Title : Letters from the Rest of the World: the book Dreams of a Nation, On Palestinian Cinema
Date : 28 February 2007
Author(s) : Daniel Garrett
Blurb: Review essay of the book Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema which analyzes the varied complexities surrounding a 'national' cinema in search of Nationhood.
Word Count : 5562
URL of this article : http://offscreen.com/phile/essays/dreams_of_a_nation/
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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.
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.