In 2024 we're beginning a new series of profiles spotlighting some of our extraordinarily talented WFTV members.
First in the series is an interview with visual artist and documentary filmmaker Sarah Beddington, based in London. Her films, installations, paintings and other works have been shown in international film festivals, museums, non-profit spaces and galleries.
Her award-winning debut feature documentary, Fadia’s Tree (2022), spans fifteen years and tells the story of a friendship between the director and a Palestinian woman living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. The film uses the perspective of millions of migrating birds to soar above a divided land and a fragmented people to reflect on freedom of movement, exile and the instinct to return home.
Previewing at the BFI, the film was produced by Over the Fence Films and released by Verve Pictures in cinemas across the UK in 2022. Nominated for a BIFA Discovery Award and long-listed in three other BIFA categories, the film also received the Amnesty International Award for Best Feature at Donostia-San Sebastián HRFF (2022) and Best Documentary at Karama Film Festival in Amman, Jordan (2021) among others.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a filmmaker. Was documentary filmmaking something you’d always wanted to pursue?
I studied painting at Central Saint Martin’s Art School in London and for the next ten years focused on making multi-layered paintings in which a fugitive image of an interior space would materialise or disappear, depending on the movement of the viewer, creating a cinematic experience in paint also intended to reference the ever-shifting nature of memory.
On relocating to New York in 2002, the human movement of the city seemed to demand a more direct medium. I wanted to capture something of ‘the real’ and my initial films were single, extended shots of everyday moments, intended as ‘relics’ of a particular time and place.
In 2005 I was invited to an international art conference in Beirut. On the last day I was in a café overlooking the sea. A young woman nearby asked if she could speak with me and said, “Are you happy?” She told me she was Palestinian, living in a refugee camp where she was born, and how without citizenship, access to healthcare, travel or most job opportunities she was feeling entrapped and depressed.
We stayed in touch and Fadia invited me to return and stay in the camp. When I asked how I could be useful she answered, “Make a film.” Protesting I was not a documentary filmmaker, I bought a new camera and started filming from the moment I arrived in the camp.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this extraordinary film?
Fadia’s Tree took seventeen years to make, from when I started filming until it was released. As a self-shooting director, I spent several weeks every year documenting Fadia, the kindergarten she had set up and the everyday privations of those living in the labyrinthine alleyways of Bourj el Barajneh camp, first constructed in 1948 and only ever intended as temporary accommodation.
I was deeply affected by the way Fadia talked about ‘home’ – an inaccessible place across the border into what is now northern Israel where she has never been allowed to visit.
In 2009 I lived for almost a year in the Old City of Jerusalem, wanting to understand the context for Fadia’s situation. I learnt from Palestinian and Israeli ornithologists how the region is on one of the world’s busiest bird migration routes with billions of birds travelling to and from their nesting grounds every year. Their journeys, following geological features on the ground and celestial markers in the sky, allowed me to imagine a more connected world beyond the human divisions on the ground, one in which the storks and cranes flying over Jerusalem also passed over Fadia in Lebanon.
Fadia produced my greatest challenge by asking me to find an ancient mulberry tree, sacred to women and growing next to her grandfather’s house in the village of Sa’sa’ in 1948 when they had to flee. This quest on her behalf was full of uncertainties and entailed me making multiple trips to the village, now a kibbutz, with only inherited memories, a blind uncle and a two headed dragon as my guides.
After working on my own for twelve years, I needed to bring the film to completion. A workshop run by Birds’ Eye View Films, with Mia Bays at the helm (now Director of the BFI Film Fund), was a major turning point. It was here I met my amazing producer Susan Simnett of Over the Fence Films and where for the first time I felt part of a sisterly community determined to change the demographic of women and non-binary filmmakers in the industry. After a two year edit with Ariadna Fatjó Vilas we completed the film and were very lucky that Verve Pictures brought it to the big screen.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given as an artist and filmmaker?
Hmm, that’s a tough one! Probably something along the lines of: If you believe in what you are doing strongly enough you can make it happen. And perhaps: Never be afraid to ask the advice of others along your journey and you will be surprised where it might lead you.
Q: What would you like people to take away from the film, and from your creative work in general?
In all my work I try to find a parallel narrative from which to look at an unresolved situation, imagine an alternate reality and create new dialogue. Time and history are not linear constructs but are nudging up against one another all the time. Fadia’s Tree uses the wisdom and logic of the natural world to look at the injustice of enforced exile, without casting blame or judgement.
During our theatrical release with Verve Pictures last year many people came up to me in the cinema and thanked me for making the film, saying, “We had no idea about this situation. What can we do to help Fadia and her community?” Palestinian refugees number the world’s largest body of people left in limbo for the longest period of time. There were until recently over 5 million displaced Palestinians eligible for UN humanitarian aid, a figure that is rapidly escalating with the current situation in Gaza.
As a major humanitarian crisis unfolds in the Middle East, it seems a particularly pertinent time for us to stand together in solidarity and for governments to unite in trying to find a solution for this decades long tragedy. I hope in some small way that Fadia’s Tree conveys the humanity, warmth, intelligence and humour of those who have who have been sidelined for too long.
Q: What’s next for you?
Fadia’s Tree continues to be screened around the world which is wonderful. It recently won best documentary in a South Korean festival.
In Summer 2022 I went on holiday with Fadia to Cumbria when she was in the UK for screenings of the film. We stayed on a sheep farm in one of the Lake District valleys and discovered that, in the shadow of the climate crisis, the upland farmers are facing a big crisis as major changes in farming are taking place.
The Lake District contains the largest area of common land in England – a landscape shaped by human labour and grazing livestock over millennia. It was made a World Heritage site in 2017, partly for its agro-pastoral traditions and commoning rights enshrined in the 12th century Magna Carta.
Government subsidies to boost food production after World War II led to overstocking and environmental damage in the uplands, greatly reducing the land’s ability to store carbon. Today’s subsidies focus on nature conservation but they favour large-scale landowners, leaving small-scale tenant farmers vulnerable.
On Common Land is a cinematic film with the landscape as the main character. By following a number of farmers with commoning rights through the seasons, the film will reflect on the possibility of moving towards a climate-just future without losing ancient traditions, rural infrastructure and the balance between culture and nature.
Verve Pictures @viva.verve
Over the Fence Films @overthefence_films
Fadia's Tree @fadiastree