Palestine, Beer and Ocktoberfest Under Occupation – a DIY documentary

Apologies for the lengthy break in blogposts, I can only blame two things for the deplorable lapse. The first was the World Cup, now sadly over, and the second was my own engagement, happily the wedding takes place next year. Anyway, to break the silence  (and the gloom of seemingly never-ending redundancies in the media world) here’s the tale of how one would-be documentary maker made her dream come true in spectacular fashion.

Beer and lederhosen is not a combination you would normally associate with Palestinians on the West Bank but the annual Ocktoberfest in the village of Taybeh, 35 kilometres north of Jerusalem, features both.

Fuelled by produce from the local Taybeh Brewery, run by the Khodury family, the event  attracts beer lovers from across the globe – and the Israeli border – who come together for a good time.
In 2008, intrigued by the story Lara Van Raay, an Australian then based in Dubai who worked in commercial television for 12 years but wanted to break into documentaries, decided to cover the event for herself.
In the spirit of DIY journalism, Lara, 34, bought an HDV camera and enlisted the help of a friend to act as a sound technician  before making the trip over to Taybeh to cover the festial.
The result is the 42 minute feature Palestine, Beer and Ocktoberfest Under Occupation, an incredible debut that cost just GBP2,330 (US$3,486) to produce.
The documentary centres around the Taybeh Brewery and members of the Khoury family who describe the thinking behind the festival, the difficulties of running a brewery next to one of the most disputed borders in the world.
The film is extraordinary in that, although it does not shy from the deep rooted problems in the area, the people of the West Bank and those at the festival are shown in a light that is so different from that portrayed in mainstream media that it can only be described as human.
These are people not wrapped up in political tit-for-tat but a village more concerned with making year’s party better than the last. The subjects are heartwarming, life affirming and, at times, funny. Basically people you would like to have a beer with yourself.

I asked Lara how she came to make such an extraordinary film.
She said: “While interviewing a Palestinian rapper friend of mine from Rumallah Underground I became aware of a beer festival and a brewery in Palestine.  I had to cover this story.
“The idea that there could be a brewery in a Muslim country and that there was an Oktoberfest held every year was perfect for me.  For a long time I had been wanting to make a film that brings Palestinian life into the Western eye.  There’s a million films that talk about the hard and devastating consequences of conflict in that region, but that’s not the story that I wanted to tell.  I wanted to show the people that I kept meeting – the Palestinians who are educated, creative, funny and working hard to build a future.
“So I grabbed my gear, and a friend and I jumped on a plane to Jordan and crossed over the border into Israel and then to the West Bank to meet the family behind the brewery and the festival.
“We filmed with them for five days covering the festival and the brewery.  It was an incredible experience as person after person opened up their lives and their thoughts with us.
“The Khoury family opened the first and only Palestinian brewery in 1993 and have been growing their business ever since.  For the last few years they have opened up their local town hall of Taybeh to welcome thousands of visitors to enjoy a beer and a cultural festival of music and dance at what they call Oktoberfest Palestinian style.
“The documentary covers the festival and shows people a completely different side of Palestine, where people are happy, healthy and enjoying success.  It is a light and funny side of Palestine that you rarely get to see in the mainstream media which is exactly the story that I wanted to tell.
“People are people, wherever they are, and most people simply want to enjoy their lives and live in peace.”
What is remarkable about the film is, although filmed on a shoestring budget, it holds its own against those you would expect to see from a mainstream outlet.
Lara, who has since left the UAE and moved back to her native Canberra, has been showing the film wherever she can and gaining praise as she goes.
“I filmed the documentary in 2008 and completed it is early 2009.  Since then it has been officially selected to screen at the International Film Festival Ireland, The Global Peace Festival, Queens International Film Festival and recently at the Australian Dungog Film Festival,” she explained.
“It has also won Best Australian Documentary and People’s Choice Award at Sydney’s WOW Film Festival and has been picked up for distribution by VEA, Australia’s leading educational distributor.”
“So now after all of these years, I can finally say that I am a documentary maker.  The tricky part is staying one.”
If Palestine, Beer and Ocktoberfest Under Occupation screens near you, my advice is to make sure you see it. It’s a staggering achievement.

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