'Tomorrow's Freedom' Producer Sawsan Asfari on Documenting 'Palestine's Mandela' | Savoir Flair
Palestine
'Tomorrow's Freedom' Producer Sawsan Asfari on Documenting 'Palestine's Mandela'
article SAWSAN ASFARI
by Jana Shakhashir 10-minute read May 13, 2024

“The last day of occupation will be the first day of peace.” - Marwan Barghouti

article GETTY IMAGES

Seven months into ongoing, indescribable atrocities in Gaza, the question of who will lead the Palestinian people 'the day after' grows ever more pressing. To many Palestinians, the answer is clear: Marwan Barghouti. Despite spending the last two decades in Israeli prison (on charges he vehemently denies, by a court he refuses to recognize), Barghouti's influence and support remain steadfast. In a March 2024 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Barghouti emerged as the favored candidate in presidential scenarios by a landslide. Outpacing both Palestine's widely unpopular current President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, Barghouti secured the support of 56 percent of participating voters across the West Bank and Gaza. 

The mainstream media often dwells on why Palestinians can't seem to unite, highlighting the divisions between factions and suggesting an inherent inability to rally behind a single leader. This narrative misses a critical point: Barghouti is kept in Israeli prison precisely because he has the potential to change this status quo. Israel's strategy to keep him behind bars is not just about silencing one man; it's about perpetuating Palestinian division and weakening collective resistance against its occupier. Barghouti stands out as the one leader capable of uniting all Palestinians, making him the greatest threat to the Israeli occupation. To some Israelis, he is a terrorist, but to many Palestinians, Barghouti is their Mandela. His central role in the 1990s Palestinian political scene and immense sacrifice for the Palestinian cause, including multiple stints in solitary confinement, have cemented his status as 'the most popular Palestinian leader alive,' trusted across all political factions. There's a widespread belief that if freed, Barghouti could bridge the divide between Fatah and Hamas, leading to a unified government that stands a real chance of ending the Israeli occupation and achieving freedom for Palestine.

Tomorrow's Freedom brings to light a renewed call for Marwan Barghouti's freedom through the lens of his family's daily experiences, capturing their relentless drive to uphold his cause over the course of five years. Co-directors and producers Georgia and Sophia Scott gain unparalleled access to the Barghouti household, offering an intimate exploration of the man behind the symbol. From intimate moments at home to the tension of prison visits and Barghouti's 43-day hunger strike in solitary confinement, the documentary presents a rare glimpse into the lives of his family members, who, despite the weight of their circumstances, continue to fight for his cause and the broader dream of Palestinian unity. 

Central to the narrative is Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, a powerful advocate for women's empowerment, respected lawyer, and member of the Fatah council. For over two decades, she has tirelessly traversed the globe campaigning for her husband's release, becoming a symbol of both personal and collective resistance. The documentary intricately weaves current developments, in-depth interviews, and extensive archival footage spanning over 30 years, tracing Marwan's transformation from an activist to a visionary politician. 

We had the opportunity to sit down with the film's producer, Sawsan Asfari, known for her work on notable films such as The Teacher and Lyd, to delve into the making of Tomorrow's Freedom, the impact of Marwan Barghouti's story, and the broader implications for Palestinian unity and self-determination. Dive into our conversation below.

img AP

If we keep pushing back, if we keep producing films, if we keep writing articles, eventually the WHOLE WORLD will stand with us because THE TRUTH will always prevail

On Activism

Do you still have hope?

Absolutely. We all need to have hope. It's what keeps us moving forward, even in the toughest times. It’s what pushes humanity forward. Without hope, we are literally guaranteed to be stuck in this mess. 

How do you stay hopeful when things are so bleak?

Staying active is key to maintaining hope. When I moved to London, I got involved in anything that aligned with my beliefs. Joining the Arab Labor group, lobbying in parliament, and starting a charity helped me channel my energy positively. It's engaging in these actions, fighting for your people, that actually fills you with the energy to keep going. Of course, there are days when the situation feels too far gone and it's hard to see the light. But then, you remember why you're doing all this — for a cause you believe in deeply, for a change that you hope to see in the world. And it's that belief, that active participation in shaping the future, that reignites your hope and keeps you moving forward, regardless of the outcome.


And honestly, we have many reasons to stay hopeful. Despite the polarization and attempts to silence pro-Palestinian voices in places like the US and the UK, there has been a noticeable shift in the world. People are increasingly willing to speak out, and there are now legal avenues to challenge unfair dismissals for expressing pro-Palestinian views. We need to remember that the reason Zionists want to shut us down is because they lose the moral argument. They cannot win the moral argument and they know it, so they want to suppress us through intimidation and fear, threatening our jobs and even our lives. If we keep pushing back, if we keep producing films, if we keep writing articles, eventually the whole world will stand with us because the truth will always prevail.


I mean we’re watching demonstrations happen all the way in South Korea and Japan, and even in the U.S. I've had Jewish friends call me and say, ‘Look, we had family perish in the Holocaust and this cannot be done in our name. We are against this. This is genocide.’ There has been a shift and the world is standing with Palestine. We just need the governments to do the right thing.

What would you tell people who live in countries where more traditional means of activism are not an option?

Taking to the streets is powerful, but not everyone can do that, especially in places where it’s not safe or possible. My message is: do what you can. Whether it’s helping out a local charity, sharing a tweet or an article, or just talking about these issues to raise awareness, it all adds up. Awareness is key, and that also makes the role of those who can safely speak out even more vital. So, I’d say, use whatever platform you have to contribute to the discourse.

Why did you get into film?

I've always been an activist. My idea of fun was spending every Sunday in Hyde Park Corner screaming about Palestine. But after years of charity work, protesting, and lobbying, it felt like I wasn't making the impact I hoped for. I realized that whether or not someone is interested in politics or social issues, everyone watches movies — it’s a universal language. Film is such a powerful tool to tell our story, take control of our narrative, and correct the misrepresentations spread by mainstream media. Take Farah Nabulsi’s The Present, for example. That short film did more for the cause in 24 minutes than what we did through two decades of lobbying. Think about the New York Times article by a former CIA director titled, Why Biden Must Watch This Palestinian Movie. This is the power of film. It simplifies the 'complicated' politics into human stories that everyone can understand and empathize with. 


I got into film not out of a passion for the industry itself but out of a deep commitment to the Palestinian cause. I took some production courses to be able to do it right, but my mission has always been clear. Starting my own production company, Cocoon Films, then allowed me to expand the narratives I was involved with. While my focus remains on Palestine, I’ve also been able to explore other stories around human rights and social justice. There are so many important stories out there, and I believe film is one of the most powerful ways to bring them to the forefront.

article article

There HAS been a shift and the WORLD is standing with Palestine. We just need the governments to do the right thing.

img SAWSAN ASFARI AND GEORGIA AND SOPHIA SCOTT

Whether or not someone is interested in politics or social issues, EVERYONE watches movies — it’s a UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE.

On 'Tomorrow's Freedom'

What sparked the creation of Tomorrow’s Freedom?

I've always been a great admirer of Marwan Barghouti. He’s a real hero to us Palestinians; he’s given his life for our cause and is one of the very few leaders who isn’t caught up in corruption. He isn't just any leader — and I think this is a crucial point — he is the person who can unite all Palestinians. Barghouti’s ability to unite us is not just rare, it's vital, and it’s the greatest threat to the occupation. It’s what makes him truly exceptional.


One day, Sophia and Georgia Scott, the British filmmakers who made In the Shadow of War and Lost in Lebanon, approached me about an article they found on Marwan, asking me if I knew him. I said, 'Of course, he's been my hero for a long time.' They explained that they wanted to make a documentary about him, and I was immediately interested. I helped set them up with a budget, sent them off to Palestine, and got them in touch with the right people to start filming. That was the beginning of bringing Tomorrow's Freedom to life.

In the film, we gain intimate access to Barghouti's family during highly sensitive moments, from prison visits to times they're reacting to news about his hunger strike and solitary confinement. What challenges did you encounter in capturing these moments, and how did the crew handle the emotional effects on both the family and themselves?

I think it helped that the crew was quite small. Sophia and Georgia were the whole crew, really, and they earned the family’s trust simply by spending a lot of time with them. They were in and out of Palestine ten to twelve times, I think, and they didn’t just show up to film; they spent some of their days just being there with them, sometimes not even filming at all. If things got really tough for the family, Sophia and Georgia would put the cameras down and just be there for them, you know? To give them a hug or whatever they needed. They managed to really connect with the Barghoutis, and I think a big part of that was because they were more than just filmmakers on a schedule. They had a genuine interest in the story and concern for the family, and they were outsiders with no agenda regarding Marwan; they were just there to document the story. That made a big difference.

What were the biggest obstacles in producing and shooting the movie?

We hit a lot of obstacles, especially looking ahead at distribution; that's always difficult. But the real challenge from the start was funding. It’s tough for any independent film to find the funds, but for a Palestinian story, it’s even harder. Then there was the filming — Sophia and Georgia decided not to bring their cameras with them to avoid unwanted attention. They rented all the equipment instead, and that wasn’t cheap. And then to keep our footage safe, we would send out the hard drives with a Jewish friend so that they wouldn't be stopped and searched. They also faced real risks while filming on the ground, especially during protests and attacks where tear gas was being fired at Palestinians. It was scary for them, being right there in the thick of it. 


But the biggest challenge once the filming was done was the editing. We wanted the film to tell Marwan’s story, but also shed light on all Palestinian prisoners because this is the plight of so many Palestinian families.


Editor’s Note:
According to Al Jazeera, Israel has arrested more than 7,350 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem since October 7th, often without filing charges. Despite some releases, the number of Palestinian detainees has risen to 9,100, compared to 5,200 before October 7th. Among those detained, at least 250 are children. Over half of prisoners are in administrative detention, meaning Israel will hold them for months without any due process or charges. These statistics do not account for the thousands of adults and children subjected to detention, torture, and interrogation by the Israeli military in makeshift prisons across Gaza, without any form of legal or civilian oversight.


So the question was, how do you strike a balance between making the film both personal and political? We went through a few editors to get it right. Editing is tough in any film, but for us, it was particularly challenging to weave together these different threads into a coherent narrative. Distribution was then a whole other story because a lot of the mainstream film festivals didn’t want to go anywhere near the film. They thought it was too political or it's too impartial. We even had an experience with a mainstream channel — I won't mention which one — where the guy handling acquisitions was all set to bring our film on board. He loved it and was ready to go ahead. But then, we got this apology letter from him the very next day, saying the decision was vetoed by higher-ups.


The truth is, distributors get nervous about potential backlash. They're weighing up whether taking on a film like ours is worth the risk of hostility. That's pushed us to look for alternative ways to get the film out there, sometimes going with distributors who aren’t afraid of the controversy, but knowing we won’t be earning much money. It's about finding those willing to take a stand so the film can reach its audience.

img FADWA BARGHOUTI AND SAWSAN ASFARI

The HEART of this film is NOT JUST Marwan's story; it’s about shedding light on ALL Palestinian prisoners who have been detained WITHOUT charge or trial and BRUTALIZED in Israeli custody

On Palestinian Prisoners

What were some of the most inspiring moments throughout the film's creation process?

One of the most inspiring moments for me was witnessing Fadwa's incredible energy, resilience, and unwavering commitment. It was amazing to see her keep pushing forward, despite the challenges she faces. Being so close to Marwan's suffering also left a deep impression on me. His years in solitary confinement and the harsh treatment he endured really demonstrate the depth of his sacrifice and resilience. 


For Sophia and Georgia, the eye-opening moments came while accompanying Fadwa to the checkpoints and witnessing firsthand the dehumanization Palestinians experience daily. The treatment they observed was shocking to them, especially as foreigners. Seeing how Palestinians are treated at these checkpoints really solidified the realities of life under occupation to them.

Speaking of Fadwa, many viewers, myself included, left the film with a profound admiration for her. Did you anticipate that she would emerge as such a powerful figure during filming?

Absolutely, we noticed that early on. Sophia and Georgia got a real sense of Fadwa’s extraordinary character after spending so much time with her. Her absolute loyalty and unwavering dedication to Marwan and the cause, and her ability to face countless challenges with such hope and relentless energy, truly made an impression. There were moments during filming when we found ourselves thinking that there could be a whole documentary just about Fadwa. We recognize her greatness. Her strength, her resilience, and her refusal to be defeated are inspiring. She’s incredible and she hasn’t let life and the reality of the situation slow her down in the slightest.

What's the key message that you hope to convey through this documentary, and what impact do you hope it will have on the discourse around Barghouti and all Palestinian prisoners?

The heart of this film is not just Marwan's story; it’s about shedding light on all Palestinian prisoners who have been detained without charge or trial and brutalized in Israeli custody. We're aiming to seek justice and raise awareness about their plight. Our hope is that this film will reach a broad spectrum of viewers — from international institutions and governments to various audiences who can influence the conversation around Marwan and all Palestinian prisoners. 


We're at a pivotal moment right now as the film is gaining traction and reaching wider audiences. At the same time, we’ve seen a surge in articles about Marwan Barghouti over the last few months, which shows how relevant his situation is to what's happening in Palestine today. A few years back, when there was talk of elections, polls showed Marwan could've won almost 60 percent of the vote while he was behind bars. The evidence is clear: he is the leader Palestinians want. He is the one person who can unite Palestinians, whether they're in Gaza or in the West Bank. And because he could actually unite us, he is ultimately the biggest threat to Israel, which is why they won’t release him. The last thing they want is Palestinian unity and democracy.


When you watch Marwan’s case presented in the film, you will see Israeli officials telling us that without change, without an end to the occupation, things are going to explode. We're currently witnessing the consequences of years of occupation and oppression. And I think now with the question of who should lead the Palestinians when the war ends, the answer is crystal clear.


We're hoping to play the film in Parliament here [in London] to reach certain MPs and even take it to Washington in hopes that it might make a difference to his future.

img @TOMORROWS_FREEDOM_FILM

On Palestinian Film

What do you think is the future of Palestinian film?

I think the future is bright because Palestinian filmmakers are getting the courage to make the films that they want to make and the Western world is responding to our filmmaking. The biggest thing I would say is so needed right now is an organization that can support these filmmakers. I receive so many scripts and proposals and no matter how good the film is, I can’t take them all. Every Palestinian film struggles with funding and distribution, so it would be wonderful if we had a centralized organization that could help fund these films.

What is your advice for Palestinian filmmakers?

They just have to keep going no matter how hard the journey is because they have the power to tell our story. We need to take charge of our own stories to be able to shape the narrative, and we can do so through storytelling. Palestinian films and filmmakers are a huge asset to the cause because they can reach people and change their perspectives. I know that everything seems so hopeless right now and everyone feels so helpless, but filmmakers need to keep going and not lose hope because they are our hope. 

Share This Story
Look 28 from Balenciaga‘s Fall 2022 Couture collection CHANEL | SAVOIR FLAIR HUBLOT | SAVOIR FLAIR
@savoirflair