By Edward Loupe

Ask Tom Hayes what he thinks about southern Lebanon and he’ll tell you straight: “It was hotter than the hinges of hell.” Ask again, and he’ll tell you that he “dropped 20 pounds in six weeks.” But if you ask a little more, you’ll learn about the long and tragic history of the Palestinian people, and the small hope that storytelling and filmmaking could bring them.

Bourj Al-Shemali Palestinian Refugee Camp.jpeg
Hayes & students Bourj Al-Shemali Palestine Refugee Camp Lebanon.jpeg

Tom Hayes is a professor and resident Editor-in-Chief at Ohio University’s Film Division. He teaches and guides OU students through the post production process of narrative and documentary filmmaking. Also a filmmaker in his own right, he has spent nearly four decades traveling through Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel to film and document the situation of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in the Middle East.

This past summer Tom took another step into that world; working with the LEAP Program (Learning for the Empowerment and Advancement of Palestinians,) to teach English and filmmaking to middle and high school aged children in the Bourj Al-Shemali refugee camp. For Palestinian children, this is important education. To get into high school the children need to pass the “Brevet” – a standardized test with an English proficiency component. As for the filmmaking education, that is important for a very profound reason. As Tom puts it:

“What’s really needed is for Palestinian voices to take control of their own narrative.”

Tom explains that since they were ousted from their country in the 1940’s, the Palestinians have not been able to return home. Palestinian refugees are stateless, without citizenship in Lebanon, and as a result are unable to access basic rights afforded to other people throughout the world. They can’t vote or buy land, so they are forced to build more compactly as their numbers increase inside the camps. Tom says, “it just keeps getting worse and worse.”

This summer, Tom realized one of the students in his class this was the grandson of one of the first people he documented 35 years ago. Tom was happy to be so deeply connected to a family, but sad to see that the boy was still trapped in the same struggle as his grandfather. “They are like humans trapped in amber,” Tom reminisces. “It doesn’t change.”

Tom has decided that it’s not enough to point a camera at the refugees – you have to hand the camera to them. Tom reflects, “every now and then, artists had a real impact on the course of human events.” He talks about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn in America, or Cry the Beloved Country in South Africa.

Through filmmaking, through telling their story themselves, they can “make a window for you to see their humanity and see their oppression.”

“There is a role for us filmmaker-types, and a role for those kids.”

Tom has made three documentaries on the Palestinian situation: Native Sons: Palestinians in Exile, and People and the Land are available as free downloads here: user9363542. His most recent documentary, Two Blue Lines is available on Amazon and iTunes.