Last night I went to the premier of ‘White Oil’ (2013), an extraordinary documentary by London based film-maker, Judy Price. It is one of a number of films showing at the Palestine Film Festival at the Barbican this year examining the vast stone quarrying industry of the West Bank.
The highlands of Israel and the Palestine Territories are underlain by sedimentary limestone used as a building material since ancient times. Dating back to the British Mandate in 1918, municipal laws in Jerusalem have required that all buildings be faced with Jerusalem stone. As Jerusalem has expanded and more and more illegal Israeli settlements have been built, the number of quarries in the West Bank has increased. Today there are over 500 stone quarries in the territory, providing one of the few raw materials supporting the Palestinian economy. However, hundreds of hillsides are being scarred and the dust produced by quarrying is causing respiratory disease and other hardships.
75% of the stone quarried in the West Bank is exported to Israel. It is also contentiously being used for the building of Rawabi, a new Palestinian town of 4,000 housing units on the outskirts of Ramallah being funded by Qatar.
There are also 10 Israeli-owned quarries operating in the West Bank. In 2011, the Israeli High Court rejected a petition against their operation and ruled that Israel could exploit West Bank resources for its own economic needs (see here or here).
‘White Oil’ explores the complex contradictory political, social, environmental and personal dimensions of the stone quarrying industry. It is slow and reflective, opening with an extraordinary image, both material and metaphoric, of a piece of stone being compressed and fissured in a vice. This is followed by beautiful wide-angle shots of stone quarries that reveal their ancient sedimentary geology. The occasional figure or truck moves through the shots, looking small and fragile against the monumental stone landscape. Slowly the camera zooms into the pounding of jackhammers and other machinery working the quarries and stories start to be told by Palestinian quarry owners, workers and security guards. These are often disembodied stories, voices heard against the landscape shots, individuals speaking for many. The latter part of the movie takes place at night, in one of the quarries owned and worked by a group of brothers who stay there five nights a week as their journey home takes 2,5 hours because of Israeli checkpoints. These are humorous, human moments in otherwise harsh, bleak, vulnerable lives. In discussion between the Judy Price and Palestinian architect, Yara Sharif after the movie screening, it emerged that it was at night that these men were able to relax and tell their stories, over cooking and tea drinking, and that the filmmaker had got to know them over a period of three years, establishing the trust to film them.
Other films about this issue at the Palestine Film Festival are: the short animated film ‘The Kite that Caught the Mountain’ (2013) by Oxford Brookes students Alexander Gaisie-Walker and James Altham,‘The Red Stone,’ (2012) by Ahmed Damen and ‘Sacred Stones,’ (2011) by Muayad Alayan and Laila Higazi. These all explore various dimensions of the environmental, social and health problems caused by quarrying for local populations. They expose the more subtle, invasive dimensions of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and make powerful calls for creative resistance.