In Israeli-occupied Palestine, when they come and smash down your house, turn your family out on the street with nothing, and pave over everything for a illegal settlement, if you want to complain, you have to prove you actually lived there. Get together documents and evidence. Prove your existence.
After decades of watching the occupation spread and intensify, the filmmaker sets out to gather the information she will need for the day she knows is coming – when the occupation takes her home.
In letter to a friend, she lays out the relevant information in the form of a letter. She is lucky, relatively speaking, as her family was wealthy in the past, so she has photos going back decades. The house sits on the Jerusalem to Hebron road in Bethlehem, an ancient trade route and the main artery of the city. It sits among cultural landmarks dating back thousands of years. Her great-grandfather was mayor of Bethlehem at the turn of the last century, and his family made a fortune in mother-of-pearl. He built an enormous mansion for his whole family, but then they went bust in the 1930s. The director, Emily, lives in a little house next to this palace, a more modest building set to the side. The main building is now a hotel.
As a filmmaker, Emily has taken numerous photos and film of her neighbourhood. The Jerusalem-Hebron road is a flashpoint for protests. It has two refugee camps on either side, Azza and Aida, and is reportedly the most heavily tear-gassed place on earth. The border wall snakes through the neighbour like a maze. She has recorded it all.
In looking through these photos in and around her home, you see the history of the occupation. You can watch the trees felled, the illegal settlements creep closer and closer. You can see the wall go up, clean and new, and then gather graffiti over the years. She points out the main collection bin the street uses, like a big bottle bank on casters, and shows its presence in protest after protest over the years, as people wheel it out onto the street for cover. The video of a shot protestor being carried through a hole in her garden wall, past her doorstep, and into an ambulance. The history of her living in this house is the history of the occupation.
Alongside the injustice, there is just a feel of strangeness, absurdity, at the mundane and everyday mixing and integral to the huge and historic. The banality of clearing up your garden, with the jarring image of a box full of gathered tear gas cannisters. And the unrealness with which all shock is fading even from that common occurrence.
letter to a friend tries to do what has been trying to be undone since the catastrophe, prove Palestinian existence.