nowadays, there is a huge obsession with career, growth and money. Humanity has become more selfish. 

How did you decide the narrative of the series? 
As a filmmaker, especially when you’re making a documentary film, unlike a feature film or a commercial project, you find the emotion when you meet your character. Now I went in there with the idea to use art and culture to portray this because the media showcases the Palestinians as uneducated and non-worldly. They are shown as victims, dealing with death and suffering. I’m not denying all of that. But they are also celebrating their lives through their art form. For my film’s narrative, all the credit goes to Shadi Zaqtan because all the people you see there are his friends. I met him at the airport in Vietnam and he invited me to Palestine. I did not have the money back then but when I finally did, I called him up and everything followed. 

You also have a bit of history with Palestine. Do you think that subconsciously figured in while choosing this theme for a film? 
My great-grandfather Rajkumar Desraj Urs, son-in-law of Maharaja Chamarajendra Wadiyar of Mysore and married to my great-grandmother Princess Krishnarajammanniyavaru, was made the Commander-in-Chief for the Mysore Lancers, that won a decisive victory for the British against the Ottomans in Haifa. The region fell into the hands of the British enabling the existence of the State of Israel in 1948. And now funny enough, I am all for the battle on the other side, for Palestine, through my film. However, I found out about my great-grandfather much later when I decided to go to Palestine. I have always believed in the cause of the Palestinians because of the current crisis and the current climate that we are living in. Humanity sometimes calls you to do something, and it’s on you how to react, act, and be able to do it. 

Pranav Pingle Reddy
Pranav Pingle Reddy

Do you think art is powerful enough to influence politics? 
Art and any creative expression have phenomenal power to create movement. It plays an important role in expressing, engaging and creating discussions. A Palestinian is far bigger than a rival of an Israeli. You cannot win a war through a song, but you can at least express it. It showcases how art plays an important role during times of crisis, during times of war and these people are celebrating despite going through so much. I hope that the series helps people to engage, put things into perspective, show another perspective and re-iterate the fact that people exist. You cannot deny someone’s existence. 

The documentary has been screened at many film festivals where it received awards as well. What’s next? 
So right now a lot of people have reached out because this is extremely relevant. I just recently signed off with TRT World on three episodes. I’m going to be doing it in Goa for EC. We won awards at Bushwick and Rhode Island film festivals. Besides Berlin, we’ve done a bunch of 20-25 film festivals around the world because we wanted to engage with the audience primarily and get their opinions. It’s also nice to engage and have a conversation about what other people think. A lot of people are asking me to do a screening in America, Canada, and Europe. So that’s the plan for the next two months.

If the intention is right and the message is true, no matter how many hurdles, you will always find a way. Occupied, has given the team and me, far more than what we could have done for the people of Palestine. That is my takeaway from this entire thing. It has changed me as a person. Whatever we are today is because of them.

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