Freedom to Run documents an exchange project between two groups of runners – one Scottish, one Palestinian – who participate in the Palestine and Edinburgh marathons. The marathon becomes a framing device to learn about the Israeli occupation, as you can’t run more than 10km in the West Bank without hitting checkpoints, roadblocks, or other obstacles. Filmed in 2018, Freedom to Run offers invaluable insight into the restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement. SNACK spoke to Cairsti Russell, Freedom to Run’s co-director and co-producer.
What first took you to Palestine and what’s kept you going back?
I started a PhD on Israel and Palestine and knew I couldn’t understand the situation without experiencing it myself. I first went in 2012: staying in refugee camps and with families; meeting with organisations; doing interviews for the PhD. The solidarity Palestine needs is why I came up with the exchange idea – I really believe once people see it for themselves they can’t help but feel a connection and want to help however they can.
You directed and produced the film in collaboration with Stephen Sheriff. How did that work in practice?
We brought different strengths and skills. Mine were knowing the history and context and getting people to tell their stories, because my academic research involves doing lots of interviews. I did the research and came up with the questions we asked the participants. Stephen’s strengths were thinking about how things looked on camera and what shots we needed – I hadn’t considered those technical aspects.
A Scottish runner, Ped, begins the exchange sympathising with Israel, but u-turns after witnessing the reality of the occupation. Have audience reactions been similar?
It’s been mainly supportive. Someone said it made them see there are two sides with good and bad on both, which I take as a small win. In a private screening for funders, someone said seeing Ped’s transformation made them reflect on their own views.
I’m sure it’s still to come, but there’s been no hostility. Now we’ve raised £5,000 for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) we’re thinking future ticket sales could go towards organising free screenings. That’d open us up to potential hostility, but we’d reach audiences who might not otherwise engage.
The film premiered at the CCA in October, the first of five emergency fundraisers for MAP. What’s next for the film?
We’re confirming more Scottish dates – we’ll definitely do more Glasgow screenings and go to Edinburgh. We’ve arranged a few US screenings, and people want to help us with a tour of Ireland. The idea is to reach people outwith activist circles. There’s a California screening in a public library – hopefully that setting engages new audiences. There are sports and human rights film festivals we’re considering entering, and eventually we’ll put it online.
We’d like to show it in Palestine, as would the Palestinian runners. I showed it to some friends there this summer who said it was good but didn’t go far enough. It only shows a small percentage of the suffering Palestinians face, but we’re trying to make it accessible to wider audiences who sometimes need to be eased into the suffering.
How was the filmmaking experience for you – is it something you’d like to do more of or was it a means to an end?
I’d describe myself as an accidental filmmaker. In the early stages I met with someone who basically became our executive producer. I asked if someone more experienced should make it and she said no, that my naive confidence would take me far! It’s been a mammoth project to coordinate, especially on days when filming was happening in Palestine without us. It’s been stressful but rewarding and something I’ll hopefully do more of. I’ve got ideas for other projects I’d like to pursue, mainly in Palestine, where ideally I can combine my academic and filmmaking expertise. I’m in the early stages of a project about digital rights in Palestine and I’m hoping a film can be one of its outputs.
You’re the Glasgow programmer for the Bethlehem Cultural Festival. What’s the festival’s purpose?
The festival aims to strengthen cultural links between the twin cities of Glasgow and Bethlehem. We often don’t hear about the positive parts of Palestine but it has such a vibrant cultural scene, from dabke dancing to oud players to one of the biggest techno DJs in the world, Sama’ Abdulhadi. The festival celebrates that culture and provides a platform for Palestinian artists.
How can our readers support Palestine?
Write to your MP demanding a ceasefire. Seek out and amplify Palestinian voices. Go to demos – it shows Palestinians they haven’t been forgotten.
MAP is probably the most credible organisation for donations; Aseel, who’s in the film, says they’re slowly but surely getting aid in. They’ve also set up field hospitals and are gathering UK volunteers who specialise in particular types of medicine, because unfortunately so many doctors and nurses there have been killed.
Go to Palestine – spend your money there, help the local economy, run the marathon! It means a lot to Palestinians when people visit and want to learn about their situation.