by Sabah Haider
Over the past 10 years a new wave of Palestinian filmmakers has constructed a specific national identity on screen. It is more directly political than the earlier film portrayals of Palestinian lives and stories.
While the second intifada (which started in September 2000) was still raging in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, the Nazareth-born filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s film Divine Intervention (2002) was submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the nominated entry from Palestine for the best foreign language film Oscar category. The Academy rejected the film because, it said, “Palestine is not a country”. In 2006, when the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad’s film Paradise Now (2005) was nominated in the same category, the Academy accepted it, and identified its country as “the Palestinian Authority”.
The scholar Edward Said wrote in an introduction to a book about Palestinian cinema, Dreams of a Nation: “The whole history of the Palestinian struggle has to do with the desire to be visible.” This desire is what has driven the new wave of Palestinian films in the past decade. Palestinian cinema has reinvented itself many times over the past 40 years, but it’s the films made since the second intifada began in 2000 that have been getting international attention. Not because they exist, but because they make an unprecedented social, cultural and political statement.
Thousands of supporters of the Palestinian cause around the world – not just Palestinians – have picked up cameras over the past 10 years, helped by digital technology, to make films about Palestine and the continued plight of Palestinians today. Their cinema is characterised by its use of common historical and social facts to document the Palestinian struggle, Israeli occupation and cultural identity.
Leading scholars on Palestinian cinema, Nureth Gertz and Michel Khleifi, identified four distinct periods in their book Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory. The first is between 1935 and 1948, the year of the nakba (or catastrophe, describing the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948). The second, “the epoch of silence”, was between 1948 and 1967, when no films were produced. The third encompasses the films of the revolutionary period between 1968 and 1982 – triggered by the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the Six Day War – which were mostly made in exile in Lebanon by the PLO and other Palestinian organisations. The fourth period, which began in 1982, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila massacres, continues to this day.
Stateless but national
Dr Lina Khatib, an Arab cinema expert and academic at Stanford University in California, says a film’s relationship with history is subjective. The Arab-Israeli conflict is, she says, the clearest example of the same historical event being given “different, often contradictory interpretations” in Hollywood and Arab cinemas. She says the truths constructed by each side are produced by specific, different historical contexts, and reflect those differences.
The films of the Palestinian new wave are inherently political. They are cinematic constructs of resistance specific to the post-2000 period. The second intifada is a key event in the Palestinian struggle, the point at which a construction of national identity defined by social and historical facts developed. Subsequent films, with a Palestinian voice as an alternative to the dominant Israeli discourse on the conflict, form this new wave.
Palestinian cinema is really a stateless national cinema that represents the socially, economically and geographically fragmented 9.7 million Palestinians worldwide – an estimated 74% of Palestinians are refugees. Throughout the occupied territories, Palestinians have had almost no access to cinemas: during the first intifada Israel shut down all entertainment facilities, including cinemas. The Israeli state immobilised the people it occupied and asphyxiated their cultural efforts, and banned public displays of culture and cultural gatherings.
Defining Palestinian cinema is not easy. In an essay, the Beirut-born, British-raised filmmaker Omar al-Qattan questions what makes him a Palestinian filmmaker, other than being born to Palestinian parents. He says his relationship with Palestine is an ethical imperative for which he is equipped by family history, cultural heritage and friendships with other Palestinians. Al-Qattan is adamant that he calls “Palestinian any film engaged with Palestine, and [does] not limit the name to narrow nationalist boundaries”. By adopting al-Qattan’s definition, we can understand how Bab el Shams (2005) is considered to be a Palestinian film, despite having an Egyptian director and French funding.
Hope and despair
Hamid Dabashi, editor of Dreams of a Nation, wrote: “The very proposition of a Palestinian cinema points to the traumatic disposition of its origin and originality. The world of cinema does not know quite how to deal with Palestinian cinema precisely because it is emerging as a stateless cinema of the most serious national consequences” (1). This is perhaps reflected well in Elia Suleiman’s new film The Time That Remains (2009), the final film of his Palestinian trilogy (Chronicles of a Disappearance (1996) and Divine Intervention are the other two), in which he says the viewers are to consider the fact that, very simply, “time is running out”.
Films of the Palestinian new wave rely on common key social facts, such as occupation, statelessness and the struggle for a right of return, to construct a national identity that transcends the fragmented diaspora. Israeli occupation and oppression are portrayed through the depiction of checkpoints, roadblocks and ID cards. A continued statelessness and the aspiration for a national homeland are shown as both hope and hopelessness – the hopeful go on looking for a sovereign nation; those who lack hope, such as the characters in Elia Suleiman’s films, suffer from frustration and despair. The right of return underlies all these films as the characters seek to eliminate the cause of their suffering and return to a state of peace and security at home.
The second intifada made it possible to see symbols of the uprising: Yasser Arafat, checkpoints and roadblocks, the West Bank barrier wall and settlement expansion. Most of the films of the new wave are set in the West Bank where Palestinians live behind the wall and use the common pillars of struggle – statelessness, oppression, resistance and the right of return. It has been difficult to make films in the Gaza Strip since the Israeli blockade, although last year a powerful feature film, Imad Aqel (2009), about a Hamas resistance fighter killed in the conflict, emerged from Gaza. Making a film under occupation, within the Israeli blockade, in a poverty-stricken place, was something of an achievement, although international headlines focused on the fact that the film was funded and produced by Hamas. Four of the actors in the film were later killed in Operation Cast Lead – the 22-day Israeli war on Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009.
A cultural weapon
The idea of “specific historical contexts” that Khatib speaks of is linked to the idea of identifying key underlying “social facts” – a term coined by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. In his view, social facts can be simultaneously “objective, resistant and persistent” and are key to understanding the collective will or consciousness and identity of a group. Durkheim defines social facts as being “ways of acting or thinking with the peculiar characteristic of exercising a coercive influence on individual consciousness… Even the symbols that represent these conceptions change according to the type of society” (2).
In the films of the Palestinian new wave, the relationship between film and reality is historically and politically inflected to make a cultural weapon that also acts as resistance. These films are historical texts of the oppressed.
Few hipsters in London or New York are aware of the political significance of the kuffiyah scarf they bought at H&M or Top Shop. The kuffiyah became a symbol of Palestinian solidarity and of resistance at the time of the nakba, not entirely deliberately. It was cultural coincidence. Palestine was an agrarian society before the creation of Israel, and land and farming are a great part of the Palestinian cultural heritage. During the nakba, when the Zionists destroyed the villages and the Palestinians fled, the rural villages were destroyed first. Those who left were farmers, who had worn the kuffiyah to protect them from the sun in summer, and the cold in winter, in their fields and citrus and olive groves. The kuffiyah is a recurring symbol in the new Palestinian cinema.
Other symbols are the original map of Palestine (pre-1948), the land itself, and the Palestinian flag. History shows that, as humans, we rely on symbols to project our identity when our voices and actions can’t (in France, Bastille Day wouldn’t be the same without the French flag); and the Palestinian flag is the foremost symbol of solidarity, resistance and nationalism in the new wave films.
Suleiman’s Divine Intervention and Abu Assad’s Paradise Now, for example, depend on relating the atmosphere of Israeli occupation and the landscape of the Occupied Territories to the characters; it gives them a context and also becomes part of the narrative. In the fantasy fight sequence in Divine Intervention, the main character’s girlfriend is masked by a kuffiyah as she fights Israeli soldiers, and destroys them. Without the kuffiyah, the subtext could have been perceived as feminist. However, with the kuffiyah masking her identity, she becomes a symbol of Palestinian resistance.
Both of these films identify a collective goal of a return to the homeland. But Divine Intervention can be read as an allegory for the collapse of national aspiration, whereas Paradise Now can be seen as an extended allegory for determination. In Salt of this Sea (2008) by Palestinian-American filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, the main character, Soraya, is a stubborn Brooklyn-born third-generation Palestinian refugee and young American. She goes on a quest to reach her ancestral home in Jaffa (now in Israel) to come to terms with her personal identity and family history, and longs to reclaim her family home. As the historian Issam Nassar said: “The exodus and forced expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 and the eventual erection of refugee camps all over the Middle East presented the context for the transformation of the old Palestinian local and communal affiliations into nationalist ones” (3).
The filmmakers of the new wave have succeeded in constructing a Palestinian national identity that transcends the fragmented diaspora; they have made cinema a key medium for the documentation and preservation of the history of their struggle. Crucially, they preserve the Palestinian Arabic dialect – not easy, considering the geographic dispersion of the community. The American-Arab journalist Nana Asfour says: “What binds Palestinian films together are the language – Palestinian Arabic – the subject – Palestinian lives – and the desire of each director to portray his own take on what being Palestinian means” (4).
I recently met Elia Suleiman in Beirut, where he was promoting his new film The Time that Remains, which premiered at Cannes last year. He suggested that the multiplicity of voices of Palestinian filmmakers was worth considering. “I don’t know if the microcosm of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a reflection of the world, or if the world is a microcosm of Palestine. Globally, Palestine has multiplied and generated into so many Palestines. I feel if you go to Peru, you will find Palestine in a grave state there too.”
- Hamid Dabashi, ed, Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, Verso, London, 2006, p 7.
- Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, The Free Press, University of Chicago, 1938.
- Issam Nassar, “Reflections on Writing the History of Palestinian Identity”, Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, 8:4/9:1, 2001.
- Nana Asfour, “Reclaiming Palestine, One Film at a Time”, Cineaste, New York, summer 2009.