A Book Review Essay by Ali Moosavi.
There is an old adage that oppression and suppression fuels creativity. In the world of cinema, this is best exemplified in Palestinian Cinema. For a nation of less than five million people, it is undoubtedly the shining star in the Arab Cinema. In my interview with her, the acclaimed Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir stated
Where there are restrictions; whether they are financial or political, I think filmmakers have to think harder about what they are doing and how they are going to do it. Because everybody and everything is against them. So, I guess this helps creatively because you have to figure out solutions and ways to deal with things. And you also have to be convinced by what you are doing because you could be doing much easier things, if you wanted to!
A new book, The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media and the Radical Imagination (Temple University Press, 2019) by Greg Burris (Assistant Professor at the American University of Beruit) examines media, and specifically cinema, in context of Palestinian identity. Can cinema be of any significance in a country where there are far more critical, unresolved issues forming a dark cloud over it? Burris’s answer is an emphatic yes. He believes that “film and media have a utopian dimension, and it is precisely through film and media that hope can occasionally emerge amidst hopelessness, emancipation amidst oppression, freedom amidst apartheid.” Any book about the Palestinian cinema, which does not delve into the politics of the region, will be of little value. Indeed, every worthwhile Palestinian film is laced with politics, be it laced with fantasy and humor, as in Elia Suleiman’s films, or overtly political, as in Hany Abu-Assad’s films or showing the impact of politics on the daily life, as exemplified in Annemarie Jacir’s films.
Burris painstakingly chronicles the disasters and hardships that have befell the Palestinian people, so that the reader can have a better understanding of the circumstances which have led the Palestinian filmmakers to use the weapon with which they are most familiar with, namely their cameras, to put on screen the injustices and suffering that their people have suffered. The best and most pure humor often comes from suffering. This is the case with Elia Sulaiman’s films where there is humor, but its roots are tragic. Citing a scene from Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), Burris asks “is there indeed a link between the colonization of Palestinian lands and the enclosing of Palestinian minds?”
The book references the late sociologist Baruch Kimmerling who coined the phrase “Politicide” which he defined as “the endeavor of successive Israeli regimes to de-Palestinize the Palestinians – that is, to deny their existence as a legitimate collective body, to destroy any sense of Palestinian unity, and to erase the possibility of self-determination.” This is becoming very evident today with the Trump administration giving Benjamin Netanyahu more or less carte blanche to do whatever they see fit, which in reality means eroding, by salami-slice tactics, any remaining Palestinian rights and taking away their lands.
Burris makes comparisons between the Israeli-Palestinian situation now and the Civil Rights movement in USA and Apartheid in South Africa. An event is recounted in Hebron in 2013 where Palestinian activists put on masks of Martin Luther King and carried portraits of Rosa Parks as they staged a Freedom March.
The well-known Palestinian writer, Edward Said, had a vision of Palestine as a “secular democratic state in Palestine for Arabs and Jews, based not on exclusivism and rejection, but upon coexistence, mutuality, sharing and vision.” Burris considers the Palestinian Idea a form of a utopia. He argues that this utopia is not necessarily an unattainable dream, but rather a reality which does exist and can be attained.
Another writer who is much quoted by Burris is the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière, and specially his definitions of equality. According to Rancière, equality is not something which is bestowed by a higher authority, or claimed by others; it is something that is practiced and verified.
Focusing on the Palestinian cinema, Burris asks whether such a thing actually exists. This may seem a strange question when considering well-known Palestinian filmmakers such as Elia Suleiman, Hany Abu-Assad, Annemarie Jacir, Rashid Mashrawi. Burris, however, looks at this question from a different angle. He cites the well-publicized case of Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention (2002), which was considered ineligible for competing in the foreign language Oscars category because Palestine was not a recognized state! (This was partly rectified in 2005 when Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now was nominated in this category as representative of the Palestinian Territories. Full rectification was achieved in 2013 when Abu-Assad’s Omar was nominated as representative of Palestine. Neither won.)
Making films in Palestine, however, has become increasingly more difficult. In the aforementioned interview with Annemarie Jacir, she stated that finding budget for her films has become more difficult with each film that she makes. In fact, as she has become more widely known and admired, her budgets have gone the other way and shrunk further with each film. Hany Abu-Assad’s last film was made in Hollywood but there is a new generation of Palestinian filmmakers, such as Muayad Alayan, who with films like The Report on Sarah and Saleem (now in limited release in the US) are bucking the trend. In 2015 the first ever film festival in Gaza was held. The location selected for the festival was a district in Gaza where the previous summer had been heavily bombarded by Israeli forces. A giant red carpet was rolled out and one of the event organizers remarked that it “symbolizes equality – that not only celebrities and high profile personalities and politicians deserve to walk on the red carpet but also the people who witnessed the brutal war and experienced the loss of a family member or imprisonment of another.”
Burris argues that by the denial of the existence of the terms “Palestine” and “Palestinian” by Israeli leaders such as Golda Meir, the ultimate aim of Israel is to convince Palestinians to accept that they are part of Israel and give up their fight for self-determination and an independent Palestinian state. In fact, many Palestinian filmmakers, such as Hany Abu-Assad and Elia Suleiman, were born in Israel. Others were mostly either born or live outside of Palestine.
Burris devotes a whole chapter to two films by Annemarie Jacir – whom he describes as “one of the most gifted Palestinian filmmakers operating today” – Salt of this Sea (2008) and When I Saw You (2012). Burris writes that Jacir deals with memories of Nakba, the Palestinian exodus of 1948. He makes an interesting comparison between Salt of this Sea and Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008). In Salt of this Sea the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 is depicted through animation, but real images are shown at the end. Salt of this Sea, however, opens with archival footage and then moves into fiction. Salt of this Sea, Burris argues, implies that you need to go through fiction to reach the truth, while Waltz with Bashir suggests that fiction is an obstacle which hides or distorts the truth.
Two other films that are discussed in some detail are both masterpieces of Palestinian Cinema. A scene in Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains (2009) is highlighted where a photographer, called to record the surrender of Nazareth’s Palestinian leaders to Israeli forces in 1948, puts the Israelis in the frame while his backside is towards the Palestinians, thus highlighting their exclusion from the decision-making process. Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2005) so incensed some of the Israelis that online petition demanding its removal from Oscar nomination received thirty-two thousand signatures, which also highlights the disproportionate influence on media between Israelis and Palestinians. The point of the film, Burris argues, is represented in an argument between one of the would-be suicide bombers, Khaled (Ali Suliman) and a Suha (Lubna Azabal) Palestinian woman. Khaled justifies his actions by saying “If we can’t live as equals, at least we will die as equals,” whilst Suha responds “If you can kill and die for equality you should be able to find a way to be equal in life.” Thus, Suha rejects the idea of an attainable utopia in the future, perhaps in a different life, and insists that such a utopia exists now and can be attained.
Burris concludes the book by drawing comparison between the Palestinian resistance movement and the Black Freedom Movement, having himself joined the Freedom Bus in 2014. He finds a solidarity between the Black and Palestinian activists, responding to the global racial injustices. He also draws parallels between D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Herb Krosney’s Israel: Birth of a Nation (1996), stating that “while the former film erased the history of slavery, the latter erased the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.”
Greg Burris’s The Palestinian Idea is an extremely well researched work. It is undoubtedly subjective, but this is a subject on which subjective views on the other side of the argument have been plenty. Burris is concise in his analysis and puts forward his arguments with clarity and historical references. For those interested in the political-sociological-cultural analysis of the Palestinian struggles, hardships and resistance, from a well informed and researched Palestinian angle, this book serves as a great compendium of all the important and relevant issues.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).