2008 was the 60th anniversary of the war between Arab nations and the new State of Israel, established by the United Nations partition plan in 1947. Israel commemorates it as the war of Independence; Palestinian Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, know it as Al Nakba, the catastrophe. Over 700,000 people became refugees, fleeing or being driven out into the desert, many with only the clothes on their backs. This trauma, and subsequent military victories won by Israel against Arab attacks in 1967 and 1973 have all been instrumental in forging what did not exist so strongly before: a Palestinian identity. The more than 3 million second- or third-generation descendants of those original refugees, whether living in the diaspora, or languishing in refugee camps, in Israeli prisons, in the West Bank, in Gaza, or in Israel itself, identify themselves as Palestinians. The idea of Palestinian nationhood is now increasingly associated with cultural manifestations—in film, in literature, in art, in music—that serve to keep alive the sense of a community with common goals.
In the encounter with Palestinian culture, the collective memory of Al Nakba plays a foundational role. The 2008 Boston Palestine Film Festival, in only its second year, took as its theme “60 Years of Dispossession,” a theme echoed by an art exhibit held concurrently at Harvard University (which displayed the winners of an international art poster competition commemorating the Nakba). Among the film festival’s highlights were excerpts from a massive new video project, Chronicles of the Refugee (directed by Perla Issa, Aseel Mansour and Adam Shapiro) – an archive of testimonials from survivors and their descendants.
Michel Khleifi, born in 1950 in Nazareth and now living in Belgium, is widely considered the founder of Palestinian cinema; he was a special guest of the festival during the retrospective showing of his major works, both documentary and fiction. The screenings revealed the close relationship between his approach as a director to the two genres. In his 1988 fiction masterpiece, Wedding in Galilee, the camera pauses in documentary fashion, arresting the progression of the plot to pay homage to the interiors of houses – to the domestic space – even as that space is invaded by the Israeli authorities who have insisted on attending the wedding of the Mukhtar’s (village elder’s) son. At other times the camera traverses closed space in a gesture of liberation. In one memorable scene, an Arabian horse breaks from its stall and gallops into the hills where the Israeli army has planted land mines. The Israeli commander and the Muhktar must then work together to save the animal. Here again, fiction is used to convey some of the real tensions of the occupation. Khleifi’s recent three-part documentary, Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel (2004), on the other hand, moves into the realm of the fantastic: traveling with a fellow Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, the “road movie” captures, for example, an Israeli woman who expresses frankly racist attitudes, and later an orientation session for African Jews who have recently immigrated. The result is a surreal picture of the diversity and complexity of contemporary Israeli society.
Since Palestinian cinema has existed now for more than 30 years, one can ask whether there is by now a “Palestinian” film aesthetic; whether, in other words, the unique situation of Palestinians has led to new ways of framing the world in cinema. The Palestinian experience in the occupied territories today is one of spatial fragmentation (checkpoints, roads that are open only to Israelis, settlements that intrude on Palestinian land, and now the separation fence/wall/border) and temporal disjunction: without the ability to travel freely within their own territory or even to get routine access to educational and medical facilities, time is interrupted and even the idea of “the future” is in suspension.
Several films in the festival dealt with the realities of the occupation in fresh and original ways. Hebron Stories: From Bustling City Center to a Ghost Town (made by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) consists of several short videos documenting the daily travails of Palestinians trying to remain in Hebron despite the activities of the settlers who have moved right into the city center. The main streets are closed to Palestinians, and the central market has stopped functioning. In one of the videos, a middle-aged woman whose front door has been welded shut traverses stairways and rickety ladders, negotiating a perilous and lengthy passage between the rooftops of her neighborhood in order the get out to the street. She embodies perfectly the strategy of “endurance” that David Grossman describes in The Yellow Wind, his account of a journey through the West Bank in 2004. Endurance is presented there as the “third way,” the will to keep on without engaging in either collaboration with Israel or violence.
Film critic Nurith Gertz has proposed the genre “checkpoint films” as a special type of cinematic rendering of the Palestinian experience. From Hani Abu Assaf’s fictional Rana’s Wedding (2002) or Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention (2002) to Alia Arasoughly’s documentary Birth at Checkpoint (made for the UN in 2003), this pervasive aspect of daily life in Palestine is frequently addressed in film and video. The festival featured many examples, from Bethlehem Checkbpoint 4 am (made by youth from the al_Rowwald Center in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem in 2007) to U.S. director Jackie Salloum’s engaging Slingshot Hip Hop (an official Sundance selection in 2008).
In The Zoo (2005), Hayden Campbell, a New Zealand filmmaker, follows veterinarian Sami Khader as he tries to move two baboons from a run-down facility in Nablus to his zoo in Qalqiliya, a town entirely fenced off by the Israeli Wall. The hapless protagonist gets sent from one checkpoint to another, explaining that if the tranquilizer wears off before the animals can be released into their new cages, they may die. In the course of the film the idea of cages becomes a larger metaphor for the population of Qalqiliya itself, which is as fenced in as the animals. This video combines suspense with humor, adding a touch of the absurd to the idea of checkpoints.
Documentaries like The Roof (Kamad Abafari, 2006) add to our understanding of the way that Palestinian identity is being forged even in the prisons where youth become politicized. Once again, confinement and spatial restriction lead to a heightened identification with Palestine and with the land and the struggle to reclaim it.
In the title essay of his collection Death as a Way of Life David Grossman expresses his understanding that the jailer also becomes the jailed—occupation corrupts the occupier. Israeli youth are forced to blunt their emotions in their enforced domination over the Palestinian population. If Palestinians often refer to their lives as a “living death” (see Khleifi’s 1980 documentary Fertile Memories), Israelis also, increasingly, have the sense of life being wasted by the conflict. The Boston Palestine Film Festival and others like it serve to remind those who will look and listen that at the most basic level the Palestinian issue has become a human rights issue.
Review by Inez Hedges