Palestinian director Amer Shomali is set to explore the allegedly illegal excavation of Palestinian antiquities by Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan — who remains a divisive figure around the world — in a hybrid film project that examines the loss of cultural history by way of an action-packed, partly animated heist thriller.
“Theft of Fire” is a co-production between Rashid Abdelhamid of Made in Palestine Project and Ina Fichman of Montreal-based Intuitive Pictures, who produced Shomali’s award-winning 2014 doc “The Wanted 18,” co-directed with Paul Cowan.
Shomali and Abdelhamid are presenting the project at the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival’s CPH:Forum financing and co-production event, which runs April 26-30.
“Theft of Fire” will chronicle the alleged plundering of ancient Palestinian sites by Dayan, who served as Israel’s defense minister from 1967 to 1974 and later foreign affairs minister from 1977 to 1979.
Following Dayan’s death in 1981, his widow Rachel sold the massive collection to the Israel Museum for $1 million. According to a 1982 New York Times article, Dayan’s collection comprised more than 800 artifacts spanning 7,500 years. It was described at the time as the museum’s “most important acquisition of archeology after the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
The hybrid film will include scripted scenes and a fictional animated story that follows a Palestinian art history lecturer on his quest to find the collection, hidden in a prison in the Negev desert, and take it back. It will also feature real interviews with eyewitnesses of archeological excavations by the Israeli army, former Israeli soldiers who participated in the digs, museum curators, antiquities experts and art dealers.
In addition to real archival footage, Shomali will employ deepfake technology to reenact scenes and interviews with real people who are no longer living as well as CGI for the animated sequence. The heist story will be intercut with the interviews, including some with actual Palestinian prisoners who will respond to questions via the Red Cross and be represented in the film in animated form.
The project is in the early financing stage and has secured initial funding from the Jordan Film Fund and the Doha Film Institute. It will also benefit from Canadian funds and the country’s Production Services Tax Credit.
The producers are looking for potential international partners from North America or Europe.
Abdelhamid says that Dayan’s alleged appropriation of ancient artifacts is well documented but remains a taboo subject in Israel due to the late minister’s revered status.
Yet the film is less about Dayan himself and more about the land and to whom it belongs, and what the loss of heritage means, he adds.
“We want it to be very entertaining, like a thriller, with action. It’s not a self-reflective movie. You reflect about all that at the end when you go home. During the movie we want it to be very light, something that you can see on many different levels. You can watch it with popcorn or you can watch it at university or at school.”
Shomali adds, “It is a historical documentary, but about a story that didn’t happen. The story is not real. We’re going to have interviews with Moshe Dayan and [late Israeli politician and peace activist] Uri Avnery, with Palestinians inside the prison, but the overall story of the heist itself didn’t happen. But we’re going to edit the film in a way that this possibility of a heist could have happened.”
Dayan will appear in archive footage discussing his hobby, “but we’re going to extend that,” Shomali explains. “We’re going to ask Moshe Dayan questions that nobody asked before.”
Abdelhamid says the film will be intentionally confusing. “At the end you don’t understand — is this a real story or not? And this is part of the game.”
The project originated with the 2016 opening of the new Palestinian Museum in the West Bank town of Birzeit, Shomali says, noting that Palestine lost its old national museum and all of its exhibits and antiquities when Israel occupied Jerusalem in 1967.
The new museum was forced to open without any exhibits, in part because many collectors and artists were afraid to lend their collections and artworks out of fear that they might end up confiscated by Israeli authorities, Shomali says. The empty museum was derided in Israeli and international media, he recalls.
The BBC remarked at the time, “Palestinians regard themselves as a people without a homeland — now they have a museum without an exhibition.”
When Shomali’s younger brother, who worked at the museum, was at one point arrested by Israeli soldiers, the director attended his military court hearing. When the judge asked him about his employment, his brother said he worked at the Palestinian Museum. “The Israeli judge started laughing, saying, ‘Why do you Palestinians need a museum? What do you have to show to the world?’ The judge, the jury, the soldiers, for them it was kind of a joke.”
He says that the loss of antiquities, archeology and artworks, meant that “we had nothing to show to the world. It led to the point where our existence is questionable. We got dehumanized. Killing us is not a crime because we did not exist in the first place. If there is no victim, there is no crime.
“So I started to think, how can we get back what is originally ours — the antiquities, the archeological artifacts, the artworks. Of course, if we ask for it back from the Israelis they will not give it back to us, so it should be a heist.”