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Critical Exposure: Cameras in Hand, Palestinian Women Document Daily Abuses

The co-directors of “In the Image” discuss their film and how Palestinian women have taken the lead in documenting injustices.

Using cameras provided by the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, Palestinian women have been filming the actions of Israeli soldiers and civilians in order to document routine human rights abuses. (Photo: In The Image)

How do people under siege make themselves visible? In an increasingly media-saturated world, the question of visibility haunts the youth of occupied Palestine, whose stories get eclipsed by gunfire and drowned out by geopolitical polemicizing in distant official chambers. Many generations of war and segregation have left youth locked in a state of suspended disorientation. Everyday life in the West Bank plays like a constant loop of ritual humiliations under military domination, as residents brave harassment and checkpoints on the way to school and watch relatives vanish into arbitrary detention. The banality of this quotidian indignity is especially unbearable for those growing up in an age of social media, where divides of nation and culture are rapidly dissolving amid a proliferation of digital communication.

“I told him that this cassette has the entire story of the Palestinian crisis. And I wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world.”

Using cameras provided by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, some Palestinian women have been filming the actions of Israeli soldiers and civilians in order to document these routine human rights abuses. In addition to broadcasting these abuses to a global audience, these women are also engaging Palestinian communities in a kind of participatory research project – in which the act of gathering and analyzing information is undertaken by the affected communities. When the “subjects” of the documentary are empowered with media-making tools themselves, the power dynamic of a scene of victimhood and confrontation changes, which drives political consciousness and community solidarity. Since they are often at home when soldiers are on patrol, women have spearheaded B’Tselem’s efforts, and with a bit of technical training, the “Camera Project” has turned them into a legion of witnesses.

The documentary In the Image elucidates their work, from the subversive act of flipping on their cameras to their resistance against efforts by the Israeli government to silence and censor their footage. Co-directors Emmy Scharlatt and Judith Montell (who came across the project through her daughter’s work with B’Tselem) splice interviews with the filmmakers with field videos that capture the brutality of the soldiers and the brazen aggression of settlers.

Despite their limited opportunities for education and jobs, the women behind the scenes have developed a keen sense of their power as journalists. One young B’Tselem filmmaker, Ayat Jabiri of Hebron, reflects, “There are so many stories about the occupation, but none is about the girl, the woman. It’s really hard to capture the suffering of the Palestinian girl.”

The power of the images lies not just in the devastation they depict, but also in the distance they expose between their communities and the viewers who rarely see unfiltered media emerging from the occupied Palestinian territories. Another Camera Project participant, Salma Al Dib’i, describes the public response to the work: “People were curious to know more about this new point of view. Unlike the media. The real personal and human stories.”

As a film on film, In the Image plays more like a reel of the women’s most trenchant footage from a project that is half photojournalism and half protest. Splicing field footage with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the women’s backstories and workshops with B’Tselem activists, the filmmakers, who are both from the United States, zoom in on the storyteller as subject and artist. The very act of storytelling is interwoven in their plight. Toggling briskly between scenes of the women’s daily lives with their families and fierce clashes between protesters and security forces, the documentary provides a blunt snapshot of how the struggle for a people’s survival does not break these young women’s will to live fearlessly.

In one scene, schoolgirl-turned-citizen-journalist Salam Kanaan describes how her camera lens has shifted her own self-perception: “I feel I’m in another world when I am videotaping. Me, Salam, with a camera in my hands.” As she washes dishes, she recalls how an official tried to bribe her into handing over the footage she captured showing soldiers shooting a blindfolded civilian at close range: “I told him that this cassette has the entire story of the Palestinian crisis. And I wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world.” The film was ultimately circulated as critical evidence in B’Tselem’s investigation of human rights abuses in the West Bank. In a single frame, she had exposed one world to another.

Truthout asked co-directors Judith Montell and Emmy Scharlatt about the documentary. A combined, condensed and edited transcript of their responses is presented here.

Michelle Chen: What drew you as filmmakers to this subject and these women, whose use of your medium, film, becomes the subject of the film itself?

Judith Montell: It was the idea that these Palestinians were using film as a form of nonviolent activism. And also that it was a cooperative venture between Palestinians and Israelis. That was important to me to bring out because it showed that there is a way that people can meet and work together.

“The IDF commanding officers will say to their soldiers, ‘Be careful what you do when there are cameras around.'”

Film is a very powerful medium to create change. The [activists] had themselves been using interviews that were taken after the fact [to advocate for] some of these people. [But] the power of them having run on the site, filming it as it was happening, was so much greater. And what we wanted to do was have the filmmakers use their footage as the background to what they were talking about.

The power of that and the contrast of the professional interviews [of the women], and [combining that with] the nonprofessional action that they had filmed…. You recognize that it’s them talking about what happened to them directly. So that’s how the film took its form.

We chose to focus mainly on women because somebody had said to us, “Oh yes, our best filmmakers turn out to be women and children, because they’re at home when these things happen frequently.” We wanted to show what effect it could have on their lives, both how it could empower them even within their own community, and also help them politically, perhaps, establish their statehood.

Working under the auspices of B'Tseleme's 'Camera Project,' a Palestinian woman films two Israeli soldiers. (Photo: In The Image)Working under the auspices of B’Tselem’s “Camera Project,” a Palestinian woman films two Israeli soldiers. (Photo: In The Image)

Emmy Scharlatt: It’s so important that these women were using cameras … to try to show to the world this truth that was going on in their villages. It is just such an important aspect of our film that these women were able to – in sometimes really perilous, dangerous situations that are out there in the field – get this footage and then funnel it back to B’Tselem to put out into the world.

Could you talk about how you, as outside observers, framed the documentary around this group’s experiences as both activists and as documentary filmmakers in their own right?

Scharlatt: The women in our film did not go and gather footage for non-Palestinians to make a film. Prior to making our film, each participant independently went into the field under their own free will, to shoot the footage for B’Tselem’s Camera Project…. The women shot the footage out of their own struggle to show the world what they are continually subjected to in their villages…. Our intention was to make a documentary by collaborating with the women so their experiences and work could be viewed by a larger audience.

How “professional” was their filmmaking? Were they trained?

Montell: Obviously, the ones who had had more instruction, their filmmaking was a little bit more complex and advanced. Some of them did it very obviously before the soldiers; others found it more expeditious to hide, to film from behind windows or bars … but all of it is still very powerful. And some of them over time got braver and more confrontational in their use of the camera.

One of the subjects, Manal, is a fieldworker for B’Tselem in Hebron, and she forced her way right into the front of the soldiers and filmed them and said, “I’m doing my work … I’m working for B’Tselem.” And her bravery is just amazing to me because I don’t know that I would put my camera smack in the face of an Israeli soldier. [She recently] got shot, with a rubber bullet in her hand, while she was mixed in with other press. So obviously it’s not a safe position to have even if you are supposedly protected with a press credential or what have you. You take a lot of chances.

Why did B’Tselem, a human rights advocacy group, make a concerted effort to engage these activists in filmmaking? What was their motivation?

Montell: B’Tselem is an organization that was formed to document and comment on abuse by settlers and the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] against Palestinians in the West Bank. And they had relied on reporting that was mainly [comprised of] interviews. But they saw the value of having the camera. And in fact the camera has made it possible for them to process some of these violations. And it has had the effect of releasing some of the people who were captured and held prisoner. Because somebody would complain, and the Palestinian would end up arrested for the act that he was complaining about. But the value of the camera was that you can go into the courtroom and say look, “This is what really happened. We didn’t start this; this is what has been done to us.”

Whether or not the soldiers are ultimately punished for their actions, does the filmmaking have an effect on their everyday lives?

Montell: I think that the filming has had an effect on the women themselves and within their community; I think it gains them a certain amount of respect, and people see the value of it, so that feeds into the feeling of empowerment that they have. It also affects the Israelis very strongly because the IDF commanding officers will say to their soldiers, “Be careful what you do when there are cameras around.” That’s tremendously powerful, both to B’Tselem and to the women who are doing the filming, and it has had a marked effect on some of the actions on the IDF.

“What the eye sees becomes even more powerful than words.”

Now I don’t think it has too much of an effect on some of the more radical settlers, who seem almost totally beyond reason. I don’t understand them, except I do understand that their purpose is to make life so unpleasant for the Palestinians that the Palestinians will choose to move. That’s the reason behind a lot of the harassment that the settlers and the army perpetrate on the Palestinians – it’s to make life so unbearable that they would choose to move away … And [the settlers] turn around and they say, “No this is our land. We’re going to stay here.” So it’s a tug of war, really.

How did filmmaking change their role in their community or relationship with family?

Scharlatt: After doing this work, some people went on to make their own films: Some went to journalism school; some went to film school. There are also women who, after doing some work, realized that they just couldn’t put themselves out there anymore, because of family issues, or husbands not wanting them to work, or circumstances in their own lives … But in the long run I think all of them felt empowered by this experience. It made them feel, “Wow, there is hope for us; maybe we can tell some truth here, give another perspective on what’s going on in our lives.”

And I think in some ways, there is an absence of fear also, because [they think], “What choices do we have? If we’re allowed to use our voice, that’s a powerful thing.”

Did you find that the women were treated differently by the soldiers when they were out filming in the field, compared to Palestinian men?

Scharlatt: It all depends on which soldier is out there that day, I think. If they’re out in the field, most of the time they’re given some kind of respect by the IDF. Also, if Palestinians get too close to IDF soldiers, they will remove that soldier from that area and put somebody else in their place, because they don’t want them to get friendly … the idea is for them mainly to protect settlers. [Since the filmmakers often identify themselves and their organization, B’Tselem,] there will be some confrontation, but it’s mostly verbal, unless you’re in the line of fire. Most of the time they’re able to get out there and film.

What kind of impact do you hope to have on other activists and movements with this film?

Montell: The ultimate endgame, of course, is the end of the occupation. That’s what they’re hoping for; that’s what they’re working for.

Scharlatt: Settlers enjoy total impunity there … There are settlements being consistently built and they want to put a stop on that. And I think they just want their work and their activism to just be out more in the world so people get a sense of who they are, instead of who we think they are.

Are there parallels we can draw between what’s going on in the occupied territories and other forms of video-based activism, as we’ve seen in the movements in the US against police brutality and other campaigns fueled in large part by media?

Montell: I think that what the eye sees becomes even more powerful than words. There’s something about having it visually in front of your eyes. It’s the difference between reading about something and seeing a movie about it. There is something about the gut-level reaction to seeing this. I’ve been amazed at the response the film has gotten from people who have watched it who were just totally horrified.

I think that the power of the film is that it does present the action right before your eyes. And you see it, and you can’t deny it, because there it is.

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