What is the Value of Palestinian Cinema?

By Samirah Alkassim

When we consider what is most commonly encountered as Palestinian cinema, it is useful to borrow an analogy from linguistics. Double marking is when grammatical marks are placed at the heads of words, modifiers, and phrases as well as on their endings to indicate things like gender, case, and other distinctions. It occurs in both Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic, as well as in other languages. Likewise, Palestinian cinema is doubly marked. The first mark is characterized by a preoccupation with the Nakba as an on-going catastrophe anchored to the year of 1948 with its various subsequent tributaries. The second mark is the permeability and mutability of the “national” in relation to cinema, highlighted by the fact that both Palestinians and non-Palestinians have contributed to this cinema and also by the definition of Palestinian nationalism that depends on the context. This aspect of mutability became very clear fourteen years ago when the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disqualified Elia Suleiman’s submission Divine Intervention to the fiction competition on the grounds that Palestine was not a state, despite the declared aims towards a two-state solution of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Such games with language obscure the most important component of a nation, which is the people—there have to be people who claim a nation for a nation to be imagined or to exist—and Palestinian people there are, however diverse and heterogeneous. They are the millions of descendants of the 750,000 who were expelled from their homes in 1947-1948, and the millions of descendants who remained in historic Palestine and the occupied territories. Every film made by and about Palestinians echoes these facts and this double marking.

In the last ten years, great strides have been made in discussing the history and aesthetics of Palestinian cinema in English. Among them are the 2006 book Dreams of a Nation, edited by Hamid Dabashi, the 2008 book Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma, and Memory by George Khleifi and Nurith Gertz, Inez Hedges’s 2011 article, “The Nakba and the construction of identity in Palestinian film” in Jumpcut magazine, and Kamran Rastegar’s recent ground-breaking book, Surviving Images: Cinema, War and Cultural Memory in the Middle East. Dabashi identifies two main tendencies of Palestinian cinema aesthetics: the crisis of mimesis (how to represent a people that have historically been made to appear invisible) and the characteristic of traumatic realism (how to represent the trauma of the ongoing Nakba, which is in many ways un-representable). Khleifi and Gertz provide a comprehensive history of the development of Palestinian cinema until 2005, when their book was first published in Hebrew. Hedges situates the origins of Palestinian cinema at the forefront of the struggle for self-representation and self-definition as starting in the 1960s with the formation of the PLO film unit (see They Do not Exist, 1974). She discusses key themes (such as the house as metaphor, sumoud at checkpoints) and aesthetics (in the amputation of time and space through geography, and transgressive strategies of liberation through women and children) that are prevalent across a majority of Palestinian films. Rastegar examines the films of Elia Suleiman as developing, like no other Palestinian director to date, a sustained cinematic language that explores the aporetic (irresolute) dimensions of the Palestinian experience. In so doing, Rastegar introduces a new way of framing Palestinian cinema that clarifies its connections with other cinemas from the colonial to post-colonial eras in the Middle East, in terms of the ideas of social trauma and cultural memory.

Although there are many differences, it is instructive at junctures to compare Palestinian cinema to Lebanese and Syrian cinemas. They share the experience of being forged out of the late 19th century Western colonial enterprise and being more recently shattered by civil, regional, and proxy wars, where citizens have become refugees overnight. Just like their Lebanese and Syrian counterparts, Palestinian filmmakers struggle and manage to make films despite the lack of consistent and stable national and international funding bodies and institutions. While Lebanese films continue to address the subject of Lebanon’s civil war decades after the Taif Agreement, Palestinian cinema attempts variously to process the Nakba, and certainly the same can be said of Syrian films currently being made and those to come. War changes everything. For Arab audiences, Palestinian films can further a sense of cultural belonging and Arab identity, despite their divergent experiences and tastes; yet at the same time such films can be very demanding for Palestinians to watch, for obvious reasons. If they have not been the direct victims, they have observed Israeli aggression in the region, US-backed wars, and neighboring regimes unleashing US-manufactured weaponry on citizens while countless UN resolutions have failed to be implemented. They have either experienced or observed Israeli policies of racial and ethno-religious exceptionalism, in addition to unjustified occupation, brutal military aggression, and random strikes in other countries. As film scholar Lina Khatib contextualized her reading of Lebanese cinema, referencing Sharon Willis’s observation about the power of cinema, it is not only we who “read” films but films that “read” us – and that is the allure of Palestinian cinema that Palestinians and their supporters understand. 1

Outside the Arab world, these powers of Palestinian cinema are less tangible. In the United States, one has to constantly share, explain, and demonstrate the value of the Palestinian narrative, which includes cinema despite the fact that now we have a vast array of alternate media channels from which to glean our information and entertainment. It is very clear that the mainstream US media, second to Israel, has the greatest stake in denying the trauma inflicted by Israel on the people it occupies, and in denying the Palestinians the right to their patrimony. That is why it is so important to address and speak to the base while attempting to “get the word out” – because lacking a base renders an advocacy group, movement, and lobby completely ineffective. It is heartening to see now the proliferation of grassroots groups organizing educational events that share the Palestinian narrative where cultural, social justice, and policy issues are not deracinated in ways that tend to happen in more traditional institutions.

Hence we have the Palestinian-themed film festival and film series in the major cities of Boston, DC, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere (Toronto, London, Paris, Madrid, Sydney). Because such Palestinian-themed film festivals and film series are usually independent of academic and/or government institutions, they are particularly successful in informing the public about films that expose the following: aspects of contemporary life for Palestinians in the occupied territories and in Israel; crucial historical elements of the past in the violent massacres, expropriations, and expulsions; the vulnerable situation of Palestinians living in the camps; truthful commentary on the silencing of this information in the mainstream US media; and yes, even a Palestinian film aesthetics. All this gives weight to the body of films we call Palestinian cinema.

In 1981 Syrian filmmaker Mohamed Malas asked himself, “What is the essence of the Palestinian?” He posed this question in the diary he kept while filming his documentary Al Manam (The Dream) about the Palestinians living in the camps of Lebanon. If a leftist Syrian filmmaker asked himself this question then, at the height of the PLO’s power, how can we expect people in the United States today to understand anything about the Palestinian issue without films, film festivals, and film series that bring the Palestinian narrative to them? This returns us to consider the value of a Palestinian cinema – which, judging by the Lebanese example, will continue to process, examine, and respond to the many facets of the complex situation of Palestine for many years to come.

1. Khatib, Lina (2008). Lebanese Cinema: Imagining the Civil War and Beyond. New York: I.B. Taurus, p. xviii

Samirah Alkassim is the Program and Communications Manager at The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. 

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.