Palestine at the Pictures, New Statesman, 28 September 2001

      The problem that is inevitably faced by a series like ‘Palestine at the pictures,’ a series of films about Palestine at the ICA that starts on September 28th, is that it is in danger of appealing exclusively to convinced and active supporters of the Palestinian cause, the hard core of (Edward) Saido-masochists who have direct experience of the country and of the Israel-Palestine conflict and will turn out for events in aid of Palestine more out of political commitment than cultural curiosity. Such events, in London at least, too often simply offer everyone present the chance to nod their heads unanimously and vigorously in agreement about things they already know about, while offering little new or genuinely stimulating content.
      ‘Palestine at the pictures,’ one is relieved to be able to announce, is a refreshing contribution to the question of how Palestine is represented on the screen. In general, it shows how the spread of relatively inexpensive digital movie cameras has made possible the creation of quickly-made, urgently-paced reports from the front: rough, crude even, but totally different from the stultifyingly conventionalized form in which the conflict is reported to us daily on television news broadcasts.
      This is Palestinian cinema, and it is made entirely for export. There are no Palestinian movies, like the soapy Arabic romances churned out by the Cairo dream-factories, only acts of cinematic guerrilla warfare. These newer films in ‘Palestine at the Pictures’ are documentaries made with an eye to broadcast on foreign television stations. Inside Palestine itself, cinema barely exists; one can only just say with certainty that there is 'a' cinema: the al-Qassaba in Ramallah, a cheerful downtown fleapit, which this month was showing the likes of ‘Titanic’ and ‘Billy Elliot.’
      Everything in Palestinian life is political, because it is saturated in the daily realities of the conflict and in the struggle for survival, but although this means that there is little scope for the luxury of fiction in Palestinian film, it does not mean that the personality of the film-maker must be eliminated. One sees this in the two films by the Jerusalem-based Sobhi al-Zobaidi, ‘Looking Awry’ and ‘Light at the end of the tunnel,’ both low-budget videos financed by a patchwork of grants from foreign governments and aid agencies. The first is a simple fable about a Palestinian film director – al-Zobaidi himself – being commissioned by a well-meaning but naïve American producer to make a documentary about Jerusalem that emphasizes “positive images” of the city. “It’s not good to always be focusing on the negative,” the producer says, ploughing into the cliché of how marvelous it is to find a city that has mosques, synagogues and churches in close proximity.
     Once filming begins, reality immediately intrudes. Filming touristy scenes at the Damascus Gate at the walls of the Old City, he captures a soldier shooting at running children. The producer tells him to remove the footage. “How can you show Jerusalem without the intifada?” he argues. Then Ariel Sharon, just before he became prime minister, makes the fateful visit to the Temple Mount that sparked the present renewed uprising, and film of this provocative stunt is inserted seamlessly into the narrative; the violence of the episode, played out on the sunlit stage of the ancient Herodian platform, is shocking in its theatrical violence. With this, the American’s plan for a film of “positive” images bursts apart, and the director calls the producer on his mobile phone to resign from the project. “The film you want is a fiction film,” he says. The film has a home-made feel and is amateurishly acted, but bumbles along with a charming sweetness and humour.
      ‘Looking Awry’ is a short film, and as light a film about life under occupation as it is possible to conceive; ‘Light at the end of the tunnel’ takes a more serious approach, dealing with the neglected but important social issue of how the half-million Palestinians who have spent time in Israeli prisons (the average length of sentence is just under a year, though many prisoners spend several years in prison) adjust to life outside after their release. The detention of such a large fraction of the population, often under the draconian rule (inherited from the British) of administrative detention, whereby a person can be held without charge for six months, is one of the heaviest burdens on Palestinian society, impoverishing families by removing their main breadwinner, damaging emotional bonds within families, and turning individuals into people who find it nearly impossible to resume normal lives. In this film, former prisoners tell their own stories, without elaboration or commentary, with heartrending effect. Palestinians tend to assume a controlled and dignified demeanour when speaking publicly, even when talking of terrible personal experiences, and the graceful restraint of the film’s interviewees enhances the poignancy of their testimony. It would be good to see this on Channel 4.
      One of the punchiest films in the series is ‘Scratching the surface’ by Charlotte Player. Using what seems like nothing more than a high-street digital movie camera, this 18-year-old British student went to Jerusalem in April of this year with the simple idea of capturing a single glimpse of the place without bringing to the subject any preconception at all. In most observers the idea of approaching without bias a subject so laden with historical and cultural baggage would be disingenuous at best, but Charlotte Player’s youth and nationality convincingly qualify her. Technically, the film is barely a rung above the level of a home movie, yet it communicates very powerfully and directly, with a ragged collage of scenes and interviews. Her apparent innocence was clearly an asset in opening doors that would be closed to mainstream media: she succeeded in persuading a group of young Israeli soldiers to give her their candid – and, shall we say, regrettable – views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. “The Arabs say we started it (the current round of violence), and we say they started it, but really we are right because we are the good guys,” a soldier explains concisely.
      Unlike most of the other films in the series, which are couched in the idiom of documentary, there is one which attempts to relate Palestinian experience through metaphor and a deliberately artificial style. ‘Cyber Palestine’ is a short film (16 minutes) which re-tells the biblical narrative of Mary and Joseph’s flight to Bethlehem as the story of a young couple trying to get out of the sealed-off Palestinian territory of Gaza. The Palestinians’ predicament in the past century is entirely due to the religious significance of the landscape they inhabit, yet Palestinians rarely refer to this religious symbolism. They have tended to address the world through urgency, realism and polemic instead. But this film, by the Paris-based Elia Suleiman, mines this rich lode of meaning. It is surprisingly fresh and successful in the way it applies biblical symbolism to the Palestinian experiences of exile and oppression, though the lack of dialogue sometimes makes one wonder exactly what is going on.
     Not all these films are totally successful. ‘Frontiers of Dreams and Fears’, about two teenage girls from refugee camps in Lebanon and the West Bank who make friends through letter-writing, appeals very hard for sympathy by showing us sweetness amidst adversity, but lapses into many of the Palestinians’ own public-relations clichés, like showing us one of the girls dancing in a nostalgic folk-dance troupe. This mood changes unexpectedly about half-way through when they find themselves caught up in the violence of the current intifada. She writes to her friend that in a demonstration in which Israeli soldiers shot at protesters she saw a friend’s blood and flesh spattered on a wall. What starts like an educational film for teenagers ends in harrowing scenes of traumatized kids weeping over dead classmates; the effect is very strange and unsettling.
     Most of these films were shown earlier this year at an Arab film festival in the Gulf state of Qatar, sponsored by the groundbreaking TV station al-Jazira, an organization that has been leading the way in broadcasting uncensored and politically frank reporting about current affairs in the Middle East.