Running Under Occupation

A new film produced in Glasgow tells the story of people denied the freedom to run. But Palestinians are resisting Israel’s occupation, writes co-director Cairsti Russell.

Palestine is one of the most restricted places in the world. From the daily commute to the choice of a partner, there is no aspect of life where Palestinians do not have to work around Israeli restrictions. Freedom to Run is a feature-length documentary that uses marathon running to explain these issues. It provides an opportunity to engage new audiences who find Palestine difficult to relate to. My work making Freedom to Run with my co-director and co-producer Stephen Sheriff has been influenced by my research on news reporting of Israel and Palestine, and audiences’ understanding of what they see and hear. This research has shown that many people struggle to identify with the human face of Palestine. Since my first trip to Palestine in 2012, I have been convinced that if people visit and see the reality for themselves, they can’t help but be moved by the situation there. This belief, and the findings of my PhD research, compelled me to bring a group of ten runners from Scotland to run the Palestine Marathon in 2018.

We made the film in collaboration with Camcorder Guerrillas, a collective of activist filmmakers based in Glasgow, and it was supported by Glasgow City Council. We also received support from a number of trade union branches throughout the UK, and received further support from Alasdair Gray, who donated an artwork for us to auction to raise funds. Without all this support we would not have been able to make the film. The level and range of support we have received demonstrates the commitment felt by many people in Scotland to express solidarity with Palestine.

Freedom to Run follows the Palestinian running group Right to Movement (RTM) and a group from Glasgow as they train for and run both the Palestine and Edinburgh Marathons. RTM are co-founders of the Palestine Marathon which takes place in Bethlehem, Glasgow’s twin city. RTM use something as simple as running to challenge and resist the restrictions on movement in Palestine. These restrictions are all part of the struggle of daily life. They include checkpoints and demands for permits, as well as the wall that surrounds the occupied territories, separates Palestinian communities, and prevents farmers from accessing their lands. These restrictions mean that for the majority of Palestinians, Jerusalem is a place they can only dream of visiting, despite its importance for both Muslims and Christians.

The marathon demonstrates these restrictions perfectly. A normal marathon route is 42km, but due to the restrictions imposed by Israel, it is not possible to move more than 10km without being stopped, and completing the marathon requires running on the same road four times. The route begins at the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, and continues past the infamous wall, and through Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps. My research examining BBC and Al Jazeera news coverage of Israel and Palestine has found that the BBC consistently fails to provide any coverage of Palestinian perspectives relating to their continued loss of land since 1948, the continued displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees, or the reality of life under the Israeli military occupation. Instead, what dominates in BBC news coverage are Israeli perspectives relating to security and terrorism. These gaps in news coverage correlate with gaps in the understanding of news audiences. Many are unaware of the military occupation and of the many ways the lives of Palestinians are restricted. They see Palestinians as either victims or terrorists, unrelatable and unconnected to their own lives.

Freedom to Run isn’t just a film about the Israeli occupation and restrictions. The film also tells a story about the long-lasting friendships that formed between the two groups of runners, who live very different lives but were brought together by their shared love of running. We filmed in Scotland and Palestine in 2018 and 2019. In Palestine, as well as running the marathon, the runners saw the effects of the restrictions and the impact they have on people trying to live a normal life in Palestine, and the film is partly about the Scottish runners on these critical journeys. A key arc of the film is the change in one of the Scottish runners, Ped. Before travelling to Palestine, Ped holds the belief that the restrictions exist to protect Israel against terrorism. This is one of the stereotypes I hope the film challenges. On the second day of our trip in Palestine, we joined workers on their daily commute to work, and crossed Checkpoint 300, a checkpoint connecting Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Many of the workers that use Checkpoint 300 work on construction sites that are building on land stolen from Palestinians. Despite the distance between the checkpoint and Jerusalem being only 6km, workers leave their houses as early as 3am in order to ensure that they arrive at work in time. With an estimated 15,000 workers using this checkpoint every morning, and there being only one lane in operation to pass through, there are long waits to cross. The large numbers using the checkpoint also mean that the conditions are cramped and stressful. Within minutes of being at Checkpoint 300, Ped began questioning his previously held beliefs. Another runner, Caitlin, described how it reminded her of images she had seen of people in Calais “where people are taking a once in a lifetime risk to try and completely change their lives, rather than something they have to do every single day.” Another pivotal moment is when we visit a Bedouin community on Pope Mountain, whose village is repeatedly demolished to make way for further Israeli settlements and a settler-only road to connect with Jerusalem. Its school was demolished a few days prior to our visit.

Runners in Bethlehem

The film also follows members of RTM as they navigate the restrictions that form a daily part of their lives. By using running and the marathon as the lens through which the audience learns about restrictions, it shows how, just by living their lives, Palestinians take part in simple acts of resistance every day. A further aim of RTM is to challenge the restrictions imposed on women in a male-dominated society, and they have been relatively successful with this. In their early days it was not very common to see women running in the streets, but now, through the marathon and through the running groups they have set up throughout Palestine, women running has become a more regular sight. A few months after the Palestine Marathon, 10 members of RTM came to Scotland to run the Edinburgh Marathon and to experience the freedom they do not have in Palestine. A special moment of this trip was when a taxi driver in Glasgow refused to accept any money from members of RTM when he heard where they were from.

We finished the film at the beginning of 2023 and were contemplating our next steps. Then October 7th happened. We began to see familiar stereotypical reporting on mainstream news. After a discussion with members of RTM, we decided that it was important to screen the film as soon as possible in order to provide important context about life in Palestine, and to raise funds for MAP. We organised our first public screening at the CCA in Glasgow, and since then we have organised twelve sell-out screenings across the UK, in Glasgow, York, Newcastle, and London. The film has been seen by over 1200 people, and has so far raised over £7000 for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP). At Q and A sessions after the film, it has been fascinating hearing people’s shock at the degree to which Israel restricts the day-to-day lives of Palestinians.

One of the amazing things that has happened at these screenings is that communities that are forming with grassroots groups coming together to help us organise further screenings.

We will be continuing to screen the film in the UK and internationally for the next year with the aim to reach as wide an audience as possible. We are open to requests for screenings and encourage anyone to get in touch with suggestions. I also hope the film might encourage people to go and see Palestine for themselves, and perhaps even run the marathon there.

To get in touch:

Instagram: @freedomtorunfilm
Twitter: @Freedom_to_Run

Cairsti Russell is a sociologist, runner, and one of the filmmakers behind Freedom to Run.