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‘Palestine is an experience, not a place you can merely visit’

Hyderabad-based filmmaker Pranav Pingle Reddy’s five-part documentary ‘Occupied’ that focuses on young Palestinians using art as tools of resistance, will première later this year at the Athens International Film and Video Festival

May 24, 2021 02:22 pm | Updated 04:11 pm IST

From ‘Occupied’, directed by Pranav Pingle Reddy

From ‘Occupied’, directed by Pranav Pingle Reddy

You can’t change the world with a song, but you can resist through a song, exclaims Shadi Zaqtan, a songwriter, singer and composer who lives in the old city of Ramallah, Palestine, in the documentary series Occupied . The five-part series is the only Indian film to be selected for the Athens International Film and Video Festival, and will have its global première on October 24. Directed by Hyderabad-based filmmaker, Pranav Pingle Reddy, Occupied was filmed in 2016-2017. The teaser of Occupied was unveiled recently.

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The ongoing crisis in Palestine has once again brought the land and the plight of its people into focus. Pranav looks at Occupied as an attempt to go beyond the news headlines. “What does it mean to live in Palestine? I wanted to look at the daily lives of people,” he says.

Celebration of life

Each episode focuses on a young artist who uses art — music, calligraphy, poetry, dance and craft — as a form of resistance, as a way of celebrating life within the restrictions, and questions what freedom is all about.

Pranav Pingle Reddy

Pranav Pingle Reddy

“Everyone in Palestine has a story to tell; it is up to you if you want to listen,” says Pranav. Occupied was filmed in sync sound in different locations in Palestine over 35 days by the three-member crew of Pranav, Prithvi Chahal and Arvind Menon, who took on multiple tasks while filming.

The 30-year-old recalls what it meant to idealistically embark on the project in his mid-20s. The inherent interest in art and history stemmed from his father and aunt. His father, writer Pingle Ramesh Reddy, and aunt, Anuradha Reddy, have actively engaged in art, history and heritage conservation. Pranav was keen to study in a university that had history to it, and was not just a building. He pursued masters in film and television production at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, specialising in cinematography, production and direction. “I worked on documentaries that narrated stories of women empowerment, refugee crisis... subjects that moved me,” he says.

Returning to India, he set up the production house, Mirage Media, in Hyderabad, and the revenue that came through corporate films and advertising, went into passion projects. He hopes that after the film festival circuit, more people will get to watch Occupied , perhaps on digital platforms.

Signs from the universe

From ‘Occupied’, directed by Pranav Pingle Reddy

From ‘Occupied’, directed by Pranav Pingle Reddy

“I was keen on exploring stories from the Middle East, particularly Palestine. I didn’t have much money back then and didn’t want to borrow from my family. The universe, however, conspired to make things happen when someone paid me dues for a two-year-old commercial project and another corporate film came up. I pooled in the amount, spoke to like-minded people in Hyderabad such as Mahnoor Yar Khan (who has worked extensively in Palestine as an artiste and drama therapist) to get an idea of what to expect in Palestine.”

Mahnoor warned him to go with minimal equipment to not attract too much attention. The instruction was to not take the drone, but Pranav was adamant: “She thought I was crazier than her,” he laughs. He made sure the three-member crew would use smaller cameras, but couldn’t ignore the drone.

He met Shadi Zaqtan at an airport. “He was extremely warm and said if I wanted to make a film in Palestine, I was welcome to stay with him. It wasn’t meant to be a mere pleasantry. Weeks later when the trip materialised, he accommodated me, Prithvi and Arvind. He had financial constraints, but he never let it show.”

Art for resistance

From ‘Occupied’, directed by Pranav Pingle Reddy

From ‘Occupied’, directed by Pranav Pingle Reddy

At Shadi’s pub in Ramallah, musicians, performers, poets and artists converged and shared their art and thoughts. Pranav and team met and filmed calligraphy artist Hamza Aby Ayyash, poet and educationist Nabil Barham, Sa’aleek rapper trio from the Qalandiya refugee camp, brothers Ala and Baha who use recyclable material to make art pieces and support tribal women, and ballet dancer Rand Ziad who lives in Jerusalem and cannot truly embrace her Palestine identity.

Pranav says Palestine is an experience, not a mere place to take in the sights. He was moved by the indomitable spirit of the people who endure checkpoints each day as they commute, and try to smile through it all: “They go through a lot — houses being damaged and neighbours providing shelter as long as it takes to rebuild the house, only to be destroyed again. Yet, they carry on.”

Pranav’s team filmed as much as they could, returning with a huge volume of footage that would require the next three years for editing and post production.

In Pranav’s words, Occupied is the celebration of life, love and hope in Palestine, set against the backdrop of persecution and marginalization, with a singular belief — in the end, love always wins.

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