A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
What does it mean to “document” a displaced people? Do humanitarian films, while helpful in raising awareness, inherently depict a people as helpless victims? How should the displaced go about documenting themselves? Are their own representations, while providing a sense of agency for both the filmmaker and his or her subject, also one-sided and potentially incendiary? What role do films, both fictional and nonfictional, play in capturing/influencing any given culture? These are just some of the questions either directly posed or implied in Nadia Yaqub’s unique, albeit problematic, Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution (University of Texas Press, 2018).
The first chapter, “Emerging from a Humanitarian Gaze: Representations of Palestinians between 1948 and 1968,” juxtaposes humanitarian films about Palestinian refugees with artistic endeavors by Palestinians themselves. The former, which came from groups like the American Friends Service Committee or the International Committee of the Red Cross, “are structured to place action and agency in the hands of the relief workers, rather than the populations they served” (20). Palestinian counter-narratives first emerged not through cinema but through literary works by influential authors, including Samirah ‘Azzam and Ghassan Kanafani.
The collection’s midsection shifts the focus to films made by and for Palestinians. Whether discussing guerilla-style documentaries literally made in the battlefield or state-funded, experimental projects, Yaqub shows how Palestinian artists shared the same ultimate goal of “seeking to determine their own political future” (83). Such projects, then, were not made solely for art’s sake but with a specific political agenda in mind. The second chapter, “Toward a Palestinian Third Cinema,” addresses works produced with the help of groups like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), particularly those of director Mustafa Abu Ali (1973’s Zionist Aggression, 1974’s They Do Not Exist). The third, “Palestine and the Rise of Alternative Arab Cinema,” looks at Palestinian films produced with the aid of the Syrian public sector, such as Christian Ghazi’s One Hundred Faces for a Single Day (1972).
In “From Third to Third World Cinema: Film Circuits and the Institutionalization of Palestinian Cinema,” Yaqub broadens her analysis to include Palestine’s role in the global “Third World Cinema” movement, which sought to “fill the gap created by deculturation with a new national culture before acculturation occurred or strive to undo acculturation after it had gained ground” (124). Of particular note is the short-lived, but influential, Palestinian Film Festival, which occurred four times over the course of seven years and gave a voice to many artists who otherwise would have been ignored by larger international festivals, such as Cannes.
Many of the films mentioned in this collection have been lost or survive only in fragments, so Yaqub explores the role that social media has played in efforts to create and sustain online communities in her penultimate chapter, “Steadfast Images: The Afterlives of Films and Photographs of Tall al-Za‘tar.” Through these platforms, survivors can distribute (and preserve) photographs, videos, and their stories. The author focuses primarily on survivors of the siege of the Tall al-Za‘tar refugee camp, which occurred in 1976 and resulted in thousands of deaths (166). The collection then closes with “Cinematic Legacies: The Palestinian Revolution in Twenty-First Century Cinema,” a brief analysis of Palestinian cinema today and how artists try to reconcile the current political climate with the remaining PLO-era footage.
As a testament to cinema’s power to help mold and preserve a people’s collective identity (and as an example of how the loss of such films is tantamount to a loss of that culture itself), the collection is successful and convincing. The author offers some philosophical insights on film’s function beyond entertainment and artistic pleasure. After all, PLO directors’ “drive to film the [Palestinian] revolution was, by definition, an archival drive, an attempt to capture and store history so that it would be available for others to see and understand at a later time” (162). Even fictional films, including Kassem Hawal’s Return to Haifa (1981), sought to accurately recreate what could be called the “Palestinian experience” and provoke (sometimes violent) political action. Furthermore, many key Palestinian films are not represented in mainstream movie databases, such as IMDb; regardless of one’s political views, the importance of preserving these materials cannot be understated, as they are indeed pieces of history.
Readers looking for an unbiased exploration of the Israel-Palestine conflict, however, should look elsewhere. Yaqub is unapologetically sympathetic toward Palestine. However, it seems that a decades-long geopolitical conflict, with mass casualties and acts of terrorism coming from both sides, cannot be adequately summed up with observations about Israel’s “highly technologized militarism and its attendant alienating labor” (146) and Palestine’s “human-scale…efforts to protect themselves” (151). These reductive, binary labels portray Israel as the violent aggressor and Palestine as the victim-cum-righteous retaliator. While the author’s observation that “Violence and dying for an image appear to be inextricably tied to peoplehood” (208) is unfortunately all too accurate, her insinuations that Palestinians were more or less forced to adapt violent methods are dubious at best.
Although the author’s political leanings are abundantly clear (and will inevitably alienate or even infuriate some readers), her message of maintaining artistic archives at risk of marginalization (or worse, total extinction) should resonate with anyone who appreciates the crucial interconnections between film and cultural identity.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.