On May 2, 2017, crowds of Israelis flow through East Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter, clad in blue and white to celebrate the country’s 69th independence day. The groups sing victory songs, wave flags and jump up and down in patriotic zeal. Sami Al Batsh, a 23-year-old Palestinian who grew up in the region, gazes at the demonstration from behind a wall of Israeli soldiers, his thick black hair tousled stylishly above his expressionless face. As he looks on, the celebrants begin to chant: “The Jewish people do not fear! Because you are the son of a lion! And if a lion roars, who wouldn’t be petrified?”
Moments later, a skirmish breaks out between Palestinian protesters and soldiers in green berets. An elderly woman wearing a hijab shrieks as she’s pushed to the ground. A young girl cries, “We weren’t born to live humiliated. We were born to live in freedom!” Beyond her, the celebration continues. Al Batsh keeps watching with stone-faced restraint. The scene encapsulates the harrowingly candid tone throughout Hurdle, a new documentary offering a fresh look at the conflict that’s shaped millions of lives in the Middle East. Directed and produced by Michael Rowley, the film debuted April 12 at the Dallas International Film Festival and received the Austin Film Society’s North Texas Pioneer Film Grant.
Hurdle is the feature documentary debut for Rowley, an Amarillo-born and Dallas-based filmmaker. The film provides a stirring look at the occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank by capturing the struggles and ambitions of Al Batsh and Mohammad Alazza, two young men living in the shadow of the West Bank wall. Though they don’t know one another, both strive to attain personal and political freedom through creative expression — parkour for Al Batsh, photography for Alazza — while weathering the oppression and violence surrounding them. The film intimately captures the pressure, pain and aspirations of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
Hurdle is littered with historical references that illustrate the Israel-Palestine conflict’s long and bloody past. Among the most powerful images are maps and timelines tracking Israeli encroachment into Palestinian territory, the formation of refugee camps and the construction of a 400-mile, 25-foot-high border wall along the West Bank. There are also several jarring sequences in which Palestinian protesters (many of whom are children and teenagers) are met head-on by Israeli forces armed with tear gas, flash bang grenades and rubber bullets. Live rounds of gunfire are deployed in a few extreme cases. Paired together, these scenes arm the viewer with critical context while providing a close-up look at the devastation and unrest that trouble the region.
Still, Hurdle’s core message is one of promise. Both men are portrayed as ambitious young people seeking to inspire the next generation of Palestinian youth to overcome the obstacles impeding their paths to self-determination. This idea is manifested in Al Batsh’s approach as the coach of the Jerusalem Parkour Team, where he teaches boys the distinctive practice that incorporates running, jumping and swinging over and around walls and fences. Fast-paced hip hop plays to eye-popping shots of Al Batsh and his students leaping, back-flipping and vaulting across ancient cityscapes. In those brief moments, the camera focuses on the fluidity of their movements and their bodily autonomy — liberties Palestinians are rarely afforded in a world of border barriers and military checkpoints. “I’m trying to build a goal for them in their life, a dream that probably didn’t yet exist, they hadn’t found it yet. I’m trying to help them discover themselves,” Al Batsh says. “We just play parkour, the sport we love. The sport that makes us feel the feeling that everyone wants: freedom.”
Alazza gets closer to the political action. A fearless photographer, he charges head-first into clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters with nothing more than a helmet and gas mask. These efforts don’t just show his mettle and commitment; they also provide raw, gritty footage that transports the viewer to the front lines of smoke-filled street skirmishes. Eventually, this tenacity catches up to Alazza when he’s shot in the face with a rubber bullet while snapping a picture of a soldier. Sporting a jagged scar under his right eye, he’s reminded of why he wants to pass his passion onto the Palestinian youth he teaches in a photography class. “I’m telling them not just to focus on the Israeli soldiers or the watchtower over the wall; capture something else, something new,” Alazza says. “We have lots of stories to tell about us as humans. There’s no way to escape from the politics in Palestine, but we try, at least.”
Hurdle’s debut comes at an especially contentious time in Israeli politics. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing hardliner allied with President Trump, recently won a highly contested election to earn his fifth term in office. Days before, Netanyahu promised to annex the West Bank and other occupied territories if he was reelected, an unprecedented move that would likely erase any remaining hope of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
While the election casts an especially dark shadow over the occupied territories Al Batsh and Alazza call home, it also underscores the importance of this film. Jehad, a member of Al Batsh’s parkour team who recently received his law degree, plans to use his legal expertise to aid future Palestinians in their fight for freedom. “Parkour changed me, it changed everything. I learned how to overcome the obstacles inside me,” he says. “When you climb a wall, it’s OK if you fail the first time, the second time. What matters is you never quit. No one can reach perfection, but you can improve yourself to reach the highest point. You can practice anything. Freedom is one of those things.”