How Banksy’s Bethlehem hotel inspired celebrity activists to tell the Palestinian story

Written by Zeena Saifi, CNN

A group of celebrity activists are trying to destigmatize being Palestinian, telling the human stories of an oppressed nation in a new documentary.
The documentary “Walled Off,” takes its title from a hotel owned by anonymous British street artist Banksy in the biblical city of Bethlehem. Located a few steps from Israel’s imposing separation barrier that runs through the occupied West Bank, it bills itself as the hotel with the “worst view in the world.”

Destigmatizing Palestine: celebrity activists tell human stories through new film

Inside, the walls are decorated with Banksy’s artwork depicting satirical views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also has a museum dedicated to informing visitors about the separation wall and providing historical context on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is that use of art to tell the story of a people struggling for freedom that inspired the star-studded team to make the documentary, they tell CNN.

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK - MARCH 04: A mural in a room shows a soldier and a Palestinian make pillow fight at a hotel named

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK – MARCH 04: A mural in a room shows a soldier and a Palestinian make pillow fight at a hotel named “The Walled Off” in Bethlehem in the southern West Bank, which is surrounded on all four sides by dividing wall, on March 4, 2017. The design of the hotel, which sits across from the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, was made by famous British street artist Banksy. In the rooms of the hotel, which were opened up especially for the press, can be seen various items designed by the artist. The hotel presents to visitors a wonderful attempt at understanding the lives of Palestinians condemned to live behind the walls and whose lands were occupied. (Photo by Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) Credit: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Film director and producer Vin Arfuso joined forces with model and musician Anwar Hadid, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and Kweku Mandela, the grandson of former South African President Nelson Mandela, to tell the story of what it’s like living under Israeli occupation.

Waters has been a years-long advocate for Palestinian rights but has stirred controversy at times, with some critics accusing him of antisemitism. He has rejected that, saying his antipathy is toward Israel’s government, not the Jewish people.

The film cuts between scenes from the hotel and historical footage of the decades-long conflict, detailing events the filmmakers say have been misrepresented by the media.

Both Arfuso and Hadid are Americans of Palestinian descent.

“At the end of the day, there is something a little bit easier for us to communicate the struggles of living under occupation through the concept of art,” Arfuso adds. “Filmmaking in and of itself as a medium is art. The hotel itself is a piece of art.”

Guests eat in the dining hall of Banksy's Walled-Off hotel in the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Bethlehem on December 21, 2019.

Guests eat in the dining hall of Banksy’s Walled-Off hotel in the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Bethlehem on December 21, 2019. Credit: Musa Al Shaer/AFP/Getty Images

The idea for the film came about when Arfuso and Hadid traveled to the West Bank together in 2019. The pair bonded over their Palestinian roots and what it felt like to be Palestinian growing up in the United States.

“Being Palestinian here is a very, very unique thing. It’s as soon as you meet another Palestinian, automatically there’s this connection because you know they know, and they know that you know…Whether it’s in mainstream media or in Hollywood, the Palestinian cause or the Palestinian narrative has never been represented accurately,” Arfuso explains.

He said his goal as a filmmaker was to “help take the edge away” when people hear the word “Palestinian.”

“The most important thing for myself and Anwar was to humanize the Palestinians, because in America, and really in a lot of places around the world, the Palestinians are seen in two lights… as either the victim or the terrorist, but there’s no in-between. There are no filmmakers, doctors, architects, people who just want to hang out,” he continued.

Courtesy Vincent Arfuso

In many ways, the two filmmakers themselves personify that genre of Palestinians who have shot to fame in the US — but not as “victims” or “terrorists.” Anwar Hadid, with 6.5 million followers on Instagram, is a model and musician but has used his platform to advocate for Palestinian rights. Similarly, his sisters, supermodels Gigi and Bella Hadid, with a combined Instagram following of around 140 million, have repeatedly spoken out for Palestinians, and often faced a backlash for it. Other such Palestinian-American celebrities include comedian Mo Amer, who has a show on Netflix about being Palestinian in America, and Grammy award-winning rapper DJ Khaled.
Almost 5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, but millions more live in the diaspora, either as refugees or having settled in other countries. Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in a 1967 war and most of the international community considers them to be occupied territory. Israel considers East and West Jerusalem its “united capital” and has dotted the West Bank with Jewish settlements.

In their film, Hadid and Arfuso meet a group of Palestinian students who get together to discuss various social topics, such as generational trauma and freedom. One young girl chimes in: “it’s hard to define something you don’t have” while another talks about his dreams of studying computer science.

Arfuso said he was happy to have been able to meet “impressive” and “bright young children” with plans for their future, but couldn’t help but feel emotional when he left.

The monkey doll dressed as a porter at the entrance to Banksy's 'The Walled Off Hotel' next to the Israeli separation West Bank Wall in Bethlehem, Palestine on December 28, 2022. Established in March 2017, and initially set out to only be a temporary exhibition, the hotel with 'the worst view of any hotel in the world' has since attracted thousands of visitors. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The monkey doll dressed as a porter at the entrance to Banksy’s ‘The Walled Off Hotel’ next to the Israeli separation West Bank Wall in Bethlehem, Palestine on December 28, 2022. Established in March 2017, and initially set out to only be a temporary exhibition, the hotel with ‘the worst view of any hotel in the world’ has since attracted thousands of visitors. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images) Credit: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Getty Images

“To know that… when we come home… and we’re just hanging out, traveling freely, those kids are still living under occupation at the end of the day, even if they don’t make it their identity, that is the reality for them. And it disgusts me that I have to pay taxes to support that,” he added, referring to US military aid to Israel.

“I’ve had a lot of Palestinian people come up to me and tell me at one point in their life that they were almost afraid to say that they’re Palestinian,” Hadid told CNN. “And as you meet more Palestinian people, you kind of realize that they just want to express themselves just like anyone else in the world. They don’t want to be seen as just victims. They don’t want to be seen as just people that live under occupation,” he continued.

Despite their openness to speak up, the filmmakers say they have faced hurdles in promoting their documentary on social media. Pro-Palestinian activists have long complained that platforms like Instagram and Facebook limit or even block their content, a move for which human rights organizations and independent auditors have called out the platform.
CNN has reached out to Meta, the two platforms’ parent company, for comment. The company has said in the past that it has taken measures to remedy the situation, some of which Facebook has blamed on technical glitches or “human error.”

“I think we got a lot of support from people and also a lot of shadow-banning,” Hadid says, referring to the claim that social media sites purposely limit a post’s visibility. “We’ve got messages explaining that people’s accounts and stories have been receiving thousands of cuts to their views from posting the film. And I’ve seen it throughout the years of posting about Palestine, talking about Palestine…I think that we all know the risks of speaking about this type of stuff, but it’s worth it,” Hadid adds.

Courtesy Vincent Arfuso

It was the fear of censorship that drove the filmmakers to release the film independently on its own website. Arfuso explained that they wanted it to set a standard for independent filmmakers that they don’t need the approval of the movie industry to make a film with big names attached and create a buzz. The film was released in early March when violence between Israelis and Palestinians was escalating, and Israel was grappling with mass protests over a controversial judicial overhaul.

The pair told CNN they hoped their film could change people’s negative opinions of Palestinians.

“I hope people get a new perspective on the Palestinian people and grow some sort of internal fire within them that makes them want to help people in need, people that really need their voices, their voices of people that have the ability to even choose what they think or feel. Some people don’t really get that blessing.”

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