Written by Ayesha Nizhoni
In the Fall of 2016, award winning documentary filmmaker and Ohio University Film professor, Tom Hayes, was the special guest of the Resistance International Film Festival in Tehran, Iran. His memorable trip to the Middle East was in support of his groundbreaking documentary, Two Blue Lines, which has screened widely, both domestically and globally, to enthusiastic audiences.
Ohio University Film Underground talked with Mr. Hayes about his film, his philosophy on the human side of documentary filmmaking, and what it means to be wholly committed to the years long process of a documentary film.
1. Why should we make documentaries? Why are documentaries important?
Humans have been documenting the details of their existence ever since they could apply pigment to cave walls. Noticing the exotic in the mundane moments of life and recording it is something virtually every culture has engaged. Documentary filmmaking is an extension of that activity. It’s a human thing. In the political realm, Thomas Jefferson annunciated what stands as an excellent reason to make docs: "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." Documentaries are part of that “vital requisite” and contribute to national and global discussions.
2. Many documentary filmmakers deal with difficult subjects without providing a solution. Do you think Two Blue Lines provides any answers even though there are more questions to be asked?
Two Blue Lines certainly points to a solution to the denial of Palestinian human and political rights. That solution is full equality for all of the people who live under Israeli rule.
3. You spent over 30 years gathering the footage for this film, but was there ever a time when your subjects viewed you as just another American outsider telling their stories?
I studied a year of colloquial Arabic at OSU prior to my first trip to the Arab world. I hadn’t pursued language study prior to embarking on a project about Cambodian refugees and I learned from that experience. When I decided to continue creating work about refugee experiences my focus turned to the Palestinian refugees, and off to school I went. Funky as my Arabic was when I got over there, it differentiated me from most Westerners my subjects had encountered. I was clearly not “just another American outsider.” I arrived knowing how to eat, interact, be polite, and listen. I owe the film and my life to the trust and assistance that my subjects extended to me. Many of the Palestinian people I have met over the last three decades think it’s important that images of the facts of their situation reach the outside world. On more than one occasion I handed exposed film to complete strangers to hide in order to keep it from being seized by the IOF. One reel, the aftermath of a shooting, sat buried in a garden for two weeks before I could get back and pick it up. There were also people who didn’t want anything to do with the risks involved in getting in front of a camera. Some Palestinian people took terrible risks to assist me in this work. Some paid terrible prices for that. Building trust was a critical part of the work in Gaza and the West Bank.
4. Was there ever difficulty separating your humanity from your role as a documentarian? In other words, was it hard to maintain objectivity in such a contentious environment?
I don’t believe there is any such thing as objectivity, a state of being “Free from personal feelings or prejudice, based on facts, unbiased.” Objectivity is as much a phantasm as “utopia.” No one is free from personal feelings and those feelings color our view of the facts of the world around us. I am also deeply skeptical about the value of even attempting to remove human feelings from the creation of a documentary. Passion is a core value at the heart of artistic expression.
5. What unique opportunities or challenges did you find during the making of Two Blue Lines?
The biggest challenge I faced in producing Two Blue Lines was the Israeli Occupation forces. The IOF has a history of obstructing people with cameras to the point of murder. See Jonathan Miller’s posthumous “Death In Gaza. My crew and I were run out of a little town called Beit Sahour by the Israeli military three times in one day while we were trying to film a meeting between Israeli peace activists and Palestinians. Apparently images of Israeli/Palestinian solidarity was viewed as a threat to national security. IOF obstruction played a large hand in the eventual form of Two Blue Lines. When we were barred from filming in Palestinian communities I’d go to Plan B and haul the crew up to a settlement, or dive back across the occupation line into “Israel proper” and hunt for interesting Israelis to film. That “Plan B” footage became the heart of Two Blue Lines.
Like every other documentarian I faced huge financial hurtles. This was particularly true in the early years of this project as 16mm film was the only viable field acquisition format at the time. On top of that you can’t get equipment insurance for work in a combat zone. This meant that I couldn’t rent that very expensive equipment but instead had to buy everything I needed.
There is another less concrete challenge related to doing documentaries about dire human situations. Bearing witness to horrible abuse of human beings is emotionally traumatic. It’s not like filming how pencils are made. If witnessing such things doesn’t try your soul you’re probably not the right person to be doing that sort of film. Empathy is important to understanding human conflicts.
6. What is your hope for the film and its place in the larger conversation about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?
Like every engaged documentarian I hope that my film will reach and provide perspective to many millions of minds. I hope Two Blue Lines stimulates Americans and others to take a hard look at the human cost of current U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast. I hope that it will motivate and energize people to invest themselves in the struggle for Palestinian freedom and dignity.
7. Any parting words for aspiring documentary filmmakers out there?
My most important advice to aspiring documentary makers is to remove the word “if” from your vocabulary. Permanently. Any description of a project that begins with that word, like “if I get funding” is a film that will not get made. “When” is the word, coupled with relentless activity, that gets documentaries and any other genre of film made. Part of that relentless activity is research, research, research. Get to know your subjects and your subject matter. Strong documentaries are built on strong subject/maker relationships.
Many documentaries take longer to produce than the lifespan of the average American marriage so it’s important to pursue topics that engage you deeply. You are going to need an abiding passion for your project to see it through to completion. Every doc I’ve made has been a metaphorical tornado that tore through my life and left me sitting in the financial rubble, film in hand, wondering, “How in hell did that happen?” Despite the mysterious weirdness of how projects take hold, I feel privileged to have had the incredibly rich, sometimes soul testing experience of those tornadoes roaring through.