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Review: Children


- Israeli filmmaker Ada Ushpiz's documentary immerses us in the intimate worlds of Palestinian children through a story of youths locked up in Israeli prisons

Review: Children

Israeli filmmaker Ada Ushpiz has returned to DOK Leipzig's International Competition 20 years after winning the main award, the Golden Dove, for her film Detained. Also set in Palestine, her new outing, Children [+see also:
film profile
, focuses on a particularly emotional and thought-provoking aspect of life in the occupied territories.

In 2015, Ushpiz was working as a journalist for the Haaretz, when the "Knife Intifada" broke out. It was spearheaded by children who would attack Israeli soldiers with knives and most often end up in prison, with many getting killed – 56 of them in 2019 alone.

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The film opens with one of the most memorable scenes from this year's documentary harvest. Dima, a 12-year-old girl from the southern West Bank, is being released from prison. In addition to her mother, father and elder sister, she is welcomed by a bunch of reporters with cameras and microphones, who swarm around her, fishing for a political statement. But of course, the shocked girl cannot give one to them: she's only 12 and just wants to be with her family.

Our second main protagonist is six-year-old Dareen, who lives next door to Israeli neighbours and whose school is under the auspices of the country's Ministry of Education. There, she learns about the history of Palestine from Israeli books, and a segment in which the students discover that some of the pages have been left blank and their loving, dedicated teacher urges them to think with their own heads is one of the film's most insightful.

Dareen's street is always controlled by Israeli soldiers that her father – a peaceful and reasonable, but proud, man – confronts as they provoke the youngsters from the neighbourhood. Tensions run high, and at one point, Dareen's teenage brother gets a face full of pepper spray, which brings the little girl to inconsolable tears.

Another dynamic protagonist is a bona fide internet star with 330,000 followers on Facebook, 11-year-old Janna Jihad, who dubs herself the youngest journalist in the world and uses her popularity to raise awareness of the situation in her country. She becomes fast friends with Dima, and a scene in which the two have a sleepover shows us the differences in views between a worldly person like Janna, who insists that not all Jews are evil, and a girl whose opinions are shaped by her community.

There are many details in the film that touch upon political, social and human rights issues, but Ushpiz never goes there directly. Over the course of the feature’s 128 minutes, the director shows us the way the children live and think, and despite some of them being very vocal and active as they resist the occupation, they still just want the simple things that children want: to go to school, to hang out with their friends, and a chance to finally go swimming in the sea.

Ushpiz has managed to build an extremely close connection with Dima and Dareen and their families, and spends a lot of time filming in their homes, capturing relationships and dynamics that truly immerse the audience in the children's worlds. The film's running time is long for a standard documentary, and the viewing experience reflects that, but it makes one wonder whether the feature would have achieved its desired effect without such a dedicated and meticulous approach. Life is certainly not easy for Palestinian children, and a film about their lives should not be a walk in the park for the viewer either.

Children was co-produced by Ushpiz and Tel Aviv-based Cinephil, which also has the international rights.

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