During a pause in the missile attacks, the cameras roll and a young Palestinian girl playing the role of Anne Frank speaks her lines against the backdrop of a bombed-out school in Gaza. “Why is a nation spending more money on war than on medicine, education and art?” she asks, her words both weary and wise. It is a question for the ages, one that could be asked of any war. But in this case, it’s being asked in the middle of a war zone during production of What Does Anne Frank Mean Today?
Two days later, cameras are rolling again. There have been more missiles, more destruction, and more death. The young actress takes her mark in front of a new set of ruins and begins to talk about Anne’s hopes and dreams for a future that will never be. As she speaks her lines, two men in gas masks run behind her, in and out of frame, darting for cover. It’s not in the script, but it couldn’t have been scripted any better to illustrate the irony of making a movie about peace in the midst of war.
No one on the production team, of course, could have imagined they’d end up shooting their movie in a war zone. The film, from Croatian director Jakov Sedlar, started out as an exploration of the lives of eight young Palestinian girls – three from Gaza, three from Ramallah in the West Bank, and two from Jaffa, Israel – as they try out for the role of Anne Frank. Part drama and part documentary, and shot in Arabic with English subtitles, it was meant to bring the young Jewish World War II diarist’s story to the Arab world, where many still believe the Holocaust never happened.
Before the recent outbreak of hostilities, Sedlar and his Palestinian film crew prowled the bustling streets of Gaza, interviewing people and filming scenes in the crowed Palestinian enclave. “Everyone wanted to talk about politics, about who is at fault for what, who is right, whose land it was,” Sedlar told Deadline. “I remembered (French author) Pascal Bruckner, who said that in Israel he was confronted with two sad tragedies: one Palestinian, in which one-time owners of homes were now refugees, and the other, the Jewish tragedy, in which the one-time refugees had come to build a new life for themselves. Palestinians asked the question, ‘Why should we pay the price for what one European did to another European?’ Politics is ever-present here; it is everything here.”
Sedlar believes that there still remains a chance for peace but that it will only come through education. Only one member of his Palestinian crew, his line producer, had never heard of Anne Frank or her diary. “In her opinion,” he said, “our film can help bring more understanding between the two nations.”
Sedlar said that when he spoke to Palestinians about why he was shooting a movie about Anne Frank in Gaza and Ramallah, “Only a handful of them had ever heard of The Diary of Anne Frank or about the Holocaust.” One of the young Palestinian girls featured in the film, however, understood exactly what it was about. “I believe that what we are doing is important,” she told Sedlar, “because a number of Palestinians will, for the first time ever, hear that Jews were also victims; that they were murdered and made refugees. Most of the people here only see them as soldiers and aggressors.”
Said Sedlar: “Before we started filming, I met with the crew and told them about the book and about the Holocaust. One guy, our sound man, asked me: ‘Is it really true that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?’ He told me that in his school, they taught that the Holocaust existed, but that they do not believe in that number.”
Sedlar said that 80% of the people he encountered while shooting the film in Gaza and Ramallah were holocaust deniers. “That comes from their education,” he said. “Basically, in their schools they don’t teach anything about that part of history. Their education is a big problem, not only because of the Holocaust but because young people are taught that Jews are the worst people in the world. Because of that, I think our film is not only a film but a mission to teach.”
During production, he said, his sound man came to him and said, “I am upset that Jews who suffered during World War II are destroying Gaza and killing civilians.”
Sedlar asked him. “But what can the government of Israel do? Hamas is building tunnels and launching rockets from behind schools and hospitals to attack Israel.”
The sound man replied: “I don’t like Hamas. I need peace. I need a normal life.”
Sedlar told Deadline: “Most of the people I met in Gaza and Ramallah see Jews only as enemies, nothing more. Only a very small percentage was ready to listen to facts. After explaining some real facts to them, their basic comment was: ‘Maybe this is only propaganda.’ When I asked them if they thought that Anne Frank’s diary is also propaganda, they said: ‘No. It looks real. We can believe that something like that happened. Here in Gaza, we also have kids who suffered like Anne Frank.’”
If nothing more, perhaps the understanding that children on both sides suffer during war will be a starting place for peace.
After completing 10 days of filming, one of the girls trying out for the part became ill, and it was decided to postpone production for two weeks. “Only several more scenes remained, and without them, there was no movie – at least not the one I wanted to have,” Sedlar said. So he flew back home to Croatia, where he had fought and first witnessed the horrors war, to begin editing. In a week or two, he’d return to Gaza and finish filming. And then the war began.
“Every day I was on the phone with my actors and crew,” he said. “While we are talking, in the background I could hear explosions. They kept telling me that I should not consider coming back until the situation calms down, but what could I be afraid of after the war I went through in Croatia?” So he bought a ticket back to Israel to be with his cast and crew. “It was not easy reaching Tel Aviv in those days,” he recalled. “There were many cancelled flights, my flight among them.” After waiting for two days in Vienna and Frankfurt, he was able to catch an El Al flight to Israel during one of the brief ceasefires. Landing in Israel, he grabbed a cab and was heading into Tel Aviv, when suddenly air raid sirens began wailing, warning of a possible rocket attack from Gaza. The driver pulled over and jumped out of the cab. “Get out!” the cabbie told him. “Lie down on the ground!” Sedlar and his driver lay beside the cab for several minutes until the next siren signaled the end of the rocket attack, “and we continued on our way as if nothing had just occurred.”
On his first day back, Sedlar tried to arrange passage to Gaza, but ceasefire after ceasefire had been broken by Hamas rocket attacks. Contacting his crew via Skype, they assured him that they’d finish shooting the last scenes as soon as the missile attacks stop. “On the second day, I cannot stand still anymore, and with the aid of a friend, I am given the opportunity to reach a point closest to Gaza,” he said. “Everything looks irrational. I can see rockets flying and hear the sounds of war, and I am waiting for my director of photography, Ali Qaoud, and his crew to organize and film the last few remaining scenes in the middle of a war!”
Sedlar left and returned the next day to his vantage point, about three kilometers from Gaza. “It was an ever-so-temporary ceasefire, and Ali informed me that the first scene is close to being completed. I received it through a link sent to me. It looks insane.” What had once been a city is now just a pile of smoking bricks.
Worrying constantly about his cast and crew, Sedlar spoke to several Israeli soldiers about their hopes for the future, and prayed that they will be safe, as well. “They are determined to complete their mission in destroying Hamas, which has, in the past 10 years, fired well over 20,000 rockets at Israel,” he said. “They tell me that they want peace, and that they believe that most Palestinians want the same.” Nobody, however, believes that Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, wants peace.
“After a week spent near Gaza, and after viewing everything filmed in these war conditions, I left for Zagreb, to edit and complete the film,” he recalled. “After every filmed scene, my actors blew me a kiss. Behind them are ruins of buildings, smoke, and people who are running.”