John Deery’s ‘The Rock Pile’ for Peace

This photo shows the discussion of John Deery's filmproject "The Rock Pile" that took place at the Monaco Streaming Festival in 2022. Photo credit ARETE / Simone Suzanne Kussatz
This photo shows the discussion of John Deery's filmproject "The Rock Pile" that took place at the Monaco Streaming Festival in 2022. Photo credit ARETE / Simone Suzanne Kussatz

As Israel prepares to embark on its ground offensive into Rafah, the eyes of the world once again turn to Gaza. The offensive is in response to the Hamas terror attacks of October 7, 2023, where approximately 1200 music festival attendees celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot amid groves of eucalyptus trees were brutally killed, and about 250 Israelis and foreigners were kidnapped. The location or condition of approximately 130 of them remains unknown. About 30 of them are presumed to be dead.

The offensive is planned to be carried out because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that to protect Israeli lives and achieve peace, Hamas needs to be destroyed and to do so, one needs to destroy its infrastructure in Gaza and eliminate its current leaders, who are hiding in Rafah, where over a million internally displaced Gazans are also living.

Yet, institutes such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies have questioned this step. Even President Macron posed the question last year if anyone believes it is possible to completely destroy Hamas?

The devastating toll of violence and destruction weighs heavily on both sides, including war reporters; about 85 have been killed. Many can only witness the horrific images and videos of Gazan journalists who live there. However, the reality is that the majority of journalists outside of Gaza are denied access to the area or can only go on escorted trips with the Israeli military, which are highly controlled and often only show tunnels that they claim are used by Hamas or weapons stores.

Clarissa Ward, a CNN journalist, said that she and her team were the only Western journalists to report from Gaza without an IDF escort when they went to the ground in the southern border city of Rafah last December. However, this was only for two hours. Afterward, she wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in the Washington Post in February, calling on Israel’s government to ‘openly state its permission for international journalists to operate in Gaza.’

Everyone who reads or listens to the news participates directly or indirectly in this tragedy, leaving behind a trail of heartache, grief, despair, and frustration, perhaps a bit of fear. How can one not feel for Hersh Goldberg-Polin when we see his pale face, disturbed look, and visibly severed arm? Or when we hear about 9-year-old Emily Hand, still suffering from panic attacks from her days in captivity, or when a 10-second clip resurfaces, showing Noa Argamani, the 25-year-old Israeli woman abducted by Hamas or collaborators, screaming, “Don’t kill me,” especially knowing her mother has brain cancer and wants to see her daughter?

But then, how can one also not feel for the Palestinians, when we read about a Palestinian baby saved from its dead mother’s womb in Gaza, only to later die, or see images such as the one in which Inas Abu Maamar cradles the body of five-year-old Saly, killed in an Israeli airstrike last October? When we find out daily that more Palestinian civilians have died due to this conflict, with the death toll climbing to 34,180 people, most of them children and women, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Or how can we stay indifferent when we see thousands of sanctuary tents, each holding up to twelve people, being set up to keep civilians out of harm’s way for the upcoming military offensive into Rafah, knowing that some of them will be killed? A bomb can easily fall outside of Rafah, and tent walls are not big enough to give proper protection. Not to mention the discomfort in such housing, the sound of explosions, the sight of smoke in the sky from the distance. Or how can we not feel sympathetic with the Palestinians when we see the US beginning to build a floating base to provide 2 million bottles of water and meals per day to the displaced Gazans, reminding us of how difficult it is for them to receive the basics for survival?

And it seems that more and more people see the suffering that this war is causing on Palestinian civilians and everyone. Take Joe Biden, for instance, who, after months of supporting the war against Hamas, now pressures Israel to reach a ceasefire. This shift comes especially after an Israeli airstrike killed seven workers with the World Central Kitchen charity, most of them foreigners, including Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom, an Australian who had been working around the world to deliver food aid to people in need. How can we not feel saddened by their deaths?

“This is someone who was volunteering overseas to provide aid through this charity for people who are suffering tremendous deprivation in Gaza,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said.

Even now, German politicians like Chancellor Olaf Scholz have concerns about the high number of civilian casualties. Katrin Dagmar Göring-Eckardt of the German Green Party has recently raised questions in a political talk show hosted by Markus Lenz on the German public television channel ZDF, asking whether this is sheer self-defense or revenge and retaliation. In the same discussion, German journalist Sophia Maier, who was on-site in the West Bank just a few weeks ago, criticized the stance of the German federal government, saying, ‘Where are these real, genuine diplomatic efforts? I don’t see them.

Additionally, there are numerous discussions now on whether Germany participated in a war by delivering weapons to Israel.

And then there is China and its diplomat and politician Wang Yi, who said according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “The ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict has cost the lives of nearly 30,000 civilians and left close to two million people displaced. The situation is indeed saddening. It falls upon the entire international community to protect the human rights of all ethnic groups and all people in a fair, equal, and effective way.”

Besides, there are the opinions of intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, who said a long time ago, “The last paradox is that the tale of Palestine from the beginning until today is a simple story of colonialism and dispossession, yet the world treats it as a multifaceted and complex story—hard to understand and even harder to solve.” Or journalist Peter Maass, who recently said in the Washington Post: “I’m Jewish, and I’ve covered wars. I know war crimes when I see them. Israel has no right to bomb and shoot civilians, block food aid, attack hospitals, and cut off water supplies in self-defense.”

At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to the Pro-Palestinian demonstrations on the US university campuses, “What’s happening on America’s college campuses is horrific. Antisemitic mobs have taken over leading universities. They call for the annihilation of Israel and attack Jewish students and faculty.”

We also know that in recent decades, cities like Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, London, Nice, Paris, and Vienna have been targeted by political-religious terrorism. Thus, from this perspective, it is necessary to look at terrorism as a global problem. Even if Hamas is destroyed in Gaza, it may recruit people in Europe even more extensively if the destruction in the lives of civilians continues to escalate, leading to greater anger and more sympathizers for the organization.

While I’m not a politician, a political expert, or a lawyer, I still wish to contribute to the pursuit of lasting peace in this region.

And so it happened that I was sitting here at my desk in a suburb of Paris last week looking up to the sky from within, observing the changing colors and cloud formations, and contemplating alternative approaches to dealing with terrorism so that the lives of innocent people on both sides and people throughout the world are protected.

At first, the socially engaged artist Gregory Sale came to mind, who has proven through his year-long project Future IDs at Alcatraz that formerly incarcerated people can have successful, thriving lives through the power of creativity, dialogue, and compassion. Thus, his project proves that people with a criminal background can change. It takes a lot of work, but with the help of organizations, deradicalization is possible, such as the International Peace Institute.


My Journey with ‘The Rock Pile’: Exploring Hope Amidst Conflict

After learning about Yolanda Zauberman’s film ‘The Beauty of Gaza’ being selected for a special screening at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, John Deery’s film project ‘The Rock Pile’ resurfaced in my mind, which deals with the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Through a series of serendipitous events, I had the opportunity to meet John Deery, a British-Irish director in Monaco two years ago. It all started back in April 2014 in Los Angeles when a friend of mine, an Estonian writer and filmmaker I met at an event at Villa Aurora, mentioned his plans to attend the Cannes Film Festival. I felt envious because my modest position as a freelance art critic for local Los Angeles art magazines meant I lacked the necessary credentials for entry.

In 2020, when my US work visa expired and my green card application was rejected due to not fulfilling all the requirements, I found myself stranded in an apartment in Paris’s 10th arrondissement amidst the strict lockdowns imposed due to the pandemic. Eventually, I moved to the South of France, from Antibes to Juan Le Pins, Cagnes Sur Mer, Vence, Nice, Menton, and Cannes. Although I attended the Cannes Film Festivals in 2021 and 2022, I could only observe it from a distance, unable to fully participate. The same friend, the Estonian writer and filmmaker I met at Villa Aurora, contacted me then. He said he couldn’t attend the Monaco Streaming Festival and offered me his place. Initially hesitant due to my faded motivation as a journalist and not knowing anything about this festival, I eventually decided to seize the opportunity. It felt like a consolation prize for my shattered dreams, a chance to gracefully accept the setbacks I had faced.

I purchased a ticket for 13 Euros, hopped on the train from Cannes to Monte Carlo, and arrived just in time for the discussion on John Deery’s ‘The Rock Pile.’ To be honest, I had never heard of John Deery before, nor was I familiar with his film ‘Conspiracy of Silence’ (2003), which garnered international acclaim, including the U.S. National Board of Review of Motion Pictures’ Freedom of Expression Award in 2004. Deery was also nominated for Best Director at the Irish Film Awards 2003. The screenplay for ‘The Rock Pile,’ written by W. David McBrayer and developed at the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab in Utah, won the Hartley-Merill International Screenwriting Award. All of this was news to me at that point. As I entered the room for the discussion, hosted by Steven Adams from Alta Global Media, I had no idea I would encounter Cherie Blair that day. I learned that she, the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is not only a leading international human rights lawyer and passionate campaigner for women’s equality but also the executive producer of ‘The Rock Pile.’ With no particular goal in mind and no links to any film magazines, I took out my Canon camera and began taking photos of John Deery, Steven Adams, and Cherie Blair. From the discussion, I learned that the film, hadn’t been shot yet, and Cherie Blair emphasized the importance of having the story told by a female journalist. The script was initially written with a male main protagonist.

I felt intrigued by the synopsis in a brochure handed out at the event. It said, “Inspired by true events and set in present-day Jerusalem, the Rock Pile tells the story of three boys of different faiths—one Muslim, one Christian, one Jewish—who, feeling trapped by the ongoing conflict in Israel, take out their frustrations by throwing rocks at each other from atop mounds of rubble in the Old City. The film follows a disillusioned TIME Magazine war correspondent, Erin Ryan, as she uncovers a compelling story of redemption, reconciliation, and hope amidst the boys’ fights, football matches, and blossoming friendship.” The idea of the disillusioned journalist appealed to me immediately, after my experience of being rejected by the US and the Cannes Film Festival, and so did the idea of making peace after conflict and building friendships outside of one’s own tribe. I wrote a small piece about it for the blog Filmink, in Australia.

Last week, amid the escalating situation in Israel and Gaza, I reached out to John Deery, with whom I hadn’t communicated in two years, to inquire about the progress of his film. He called me from London via WhatsApp, revealing that despite significant interest in the script, no one seemed willing to take the financial risk. The estimated budget for the film stands at $11.3 million US dollars. Nevertheless, John Deery mentioned that an Oscar Nominee actress had already agreed to play the lead role of Erin Ryan.

“That’s a pity; the timing for such a topic would be ideal,” I said. He then asked me, “Have you ever read a script?” “Yes, ‘The Reader (2008)’, I said. Then I remembered the scripts I had read for my Master’s thesis on the representation of women in Film Noir of the 1940s and 1950s for which I analyzed the films of exiled European film directors. Subsequently, he sent me the script, which I delved into as soon as it arrived via Yahoo. Although I was initially unaware of the full storyline, I can attest that I found myself utterly captivated from beginning to end. I read it twice in less than two days.

I felt from the moment Erin Ryan landed at Ben Gurion Airport until the end of the script that I had been to Israel. I could see myself stepping off the airplane, checking into the American Colony Hotel, and wandering through the Old City of Jerusalem. From exploring the bustling Shuk market to standing at the Western Wall, entering the Église du Saint-Sépulcre, and walking through the various quarters—Jewish, Muslim, and Christian—I immersed myself in the vivid imagery of the script. The sights of the Jaffa Gate, the Dome of the Rock, and the Al-Masjid Aqsa created a rich tapestry of the country’s diverse landscapes. Hopefully, one day I will have the opportunity to see it all in person.

Then, I found a profound connection with the character on various levels: working abroad, experiencing the loss of her beloved 16-year-old son, a pain I also felt when I lost my younger brother, and grappling with the conflict between career and personal life. The theme of complicated grief, the juxtaposition of negative and positive coping mechanisms during challenging times, and the desire to engage in purposeful projects rather than mundane tasks resonated deeply with me. I found the flashbacks depicting her posttraumatic distress to be particularly effective. They transported us to Afghanistan while offering poignant insights into the character’s journey. Additionally, her interactions with her editor at TIME Magazine allowed us to experience moments in New York City and the relationship between editors and journalists.

I found the discussion of objective and advocative journalism thought-provoking, as portrayed in a dialogue between Erin and a colleague. Additionally, I thought the developing friendship between Erin and Nadia, a Palestinian woman who runs a café, was a touching aspect of the story. I appreciated the symbolism of the friendship between people from different countries and how Erin observed the boys from the café, reminiscent of how Ernest Hemingway observed the Parisians from his beloved Les Deux Magots in Saint Germain-de-Pres.

Additionally, I loved how the film humanized the three boys: Yushe, a 7-year-old Arabic Christian, Moshe, a 9-year-old Jewish boy, and Ibrahim, an 11-year-old Muslim. By portraying them in their homes, and different districts, along with their family members, the film allowed viewers to learn about their backgrounds and relationships. This portrayal elicited a sense of empathy and connection, as I began to care deeply about the characters. Throughout the script, I witnessed their range of emotions, understood the influence of their narrow-minded upbringings, and recognized that their actions, such as stone-throwing, stemmed from a combination of internal and external conflicts exacerbated by media portrayals and the political situation in the region. Despite these challenges, the film also highlighted moments of joy and unity, such as when the boys bonded over soccer, Turkish delight, and falafel, emphasizing the power of shared experiences to bridge divides.

In this transformation from hostility to peace and friendship, something cathartic occurred. It helped to release the pent-up emotions and tensions that had built up in me due to recent news. As a result, my eyes started to well up. Towards the end of the script, they became even more watery when the little 7-year-old Yushe boarded a bus, waving to his newfound friends Ibrahim and Moshe from inside. Moments later, the bus exploded and then came the scene with a funeral procession with his coffin.

Another beautiful aspect of this script, I thought, is that it delves into the different customs of each faith and takes us inside the worship places in Jerusalem. I also appreciated the Arabic and Hebrew words in the dialogues and the value portrayed in one of the scenes of learning English as a second language, the international language. The script also captured my attention through the speed and rhythm at which events unfolded, transitioning from dramatic moments to action-packed sequences to reflective or slower-paced scenes.

I appreciated that all characters, except their family members, formed friendships across different faiths and exhibited a rebellious spirit. It also provided insight into the smaller conflicts that occur daily, such as microaggressions in the lives of people in the city of Jerusalem. For example, at one point, Ibrahim accidentally bumped into a group of Jewish Orthodox men and was immediately accused of being a thief due to his Palestinian background. The film also addressed the issue of Palestinian ID cards controlled by Israel. Overall, I learned a lot through this film script. However, despite mentioning such incidents, the film remains politically neutral and doesn’t seem to take any sides. Once again, this aspect is of utter importance to John Deery and Executive Producer Cherie Blair, who offered to promote it with her husband Tony Blair through their networks upon its release and attend screenings. John Deery told me that he has another expert familiar with the political situation look at the script to ensure the film is balanced, accurate, and free of antisemitism.

Now, I long to see this film on a large screen, hopefully not too long from now. It would take 18 to 24 months to release once it is financed, and I hope you too feel as enthusiastic about it as I do. I firmly believe in the power of film to create empathy and compassion among people, including politicians. Films can spark conversations about sensitive topics, and motivate the public to support humanitarian efforts and advocate for policy changes.

As Martin Scorsese said, movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, changing the way we see things. They transport us to other places, opening doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our lifetime; we need to keep them alive.

Please visit my blog ARETE for more reviews and artist interviews!

Cherie Blair being interviewed at the Monaco Streaming Festival in 2022. Photo credit: ARETE / Simone Suzanne Kussatz
A photo from the Domaine des Colletes, the garden of the Villa of Pierre-Auguste Renoir with the sight of olive trees, as a symbol of peace! Photo credit: ARETE / Simone Suzanne Kussatz
About the Author
Simone Suzanne Kussatz was born in Germany, lived in the US for 25 years, spent a year in China, and currently resides in France. Educated at Santa Monica College, UCLA, and the Free University of Berlin, she interned at the American Academy in Berlin. Holding a Master's in American Studies, journalism, and psychology, she worked as a freelance art critic in Los Angeles. World War II history fascinates her, influenced by her displaced grandparents and her father's childhood in Berlin during the war, and his escape from East Berlin in 1955. Her brother's intellectual disabilities and epilepsy added a unique perspective to her life.
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