What Walaa Wants: coming-of-age in the West Bank

The personal doco traces Walaa's development, as she strives to join the Palestinian Security Forces.

What Walaa Wants, a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Christy Garland, has an incredibly intimate feel to it.

The film tells the story of Walaa, a young Palestinian woman who lives in a refugee camp in Nablus, the West Bank. The moment it opens, we learn that Walaa’s mother, Latifa, was accused of aiding a suicide bomber and is now locked in an Israeli prison. We meet Walaa as a young woman, trying to get through life without her mother and striving to become a police officer, and watch her grow over five years.

What Walaa Wants is incredibly intimate, and borderline invasive: we are given a glimpse into the dynamics of a tight-knit family, who are resilient and almost comedic, given their lives under occupation. Walaa’s story is told solely through her dialogue between her mother, sisters and brother. We watch them laugh, fight, recount childhood memories, dream about the future together and wipe tears from one anothers’ faces.  

The five-year time frame brings us even closer to Walaa. We follow her development as a young woman authentically, as it happens. At the beginning, we are presented with the image of a vulnerable girl, shaped by the absence of her mother. As the plot progresses, we realise that Walaa has a determination uncommon for her age, and a passion about topics unknown to many. We witness her milestonesboth her toughest and happiest moments—and watch her grow into fierceness and strength. By the end of the film, we are left wanting more for her.

The documentary stays away from overtly political questions, foregrounding family life instead. However, the personal is inevitably informed by the political, particularly in occupied Palestine.

Garland addresses the occupation through the theme of rebellion and martyrdom.  Walaa and her sisters speak of transforming their rooms into jail cells, as a way to feel closer to their mother. When Walaa’s brother, Mohammed, is asked what he wants to do in life, he replies that he wants to be like his cousin “the X”, who was imprisoned for throwing stones. This speaks volumes about how resistance shapes the cultural and political identities of young Palestinians.

And this is the biggest thing to take away from What Walaa Wants: that to be Palestinian is to exist in a constant state of resistance. The film shows us that even Walaa isn’t outside of the reach of colonialism, and that, in this context, a young woman yearning to be part of something bigger than herself can be an act of resistance. Walaa lends a human face to the same story of resistance that we’ve witnessed from the region for decades.

In the words of novelist Khaled Hosseini, “Stories are the best antidote to the dehumanisation caused by numbers. They restore our empathy…I see myself, the people I would give my life for, in every tale I am told.” What Walaa Wants does precisely this.

What Walaa Wants will be screening at the Palestinian Film Festival on Monday.