Palestine, its history, loss, dispossession and exile reaches our sensibilities in the form of shock waves. Owing to this fragmentary nature of existence, there is a need to give their devastating reality even a sliver of meaning. At this precarious juncture, Palestinian cinema has attempted to establish not a clash but a connection between the tumultuous past and the godless present.
Written by Shreya Banerjee
Films, at best, are a coming together of everything that is fleeting, fragile, restless, violent, buoyant and beautiful. A film brings with it, a range of all these emotions which tend to escape the limits of words and meaning, but can only be grasped by audiences through moving images.
For long, films have been an attempt to document, traverse and confront the ills that befall certain civilizations. Palestine, its history, loss, dispossession and exile reaches our sensibilities in the form of shock waves. Owing to this fragmentary nature of existence, there is a need to give their devastating reality even a sliver of meaning. At this precarious juncture, Palestinian cinema has attempted to establish not a clash but a connection between the tumultuous past and the godless present.
In 1935, on the occasion of Prince Saud’s visit to Jerusalem and Jaffa, Ibrahim Hassan Sirhan filmed a 20 minute-long movie that documented the visit. This landmark event constituted the starting point of Palestinian cinema.
The first period or the year of Naqba ‘disaster’ occurred between 1935-948, following which most Palestinians were compelled to leave their homeland.
The second period, between 1948- 1967, is termed the ‘Epoch of Silence’ when almost no Palestinian films were produced.
The 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip marks the beginning of the third period, 1968-1982.
In perspective of such a convoluted history, here are five films that attempt to document the critical intersections of geo-politics, exile, death, dispossession, and lifelong psychological abrasions- all of which arise from an unstable status quo.
The frames in director Mustafa Abu Ali’s film They Do Not Exist (1974) are from Nabatiya town. Refugees built their surroundings based on abandoned villages. The director adds a sonorous quality to the film as he chronicles the serenity of the camp which comes from old trees. The film begins with a girl from the refugee camp who is writing a letter to a Palestinian fighter. As the movie progresses, this character disappears. The girl reappears in a dream sequence after her death and the fighter to whom her letter was posted avenges her blood. The film represents the lost landscapes of childhood, the horrors of deportation, and the lack of even a semblance of normalcy. Director Mustafa Abu Ali studied cinema and lived in Jordan. He worked for Jordanian television. During his time there, he documented all that he could – demonstrations, public gatherings, and other cultural and political activities. Abu Ali attempted to integrate everyday occurrences in his films.
Director Elia Suleiman, along with his family members starred in his own film, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996). It is set in the critical period that led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu. The character of Suleiman is described only as E.S as if symbolically representing the abbreviated existence of the people of Palestine. E. S. is a silent, stoic observer who does not have any dialogues. An air of disquiet pervades the film which reflects the life of everyday Palestinians. The film is a fragment. It is about the loss of identity, a bulldozing of everything that the people had once held supreme. The film was boycotted for being funded by an Israeli source. However, the film received acclaim at the International Film Festival in Jerusalem 1997. In spite of leading his boyhood within the state of Israel, Elia Suleiman chose to depict the lives of Palestinians in his films. His cinema grappled with the past as well as committed itself to create something experimental with the present. Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) is Suleiman’s first film where the past is a point of no return. At best, the film is a search for a present that can endure.
The 1996 film Haifa, directed by Rashid Masharawi, chronicles the lives of certain inhabitants in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The protagonist Haifa, gets his nickname from the city he loves. He is presented as a town fool, but rarely does he meander from the truth. Set during a time peace seemed achievable: after the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, the mediations in 1993 Oslo, and the 1994 Cairo agreement. The director shows us how different people in the Palestinian Refugee Camp react to the prospect of peace. The cinema of Rashid Masharawi, Elia Suleiman and few others are credited as ‘Independent Cinema’. Masharawi was born into a family of refugees from Jaffa and raised in the Shati refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. His most profound encounters that went on to shape his cinematic vision and artistic sensibility were at the refugee camp. His films portray the everyday struggle for survival in the camps and the bleak reality enveloping the process.
Mohammed Bakri’s film Jenin, Jenin (2002) is set in the aftermath of the devastation at the Jenin refugee camp. It is film where time is a disjointed entity. The film shows us a succession of testimonies and interviews conducted by the director of the camp inhabitants. The major theme of the film is the widespread destruction – one that is terrible to behold and traumatic to process. The wailing inhabitants mourn the death of their families, the destruction of their homes, the razed olive trees, grapevines or the fig tree in the yard, hoping to be able to restore them and showing the tremendous spirit to never forget nor lose hope. The film is shot on rubble, ruins and exudes heavy abandonment. The director himself had participated in nonviolent demonstrations at a checkpoint during Israel’s 2002 invasion of Jenin. The film is primarily a succession of uncensored interviews and testimonies as narrated to the camera by the inhabitants of Jenin. After a few screenings, the film was banned by the Israeli Film Ratings Board for being libellous. Bakri took the case to the Supreme Court of Israel but the court overruled the film as a ‘propagandist lie’. However, the film received international recognition and was awarded Best Film at the Carthage International Film Festival.
Released in 2004, the film Salt of the Earth: Palestinian Christians in the Northern Western Bank is a succession of documentary short films examining the lives of nine Palestinian Christians living in and around the cities of Zababdeh, Nablus, Jenin, Burqin, Tubas and Jalame. Every city is enmeshed in Christian legend and significant historical events. The title of the film Salt of the Earth is a culmination of conversations with Palestinian Christians and Christians from the Middle east. Since we need only a little salt to flavor our food, a little holds within it the ability to impact a larger whole- alluding to the small Christian communities in Palestine. The film was produced and directed by Presbyterian missionaries Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders while they lived and worked in the Palestinian Christian village of Zababdeh.
Apart from films, located in the Jenin Refugee Camp, The Freedom Theatre is a Palestinian community-based theatre and cultural center at the north of the West bank. This theatre group believes in mirroring the life, hardships and contradictions that lie at the heart of Palestinian society. The group believes that the values of freedom, justice, and equality are universal and artistic expression is the instrument that helps affirm this resolve. Their productions include Suicide Note from Palestine, Power/Poison and adaptations of Animal Farm, Alice in Wonderland, Men in the Sun, The Island and The Caretaker.
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