The weight-loss plan aimed at peace
Yael Luttwak’s new film brings together 14 Israeli and Palestinian women to diet. Could their joint quest bridge the cultural divide? By Nick Johnstone
IN JANUARY 2006, a Palestinian TV producer and comedienne, Ichsan Turkhin, left her home in Ramallah and, with a special permit in hand, crossed the border into Israel. She then made her way to Jerusalem, where she met the other 13 women who had signed up to appear in Yael Luttwak’s documentary, A Slim Peace.
For the next six weeks, Turkhin, along with other Palestinian women, Israeli women and religious American Jewish settlers, met on camera to participate in a weight-loss group with a difference. Presided over by two dieticians — one Israeli, one Palestinian — the group sought to find out if shedding pounds in search of a new body image could override the intense politics of their individual lives.
“I laughed when Yael first suggested this idea,” says Turkhin. “I felt, it’s a smart idea and it’s childish and innocent. And I laughed a lot. I said: ‘Yael, you think we can all sit together?’ And she said: ‘Yes.’”
After that initial approach, Jerusalem-born, New York-raised Luttwak, 35, told Turkhin that the diverse group would include American settlers.
Turkhin was not impressed. “I said: ‘First, I believe they are thieves who are stealing a land that doesn’t belong to them.’ And then I said: ‘I can’t imagine why they [have come here to] live with a people which hates them! I can’t believe how people come from a good life in the United States, to come and live here in shelters!”
It was a hard sell, but Luttwak eventually persuaded Turkhin and the equally reluctant settlers to give the project a chance. “It’s much easier to consider someone an enemy if you don’t humanise them,” explains Lut- twak. “Once you humanise them, then it’s hard to consider them an enemy. But we forget this. And it’s so much easier for the media and politicians to put people into categories. But behind that, we’re people.”
The idea for the film, which is being screened in London this weekend as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival, came to Luttwak in 2000. She was based in Tel Aviv at the time, working on a “teen talk show”, a co-production for Israel’s Channel 2 and the Palestinian Broadcasting Channel. The show was being shot in Ramallah and Jerusalem, where she befriended Israelis and Palestinians alike.
With the 2000 Camp David summit sparkling on the horizon, genuine hope for peace was in the air. Personally, too, Luttwak was feeling optimistic, shedding pounds as part of a WeightWatchers programme in Tel Aviv. Then, the peace talks broke down. A despondent Luttwak headed back to the US, working as a TV news producer, while developing what would become her directorial debut film, A Slim Peace.
“I’d been hearing those Middle Eastern women at WeightWatchers in Tel Aviv talk about their successes and failures with l os i ng a nd gaining a kilo, and I thought that if we could get everyone together and focus on something that is universal, that actually goes quite deep, then maybe we could find a way forward.”
She moved to London and studied directing at the London Film School under playwright and director Mike Leigh. He became her mentor, and when she graduated she worked as a researcher on Leigh’s play, Two Thousand Years.
Then, in mid-2005, with funding in place, she returned to Israel and began casting the 14 women. With an eventually willing cast, and a heap of red tape overcome, Luttwak waited to see how the first meeting, held in January 2006, would go. Like all the women, Turkhin arrived pensive.
“Everyone came with a stereotype,” says Turkhin. “So I wanted to break the stereotype. I am a Palestinian woman, I’m educated, I speak English, I read, I write, I love, I have children. Don’t put me in any one category. I wanted them to see a different, smart Palestinian.”
Over the next six weeks, the women collectively shed 100kg and slowly loosened up. Politics remained to the fore, but they eventually found middle ground, and some are still in touch today. “We’re all much more alike than we are different,” Luttwak concludes.
“As trite as it might sound, at the end of the day, we’re just people. The distances are so small and the borders so flimsy, but Israelis and Palestinians are kept very separate. Interaction is the key to peace and that’s why I was passionate to make this film. What would happen if we bring people together? People who would normally never meet.
“It only takes a few hours for the barriers and stereotypes and categories and vilifications to come down, because people find things that they have in common. It doesn’t mean they fall in love with one another, but they can get along. ” A Slim Peace is being screened at the Screen On the Hill, London NW3, on Sunday. Tel: 020 7435 3366
Scenes from Yael Luttwak’s film A Slim Peace,
in which a group of Palestinian and Israeli women bonded over a shared quest to shed excess pounds