Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema
Edited, with an Introduction, by Hamid Dabashi
Verso (London, New York), 2006
Dreams of a Nation is a small collection of essays on Palestinian film, on the aesthetics, history, politics, and reception of Palestinian film: it is a thoughtful and sometimes provocative book; and its strengths are its clarity, its focus, and its passion, as it argues that Palestinian film is an affirmation of Palestinian identity, an identity that is threatened by exile, by slander, by violence; but, sometimes, with no lack of sympathy for the injustices of history, one reads the book and longs for a little more film criticism and a little less historical context, for a little more objectivity and a little less outrage. Dreams of a Nation, edited and introduced by Hamid Dabashi, with a concluding essay by Dabashi, and a preface by the late, great Edward Said, contains essays by Annemarie Jacir, Joseph Massad, Michel Khleifi, Bashir Abu-Manneh, Ella Shohat, Hamid Naficy, Nizar Hassan, and Omar al-Qattan; and notes on the chapters; contributors’ biographies; a Palestinian cinema filmography; and a bibliography on Palestinian cinema. The book Dreams of a Nation is a helpful work, a valuable work, and while broadly suggestive, it does not exhaust its subject.
Edward Said, the author of The World, the Text, and the Critic and Reflections on Exile among other works, Said, a scholar, an activist, a pianist, recalls a United Nations conference on Palestine from the early 1980s in which “it was clear that the United States and Israel would not approve nor participate” (page 1), a conference that was able to gather fifteen to twenty papers from international scholars, although—thanks to the veto power of participating countries sensitive to political accusation—only three papers, finally, were allowed. A photographer, Jean Mohr, was commissioned to take pictures of Palestinians, with the photographs to be shown at the entrance of the conference (at the Palais des Nations), but the photographs were presented, dismayingly, with the barest of captions, a gesture that distanced the viewer from the Palestinian subjects. “It became obvious to me that the relationship of Palestinians to the visible and the visual was deeply problematic,” writes the Palestinian Edward Said (page 2): part of an ongoing project of erasure, an erasure that diminishes the claims of Palestinian existence, injury, property, and rights, and the claims of international guilt. “Palestinian cinema provides a visual alternative, a visual articulation, a visible incarnation of Palestinian existence in the years since 1948, the year of the destruction of Palestine, and the dispersal and dispossession of the Palestinians; and a way of resisting an imposed identity on Palestinians as terrorists, as violent people, by trying to articulate a counter-narrative and a counter-identity. These films represent a collective identity,” writes Edward Said (3), a man whose words remain, though his breath has been stilled. Following Said’s preface, Hamid Dabashi makes his own poetic and probing introduction to the book. “How exactly is it that a stateless nation generates a national cinema—and once it does, what kind of national cinema is it?” asks Dabashi (7). The despair and protest involved, possibly inevitably involved, in Palestinian existence has found expression in poetry, such as the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, and also in fiction and cinema. Dabashi, who notes that the first Palestinian film was a “short documentary by Ibrahim Hasan Serhan, which recorded the visit of King Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman bin Faysal al-Saud” to Palestine in the first part of the twentieth century, writes of Dabashi’s own year 2004 screenings of Palestinian films first in a Jerusalem YMCA and then in Lebanon and Syria, screenings that were far from easy or elegant—with films projected on the rooftops of buildings, against walls. Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in Manhattan, is the founder of the Palestinian cinema conservation and distribution project named Dreams of a Nation. Dabashi, apparently like many, considers Michel Khleifi the founder of contemporary Palestinian cinema: “Khleifi’s documentaries and feature films have crafted a microcosmic universe in which the Palestinian national liberation movement finds its universal texture and dexterity, to reveal and to intervene in the historic fate of his people” (19). Palestinian cinema is a cinema of anger, pride, and violence, a cinema that tells what popular history does not: and it is more than that.
Cinema as Mirror
Filmmaker and film scholar Annemarie Jacir, in “‘For Cultural Purposes Only’: Curating a Palestinian Film Festival,” writes of the censorship Palestinians have suffered, how in Bethlehem in the 1970s and 1980s it was a crime to display red, white, black and green together, the colors of the Palestinian flag; how colors, images, and rituals were prohibited; how Palestinian cultural figures were assassinated by Israeli forces and Palestinian cultural centers ransacked; and, also, how a film festival in New York, called Dreams of a Nation, featuring more than thirty-four films, was established in year 2003 to bring face and voice, image and sound, to Palestinian lives, despite the difficulty of acquiring films, and the hate mail and threats that festival organizers received (23-31), ending with thousands of people attending the four-day event, which Jacir curated (and for which Edward Said gave the keynote speech, a speech the book’s editor has used as a preface). Joseph Massad’s “The Weapon of Culture: Cinema in the Palestinian Liberation Struggle” discusses culture as political resistance. In the early 1970s, during a period of political consciousness and rebellion among Palestinians, people—not only filmmakers (the Palestine Film Unit), but members of the general populace—were polled for their ideas on aesthetics, on desirable and useful form and content (35-36), with the conclusion that the audience preferred realism to experimental work. (That is not surprising to me: people want culture they recognize as culture. I am inclined to think realism affirms logic, affirms meaning, while experimental work subverts logic, dismantles meaning: and yes, realism can petrify and repress meaning, and experimentalism can reconstitute it.) A Palestinian film festival in 1973 Baghdad showed one-hundred and fifty films (37); and while the films made in the 1970s were mostly for Palestinians and the Arab world, Palestinian films now have an international audience. Joseph Massad, a professor of Arab politics and intellectual history at New York’s Columbia University, describes a short film by the “Palestinian Israeli director Nada El-Yassir (who lives in Canada),” the film Four Songs for Palestine (2001), a film focusing on daily life and four colors, an image-rich film on a Palestinian woman and child, a film of symbolism (39-40). Massad notes the mundane malignancy of life in Israel for Palestinians, as presented in Route 181 (2004), a film of interviews with ordinary Palestinians and Israelis (with a nod to United Nations resolution 181, the Palestine partition plan), a film directed by Palestinian Michel Khleifi and Israeli Eyal Sivan: in the film, one Israeli soldier inquires about Hannah Arendt’s work on Eichmann and the idea of the banality of evil, and Massad remarks, “The banality of Zionist evil is indeed everywhere in evidence in this amazingly subtle yet revealing film, which mesmerizes audiences for the four-and-a-half hours duration” (41). Yet, Massad asserts that the original dispossession—the separation of Palestinians from Palestine—has not been represented fully in Palestinian film; and he ends his commentary hoping Palestinian cinema will be both a weapon and an act of culture.
Culture is the word we use for the interplay of relationships and works in a society. References, relationships, resources, and rituals that are considered common, ordinary, strengthen bonds in a society: between individuals, among members of a particular community. Language, philosophy, cultural works, social habits (religion, sports), and eating food amid other survival practices, bind people together. Usually, the familiar, what is taken for granted, does not have the power of drama, or the power of transcendence: and, consequently, the strange is either feared or welcomed, in art, in daily life. However, when a people’s ordinary culture is threatened or repressed, those simple shared references are invested with a new value, with drama, with the possibility of transcendence: and normality, or stability, becomes a goal, in art, in daily life. (Thus, Palestinians wanted to see films in which they recognized their lives, films of realism.) Politics modifies the prevalent values; and politics can be confining not only to communities but, especially, to individuals, as the threatening outside force is an enemy, but the conservative forces of one’s primary community—in its guiding and restricting functions, in its activist focus, in its reactions to the dominating outside force—can be also an enemy: both forces—outside of community, and within community—can work against individual liberty. (It is not unusual to hear reports that atheists, that male artists, that women, that homosexuals, suffer in cultures under siege: and there have been such reports about Palestinian communities.) Deciding to make individual liberty and happiness a test of communal health is radical and rare—but it is a thing that can be tested (I can tell you whether I am happy—but, whatever my prejudices and presumptions, I cannot with assurance tell whether you or anyone else is happy). Healthy societies respect individuality: and art is a mirror.
Cinema as Art
It is always good to have an articulate statement from an artist about his field, and that is what we have in Michel Khleifi’s essay “From Reality to Fiction—From Poverty to Expression,” in which the film director, Michel Khleifi, says, “My first cultural benchmark was when I discovered poetry, theatre, and literature in outstanding writers such as Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, Paul Eluard, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, O’Henry, Bertolt Brecht, August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and others—not to mention Arab poets and writers whose works reached us from time to time. All these writers and poets provided us with small windows to the world and the hope for freedom, which every person needs to humanize his or her daily life and to make it more bearable” (47). Michel Khleifi shares a discovery he made regarding the dynamic between Israel and Palestine when he was young and never forgot: “The strength of Israel stems from our weakness, and our weakness does not stem from Israel’s strength but rather derives from Arab society’s archaic structures: tribalism, patriarchy, religion and community life, where there’s no recognition of the person as an individual nor of men’s, children’s and, above all, women’s rights” (48). That is the perspective of an artist, someone who knows politics but goes beyond it in his expectations and responses: someone who yearns for freedom and wholeness, for himself, for others. (That is a perspective that few authorities—Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, American, European—have much patience for.) Khleifi writes of wanting to achieve a “universal cinematic language” (49), something he prepared for first with self-interrogation and the investigation of cinema history and theory. Khleifi asked questions about cinema’s relation to reality, about false notions of objectivity, about the creation and expression of subjectivity, about technology’s relation to expression, about radicality, and about cinema’s relation to poetry; and he concluded that “cinematic expression bears in itself a logic of narration. It must narrate a story, and every story is the result of a subjective discourse, which comes from (an) individual(s). I decided as a free individual to dedicate my work to showing the Palestinian experience according to my perception of the world, through film” (50). Khleifi’s discusses his apprentice years; and how documentaries were made—spoken commentaries with pictures—and how he saw subjects covered rather than revealed; and that he wanted to move beyond the tormentor-victim paradigm to reveal consciousness and complexity (50-51). (While delineating his career, he details a history of Palestine many of us have forgotten or never knew; 52.) One of Khleifi’s films focused on two women, that is Fertile Memory (1980), and one film was on how Israeli/Palestinian authorities impact on a wedding and an unconsummated marriage, Wedding in Galilee (1987), a film that received international recognition. Khleifi thought his own Canticle of the Stones (1990)—with a focus on “she and he” and a theme of sacrifice (55)—similar to the Marguerite Duras/Alain Resnais work Hiroshima, Mon Amour Michel Khleifi, without much description, states that he made a Belgian film inspired by a Jean-Luc Outers novel that allowed Khleifi to focus on bureaucracy at the twentieth century’s end, a film that judged Europe, a judgment Europe (European critics and audiences) rejected—Khleifi says, just as Arab regimes had rejected Khleifi’s critique of their societies.
Cinema as Politics
It is interesting to wonder about the nature of an artist’s authority: from where does its power come? From the distinction and privilege of his individual perspective? From his accurate depiction of the importance of his themes in the lives of a particular community? From his ability to address formal power—the power of social organization, of law, of money, of violence—with other powers: powers of mind and spirit, powers of imagination and art? Often artists are acclaimed when their works can be read for messages in accord with the concerns and interests, in accord with the perspective, of the viewer(s): and in that way, truths can be approved, and in that way lies can be approved. The judgment of an artist, when it carries an accusation and a call to change, is often an irritant, often a provocation, that compels people to ask, Who are you to judge us? The answer is always the same: I am the independent mind, the independent spirit—the contemporary man, the eternal individual.
Michel Khleifi’s work (such as Ma’Loul and Canticle of the Stones) is seen as revealing and transformative by Bashir Abu-Manneh in “Toward Liberation,” Ma’Loul (1985) and Canticle of the Stones (1990) being work that accords history and political events importance, work that is humanist and anti-colonialist, work that regards individual liberation as central to national liberation (58-60). The Barnard College English professor Bashir Abu-Manneh, who specifies Israeli appropriation of Palestinian land by force and by law, sees the story of Palestine as being told in the presentation of one village, during a day given over by the Israelis to celebrating an independence day, and during which the former Palestinian residents of Ma’Loul visit the site of their destroyed village, the site of their personal catastrophe, part of the larger one, the taking of Palestine, a visit that commemorates yesterday’s defeat and today’s defiance. As Abu-Manneh sees it, Canticle tells of the intifada, the people’s rebellion, a real world event, and also tells of a love story, a fiction: an experimental film, it attempts to find a form for reconciling reality and fiction, love and death, intellectuals and the masses, and women and society (67). It is an attempt to convey the complexity of Palestinian life, the personal and the political, the past, the present, and prospects for the future.
How much can art reconcile? Does it have any real world effect, or does it simply give us an animated metaphor, a drama in which we can see situations like or unlike our own? Are not the elements of art—no matter how varied, no matter how recognizable—always existent within a controlled environment, its own form, which does not exist in the same way in the world in which we breathe, feel, think, and move? Is not the world—despite our laws, despite our prejudices—much less manageable, much less predicable, much less final, in its resolutions than any art? Is art, like society, a realm of constraint, or is art, like life, a realm of freedom?
Women, A Part, and Apart
Ella Shohat’s “The Cinema of Displacement” foregrounds gender, nation, and diaspora, by discussing stories in which identity, history, and politics intersect, in which narratives of power and powerlessness center on women’s experience. Ella Shohat asserts that women filmmakers in the developing world have made films but they have often not been explicitly feminist films (70-71), but that the films have been about class, ethnicity, and nation. In attempting to look at films with feminist analysis and content, Ella Shohat notes the difference between first world and third world feminists: first world feminists can assume the prestige and power of their nation’s image as part of the reception and understanding of their work (72). (Shohat does note the simplification that such concepts as third world and first world accomplish.) Third world feminists must assert and prove the importance of their subject, which usually involves the interplay of nation, race, and gender. Shohat recounts film history, recalling Youssef Chahine’s depiction of an artist, a filmmaker, and an Egyptian Jewish woman with a Muslim communist lover, in Egypt during the 1940s Allied occupation, in Alexandria Why? (1979). It is a film that uses different kinds of created and found materials, including other arts and narratives; and the film is discussed as a preamble to a consideration of feminist aesthetics, as in the work of Sarah Maldoror (Mozambique), Heiny Srour (Oman), and Helena Solberg Ladd (the U.S.), works that attempted historical revision and formal innovation. Shohat’s discussion seems to me to contain more ideological summaries than film criticism (74-77). Shohat offers, as do the filmmakers she endorses, a criticism of nationalism (and mostly summary criticism of films of nationalism), for nationalism’s inattention to women’s place and problems, with even the much-lauded Battle of Algiers being seen to contain those limitations (78). Tunisian film director Moufida Tlati’s The Silence of the Palace, from 1994, is about women servants, and suggests independent minds and urges within oppressive conditions, a radical possibility, especially as one of the servants in the film has an attractive daughter, a singer, who has ambitions—and both mother and daughter, to different extents, are subjected to sexual harassment (79-80). Female experience, and all-women spaces, “have been represented very differently in feminist independent cinema” claims Shohat (81), pointing first to documentaries (comparing fiction features with documentaries might be like comparing apples and oranges—or figs and dates). One fiction film, Farida Benlyazid’s 1988 A Door to the Sky, is about a young woman who returns to Morocco from the west and becomes part of traditional life, and it is also about women as charity patrons (82). “Whereas contemporary documentaries show all-female gatherings as a space for resistance to patriarchy and fundamentalism, A Door to the Sky uses all-female spaces to point to a liberatory project based on unearthing women’s history within Islam, a history that includes female spirituality, prophecy, poetry, and intellectual creativity as well as revolt, material power, and social and political leadership” (82). Shohat refers to third world nations finding guidance in the nation-state formations as constructed by the west, a political form that did not always fit the regions or ethnicities that existed in their own locales, a fact that, along with class and gender, becomes another contradiction or social faultline. While informative, I found Shohat’s history a little too general, a little too rambling—maybe that is to be expected from a cultural studies professor at New York University, as Shohat is, I don’t know: a focus on Palestinian women in film would have been preferred, at least by me, as Shohat did little more than affirm with facts the general conditions almost any educated person, or almost any intelligent person practicing cultural criticism, would believe, or at least suspect, about women in the cultures of developing nations. I did not want to learn about all women, but about particular women: I wanted to know more about Palestinian women.
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