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

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

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

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