Living and Working in More than One Place
In “Palestinian Exilic Cinema and Film Letters,” the people who produce culture outside their place of origin, people among whom there are differences and similarities, with some of the similarities endowing a shared accent, are the subject of Hamid Naficy, who discusses the circumstances of film production, as in Michel Khleifi’s case: Khleifi’s (“French-Belgian co-production”) Wedding in Galilee received French film funding, and funding from other sources, including Palestinian money, and the film’s language is Arabic and Hebrew (92). The “accent” Hamid Naficy examines comes from filmmaker displacement and collective production modes: the accent is the trace left by how a film was made (93). Individuals do not have only one home, only one place of being; and film works do not exist in relation to only one place. Hamid Naficy is concerned with communication of ideas across distances, through letters, the communication of experiences, ideas, imagery, and acts through the epistolary mode, a mode now occurring in new media; and he names the epistolary mode as the “chief contributor” to accented cinema (95), calling this cinema “structurally dialogical” (95); and the accented films are self-expressive but also expressive of political concerns. Sometimes prohibitions against communication exist; and sometimes, consequently, communication is coded (96-97). Naficy, a Rice University art professor, remarks on the importance of the “phone calls, writing, xeroxing, faxing, and video-editing” in Elia Suleiman’s 1992 Homage by Assassination (97); and on an exchange of letters between a mother in Lebanon and a daughter in Canada in Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance (1998), a discourse that includes also recorded conversations and photographs (98-99); and on Palestinian women’s and children’s resistance being confided to film in the 1986 documentary Wild Flowers: Women of South Lebanon, by Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri (99-100). Codes are used when an individual is, or a people are, under observation, under pressure. I wonder about codes, about special terms, languages, understandings—they seem mostly situational, and utilitarian, to me: can they really convey more than attitude and event and community? Do they reduce experience to good/bad dualities, to them and us? Can they convey the complexity of human existence, and the differences—the respectable, inevitable—differences among people who might otherwise share a culture or region?
References and relationships not limited by culture or region allow an individual to elide provincialism, and the restrictive rules of a particular place and people: a possibility, a strategy, a way of living, that is threatening to local powers, and that offers a symbolic freedom to others who have yet to move beyond the familiar place. Such a life says: we have a right to define ourselves within and without communities. The key to such freedom can be mind or spirit or simply money.
The insanity—the difficulty, the lack of reason, the strange rules—governing the Palestinian culture worker’s relation to the west is the subject of Nizar Hassan’s short piece, “A Letter from the Rest of the World or ‘The Afghan Arabs’,” as he tells the story of his invitation to participate in a film festival in Barcelona and the trouble that arises when he declares his homeland as Palestine on official forms. (Nizar Hassan gives his address as Nazareth, Palestine; and he insists on his own personal and national history, and on respect for his own political consciousness and commitment.) At one point, it seems his homeland will be marked by festival programmers as being “the rest of the world,” then as Israel—and at another as Afghanistan!, before—thanks to Hassan’s prideful insistence—the designation Palestine is finally accepted (105-109).
“The Challenges of Palestinian Filmmaking (1990-2003)” is the explicit concern of the (Beirut-born, Britain-bound) son of Palestinian parents Omar al-Qattan’s essay as well as the essay’s name, and the essay is one of the collection’s best, as Omar al-Qattan, the director of Dreams and Silence (1991) and Going Home (1995), has been vitally involved with Palestinian film and his perspective is aesthetic, personal, and political; and he sees the objective and the subjective as naturally connected, and metaphor and militancy, and also the aesthetic and the political, as being just as linked (110). (He confesses to having considered severing all his ties to Palestine—for sanity, for career.) Omar al-Qattan defines being Palestinian for himself as involving an ethical imperative, cultural heritage, and friendships with other Palestinians (111); and al-Qattan says that Michel Khleifi’s film Fertile Memory gave al-Qattan a revelation of Palestinian beauty: “I became aware of the beauty of the people and the land from which my parents had been expelled—not as a slogan, or a political aspiration, or a symbol, not as a place in the past, but as a revelation of an extraordinarily sensuous, rebellious, funny, and living reality, full of hope and possibility” (111). That is a revelation of beauty that can inform ideology but it is not born of ideology; born of perception, of experience, such a revelation is, thus, more difficult to destroy than ideology. Omar al-Qattan was a film school associate of Michel Khleifi (a teacher) in Brussels, and al-Qattan and al-Qattan’s family, aware of Michel Khleifi’s difficulties getting money to continue a project, helped Khleifi get funding for his film Wedding in Galilee (1987), help that al-Qattan sees as a rare instance of money serving progressive vision in hostile circumstances (113). Omar al-Qattan wants to see rich films: “What I mean by rich films is those works that enjoy the plentitude of ideas, the freedom of imagination, the lucidity of argument and the artistic achievement of any accomplished work of art” (114). He, al-Qattan, offers a description of Wedding in Galilee, in which a Palestinian village chief wants his son to marry with traditional ceremony and celebration but the Israeli military governor insists on attending as a guest of honor with his officers also as guests. The village is angry, the groom impotent (115). Omar al-Qattan’s essay contains multifaceted observations, and facts with surprising reverberations, such as when he mentions how people lacking training were paid by news bureaus to shoot footage of dangerous, even violent Palestinian conditions during the first rebellion or intifada, images that distorted perception of Palestinian lives for years. He, al-Qattan, sees religion as culturally oppressive. He identifies some of the effects of the first American Gulf war—which brought recognition of Palestinian concerns, with simultaneous Palestinian isolation, and American domination of the region, and an Islamic religious response, before the second intifada of 2000 (120). The BBC-commissioned Tale of the Three Jewels (Khleifi’s film) was written in fifteen days and filmed in nine weeks in Gaza Strip; and it is a feature about a boy’s dream of visiting South America to find three jewels with which to win his love; and between the politically and practically difficult filming of Tale of the Three Jewels in 1994 and the Omar al-Qattan’s essay’s writing were enormous changes—Gaza, separated north from south, and the destruction of Palestinian agriculture, of orange groves. Omar al-Qattan knows that Palestinian film, of necessity, defies the simplifying trends of international mainstream or commercial film, especially many of the films which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union (126)—when politics and its tensions were no longer seen in the same charged way: had not democracy-and-capitalism won the war of ideologies, of state power? (Was that, the cessation of the epic contest between west and east, between capitalism and communism, going to be the end of history? History did not end.) Yet Palestinian films are awaited by filmgoers in different countries, and al-Qattan, who himself lives in Britain, wonders why people are interested in Palestinian films—because they are Palestinian or because they are good? (128). I imagine the answer is both: Palestinian films are part of a larger political argument, an argument in which power, resources, and values are at stake; and the films that are good, like all good works, share with us beauty, emotion, experience, and thought in which we find enlightening pleasures. (It is an irony that this very elegant essay of Omar al-Qattan would have typographical errors on pages 117, 125, and 128: “It might also be very the innovative” reads one line; “and that we if were to carry” reads another; and the great actor Mohammad Bakri’s first name is spelled Muhammad on page 128 and Mohammad on page 129 and elsewhere.)
Obscenity, Frivolity, and Reverberations that do not end
Must we be confined by history—personal history, national history? The last essay in Dreams of a Nation is the most problematic for me. Just as sometimes one wonders if an essay was written so that a writer could declare one particular argument or even one particular line, or wonders if a film or play was written so that one particular scene could be shown, upon reading Hamid Dabashi’s concluding essay, “In Praise of Frivolity: On the Cinema of Elia Suleiman” I began to wonder if the anthology, the other contributors’ work, was intended as nothing more than preamble to Dabashi’s concluding essay: a expression of rage as much as it is film criticism. The essay begins with a protest against a May 2004 “salute to Israel” parade taking place on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in the 58th Street area: Dabashi later calls the site “the corner of 58th and Ben Gurion” (133) and then “58th and Menachim Begin” (142)—designations which do indicate the Israeli influence on Manhattan, and Israeli influence on Hamid Dabashi’s serenity. Dabashi asks, “How could these people be so vulgar in their criminal appropriation of another people’s homeland and flaunt it so blatantly—and do so in the name of people who themselves have been the victims of the most egregious injustices in history? What depth of human depravation would turn a human being into a criminal colonizer of another nation—stealing their land, destroying their homes, appropriating their wealth, murdering their men, raping their women, slaughtering their children—all not in any distant point in the forgotten past, all in the broad daylight of history, all indeed at the very same moment when this obscene parade was in progress” (132). (“Progress” is the last word in Dabashi’s statement, and although it is a statement that begins with the word “what” he ends it without a question mark: it is not really a question.) How can we free ourselves from the grasp of history? Hamid Dabashi’s concern with obscenity—obscenity as incomprehensibility, incongruity of reason and event—leads to his exploration of how Elia Suleiman’s work—as in the film Divine Intervention—transforms obscenity into frivolity, and then frivolity into subversion: a man driving a car eats a fruit and is left with a fruit pit—and, as he passes an Israeli tank, he rolls down the window and tosses the fruit pit in the direction of the Israeli tank, and the Israeli tank explodes (134-135). In Divine Intervention (2002), a film of episodes, a film of many characters, an Israeli police officer is asked for directions, and unable to provide that, he drags out a blindfolded Palestinian as help, a man who, even blindfolded, is able to give directions, knowing the land so well (136). These are marvelous examples—and it’s interesting that the most passionate and quarrelsome essay would provide them (it is possible that the man who needs the work most, the man more disturbed than most, has paid the most attention to what he has seen). Hamid Dabashi finds a dark humor, and strange pleasures, in Elia Suleiman’s work: with his example, it seems that by multiplying one’s interests, by increasing one’s pleasures, by pursuing one’s choices, it is possible to elude the typical responses to history. Yet, very impressively, Hamid Dabashi recalls the holocaust the Europeans made of the Jews, and says, “But what did Palestinians have to do with that criminal act? Palestinians—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise—have had an historical claim on Palestine long before and entirely independent of European colonial thieveries around the globe or savage acts of ethnic cleansing inside Europe itself. Jews are as much entitled to Palestine as Christians and Muslims—and all of them as Palestinians, not as Jews, Muslims, or Christians. The idea of an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine is as ludicrous in Palestine as that of an Islamic republic or a Christian empire. Palestine belongs to Palestinians—all of them—and no particular group of Palestinians has an exclusive right to the whole land, nor did they before a band of European colonial adventurers descended upon Palestine” (141). Dabashi goes on to discuss Steven Spielberg’s disappointing film Munich; and the 1982 massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila; and more Palestinian history, before returning, a little oddly, to Nazareth-born Elia Suleiman’s first film and film theory (the anti-narrative inspirations of film theory), and the context for critical and innovative filmmaking (U.S. propaganda, whether called news reports or entertainment); but for me, Hamid Dabashi’s essay is about his outrage at the Israeli parade in Manhattan, Dabashi’s enjoyment of Suleiman’s subversive humor in Divine Intervention, in which an experimental work yields new meanings and possibilities, and Dabashi’s recognition of the shared homeland that is Palestine. I wonder if even Hamid Dabashi can separate Dabashi’s pride from his rage, or his pleasure from his rage (his outrageous renaming of Manhattan’s streets may be his attempt to turn obscenity into frivolity, into subversion)—and it is to Dabashi’s efforts that we owe the book Dreams of a Nation. This anthology, Dreams of a Nation, like the films it commemorates and illuminates, has elements of art, criticality, emotion, thought, and politics: news that does not grow old—what we need to know to live more intelligently, more sensitively, in the world today; and—whatever our deepest convictions, intentions, and inclinations—is not that what we say we want?
Palestinian Film Series.
Dreams of a Nation.org.
Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.