One day in 2005, Jonathan Ben Efrat of Video48 noticed Palestinian laborers waiting for jobs at a busy junction on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Stopping to talk, he learned that they were shabahim, illegal sojourners. To get around the checkpoints and the separation barrier is a risky, time-consuming and expensive feat, so they cannot commute daily. They live in Israel during the week, returning to the West Bank on Sabbath. Ben Efrat asked where they slept. They were reluctant to show him, but on hearing his Arabic and gaining a sense of his political stance, they led him into the subterranean parking garage of an unfinished, abandoned shopping mall. It was all darkness and stench for six floors down. Here the men spent their nights for most of the week. Some had slept in the mall since childhood.
Out of this experience came a 13-minute film called The Mall(2006), followed now by an hour-long documentary, Six Floors to Hell. Being a friend of the director, I shall not play the critic. We have the judgment of the jury at the Tel Aviv documentary festival, DocAviv, which awarded it the prize for editing:
“Six Floors to Hell throws a searchlight on one of the darkest corners in Israeli society. The editor [Tal Weissman] took upon herself the difficult task of weaving a story from shots unaccompanied by narration. The film succeeded in moving us by its emotional power in a way that films with similar material did not.”
Darkness is the main element, punctuated by cigarette, flashlight or candle. No film lighting was introduced. This was by choice, but there would not have been hands to carry lights: in order to allay the men’s suspicions, Ben Efrat brought only his extraordinary cameraperson, Gonen Glazer. They did not fully win the men’s trust, however, until they were arrested in a police raid.
A political situation has led 400 or so Palestinians to live in this hellhole for years, and that situation is constantly present in Six Floors, sometimes up front, sometimes leering from the wings. Amid that political complexity, we follow the straight, strong line of a love story: one man is struggling to save in order to marry.
In the first major scene, the political situation and the love story are introduced in a few bold strokes. Jalal, 24, has been living most of the week in the mall for half his life. Sturdy and strong, with a laughing eye for the camera, he wants to marry Nisrin, who lives in a refugee camp not far from his village of Salem near Nablus. They have been engaged for a year and four months, but her parents won’t let her speak to him until he builds her a house. They sneak conversations by cell phone. Jalal and his friend Abu Naji, a middle-aged man with a furrowed face, have improvised a corner for themselves, using furniture found on the streets. Candles are their light. Jalal concludes a phone conversation with Nisrin and addresses us:
“All my problems and fears are one thing, hearing my fiancée’s voice every day is another. I hear her voice, and as long as she’s happy, I’m OK…. We fell in love at first sight. It was just like the stories about love at first sight. That’s what happened to me.” He leans his head back against the wall, and the candlelight shows a bright tenderness in his eyes.
Abu Naji speaks: “My opinion on marriage is that all women on earth are like a barrel of tar. 120 centimeters tall: 20 centimeters of honey and all the rest is tar. You enjoy the 20 centimeters of honey and you’re left with the tar.” “No,” protests Jalal, but a cry is heard: “Police!” The candles are extinguished. Silence. The film is in its element. Then the “all clear” sounds. False alarm. The candles are relit.
Abu Naji’s cell phone rings. It is Sima, his current employer, confirming that he’ll be at her house tomorrow. She asks where he’s sleeping. He names Pardes Katz, a Jewish town. He assures her he has a permit and they hang up.
Now it’s Jalal’s turn. “Did you hear what he said? He didn’t tell her, ‘I live in the mall, together with 400 or 450 people.'”
“We lie,” says Abu Naji. “We have to tell white lies in order to survive.”
Jalal says that after he’s married, he won’t come back to Israel. Abu Naji disputes this too: “Listen, your father sleeps in the mall, right?” Jalal: “I bet if you went up to my father and asked him what he thinks about his son sleeping here, he’d tell you that if he could, he’d get me out of here. I know where my father sleeps. What does he sleep on? A piece of cardboard. I can’t stand the thought. I sleep down here. My father sleeps up on the roof and I’m not with him.”
This intergenerational aspect comes up again, when Jalal interviews a man named Amer: “You have three boys,” says Jalal, surveying their audience of shabahim, “Take a look at all these precious children and men. How can you be sure your boys won’t end up here?”
On another evening, Jalal comes from Salem, joining his fellow villagers for dinner. They bring a board to sit on and dip pita bread in white cheese.
“I can’t eat cheese anymore,” one laughs.
“Pretend it’s meat,” says Jalal. “Hussein, where is my father today?”
“Under the trees.”
“Did he work today?”
“Only three men worked today,” says another.
“Today?” asks Jalal.
“Only three men.”
“Where will he sleep?” asks Jalal. “Here with us?”
“Under the trees.”
The village-affiliations of the West Bank are preserved in the mall. At one point Jalal goes into the darkness looking for his gas-burner, disturbing some men who are trying to sleep. Violence erupts. The darkness erases the protective frame that separates theater from screen. It is a moment of chaos. We hear voices. Someone succeeds in bringing order. A friend treats Jalal for a head wound. “A while ago,” he says, “we used to fight with someone every day…someone from another village, not ours. When you do it day after day, you get a reputation. When you have a reputation, you’re powerful. You don’t have a choice. You want to survive.”
On weekends Jalal returns to Salem. We cut to the scene, and there is sudden blazing light, the wonderful green of the West Bank. Throughout the film this West Bank light will offset the darkness of the mall. Where there is light, there is no work. Where there is work, there is no light to call your own.
Piece by piece, weekend after weekend, Jalal builds the marriage house – a wing on the house of his parents. He pauses in the work, looking out over the village, and says, “During elections they promised that if we vote for Fatah, they’ll build factories and create jobs here. We won’t need Israel if we have work here. …We’ll work here all week long. I don’t need anything else. I’m not asking for anything big. I don’t want to be rich. I want to remain a worker. I want to go to work and come home, get married and have a home. That’s it. I don’t want a car. I don’t want more than other people. I want to be like everyone else.”
Why not work in the West Bank?
Adjusting for purchasing power parity, the annual per capita GDP in Israel is $28,800. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip it was $1,100 in 2006 and is surely lower today. What accounts for this enormous difference? Why is there no economy there?
At several points in Six Floors – as in Jalal’s remark just quoted – the workers blame Fatah, which received funds from the donor nations during the Oslo years and omitted to build an economy. This is part of the story, but only part. As the film states in a brief introduction, the men are also victims of the Israeli policies after 1967, which prevented the development of a separate economy in the Occupied Territories. The technique was two-pronged:
First, Israel flooded the Territories with subsidized goods. No Palestinian entrepreneur could hope to compete. For 20 years, the West Bank and Gaza were its largest export market after the United States.
Second, the Territories became Israel’s largest market for cheap, commuting manual labor. Arabs with Israeli citizenship (recently freed from military rule), as well as West Bankers and Gazans, made up almost a quarter of Israel’s factory labor, half its construction workers, and half of those in service industries such as hotels, garages and sanitation. The employment of Palestinians in Israel ensured tranquility for a time.
In short, Palestinians earned much of their income in Israel and spent it largely on Israeli goods. There was no chance to develop an economy.* During the 1994 negotiations on the economic component of Oslo, Israel made use of the fact that the new Palestinian Authority could not provide jobs for the 120,000 commuting manual laborers. As a condition for letting them continue the commute, Israel insisted on open economic borders: neither side would restrict the flow of the other’s goods. On the other hand, Israel reserved the right to shut the workers out.
It did so, while continuing to export its goods to the West Bank and Gaza. The frequent closures on the workers hurt their Israeli employers at first, but this problem was solved by an influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and by the importation of workers from distant lands: East Europeans and Chinese in construction, Thais in agriculture, Filipinos, Sri Lankans and Nigerians in personal services.
On a Sunday morning in Six Floors, Jalal and a friend are waiting on a corner, watching car after car pass by. “There’s no work here,” says his friend, “take a look.”
“There’s work,” says Jalal, “but they’re afraid. …They hire Chinese workers. They’re scared.”
“Why do they bring in foreign workers?” asks his friend. “Why not us? We built Israel.” He looks into the camera. “Really, we built it. Who else?”
Toward the film’s end, the wedding day arrives. We see a wedding photo of Jalal’s mother and father, and then there she is in the kitchen, a quarter century later, jolly in a pink headscarf. It is a virtue of Six Floors that it takes us beyond the stereotypes. A woman in a headscarf—what does that connote? Conservatism, piety, tunnel vision, seriousness? But here is Um Jalal: “People came to my mother and said that someone wants her daughter…I started crying. I knew nothing about marriage. …I thought you can get pregnant from a kiss. …Later,” waving her hands in dismissal, “I understood everything. What can I say? There’s no such thing nowadays.” The wedding songs start. She casts a mischievous glance at the unscarved girls around her, who dance from the hips and shake their shoulders, arms half raised and fingers clicking. Now she turns toward a grinning Jalal: “We’re having a party today, a henna. We’ll dance and sing. I’m not worried about anything. Jalal’s getting married. Jalal is no longer my responsibility. I won’t have to iron his clothes, clean his shoes, or wipe his…” She makes a gesture and he laughs.
It is the night of the henna, but here in the West Bank there are lights, and the lights are for Jalal. The village men dance with him on their shoulders. Then he is seated. His mother brings the red-brown henna and squeezes it onto his hands. He holds them palms up and out, showing the henna – his bride will be doing the same in her refugee camp – and now he is hoisted again, a shy smile on his face, as of one fulfilling a ceremonial obligation but with reason to be proud. The drums intensify, the dancing picks up. This is the moment of triumph.
And the power fails. As the lights fade so does the singing, narrowing into a massive sigh. It is the usual village blackout. We are again in the film’s element. The political and the personal merge in this letdown. People try to revive the chant, but it does not work. Someone asks Jalal a question. “I don’t know,” he says. “Ask my father. Go look for my father.” He says to the camera. “No electricity, you see? This isn’t Tel Aviv.” People start to leave. Then the power returns. Boys dance trance-style, but the moment is gone. Jalal’s father, in kafiyah, passes briefly through the crowd.
Much of the film has been about power and impotence, light and darkness. But the impotence of a stunted henna is not its ending. We find ourselves again at the ground level of the mall. A young Israeli wields a big hose, from which oozes a thick ribbon of cement. The authorities have finally gotten around to sealing the place. But this is not the ending either. I won’t spoil the experience by telling it here. Let me say only this: the ending justifies the first word in the title of this article.