Palestinian cinema: linking tumultuous past to godless present

Written by Shreya Banerjee

Movies are at best a gathering of all that is fleeting, fragile, restless, violent, cheerful and beautiful. A film brings with it a series of all these emotions that escape the confines of words and meaning, but can only be understood by the audience through moving image.

For a long time, movies have been an attempt to document, traverse and confront the ills that befall certain civilizations. Palestine, its history, loss, expropriation and exile reach our sensibilities in the form of shock waves. Because of this fragmentary nature of existence, it is necessary to give their devastating reality even a shred of meaning. At this precarious moment, Palestinian cinema has sought to establish a connection, not a clash, between the tumultuous past and the ungodly present.

The children of Gaza. (Source: Pixabay)

In 1935, on the occasion of Prince Saud’s visit to Jerusalem and Jaffa, Ibrahim Hassan Sirhan filmed a 20-minute film documenting the visit. This historic event was the starting point of Palestinian cinema.

The first period or year of the Naqba ‘disaster’ occurred between 1935-948, after which most Palestinians were forced to leave their homeland.

The second period, between 1948 and 1967, is called the ‘Epoch of Silence’, when almost no Palestinian films were produced.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 marks the beginning of the third period, 1968-1982.

In the perspective of such a convoluted history, here are five films that attempt to document the critical intersections of geopolitics, exile, death, expropriation, and lifelong psychological abrasions โ€” all of which stem from an unstable status quo.

The frames in the film They Do Not Exist by director Mustafa Abu Ali (1974) come from the city of Nabatiya. Refugees built their environment on abandoned villages. The director adds a sonorous quality to the film as he describes the serenity of the camp emanating from old trees. The film opens with a girl from the refugee camp who writes a letter to a Palestinian fighter. As the film progresses, this character disappears. The girl reappears in a dream sequence after her death, and the fighter to whom her letter was posted avenges her blood. The film represents the lost landscapes of childhood, the horrors of deportation and the lack of even a semblance of normality. Director Mustafa Abu Ali studied film and lived in Jordan. He worked for Jordanian television. During his time there, he documented everything he could – demonstrations, public gatherings, and other cultural and political activities. Abu Ali tried to integrate everyday events in his films.

Director Elia Suleiman starred with his family members in his own film Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996). It is set in the critical period that led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu. Suleiman’s character is only described as ES as if symbolically representing the shortened existence of the people of Palestine. ES is a silent, stoic observer who does not engage in dialogue. There is an air of unrest in the film that reflects the lives of everyday Palestinians. The movie is a fragment. It’s about the loss of identity, a bulldozer of everything the people had once held high. The film was boycotted because it was funded by an Israeli source. However, the film was acclaimed at the 1997 International Film Festival in Jerusalem. Despite living his childhood in the State of Israel, Elijah Suleiman chose to depict the lives of Palestinians in his films. His cinema struggled with the past and was committed to creating something experimental with the present. Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) is Suleiman’s first film in which the past is a point of no return. At best, the film is a quest for a gift that can last.

The 1996 film Haifa, directed by Rashid Masharawi, chronicles the lives of certain residents in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The main character, Haifa, owes his nickname to the city he loves. He is presented as a city fool, but rarely strays from the truth. At a time when peace seemed feasible: after the Madrid peace conference in 1991, the conciliations in Oslo in 1993 and the Cairo agreement in 1994. The director shows us how different people in the Palestinian refugee camp react to the prospect of peace. The cinema of Rashid Masharawi, Elia Suleiman and few others is credited as ‘Independent Cinema’. Masharawi was born to a family of refugees from Jaffa and grew up in the Shati refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. His most profound encounters that shaped his cinematic vision and artistic sensibility were in the refugee camp. His films depict the daily struggle for survival in the camps and the bleak reality that envelops the process.

Mohammed Bakri’s film Jenin, Jenin (2002) is set in the aftermath of the devastation in the Jenin refugee camp. It is a film in which time is a disjointed entity. The film shows us a succession of testimonies and interviews taken by the director of the camp inmates. The main theme of the film is widespread destruction – one that is horrific to watch and traumatic to deal with. The wailing inhabitants mourn the death of their families, the destruction of their homes, the destroyed olive trees, vines or the fig tree in the garden, hoping to restore them and show the great spirit to never forget or lose hope . The film was shot on rubble, ruins and radiates a heavy desolation. The director himself had taken part in nonviolent demonstrations at a checkpoint during the Israeli invasion of Jenin in 2002. The film is primarily a series of uncensored interviews and testimonies as told on camera by the residents of Jenin. After a few screenings, the film was banned by the Israeli Film Ratings Board for being defamatory. Bakri took the case to Israel’s Supreme Court, but the court dismissed the film as a “propagandistic lie.” However, the film received international recognition and was named Best Picture at the Carthage International Film Festival.

The film Salt of the Earth: Palestinian Christians in the North West Bank, released in 2004, is a sequence of short documentary films examining the lives of nine Palestinian Christians living in and around the towns of Zababdeh, Nablus, Jenin, Burqin, Tubas and Jalame. life. . Each city is entangled in Christian legends and significant historical events. The title of the film Salt of the Earth is a culmination of conversations with Palestinian Christians and Christians from the Middle East. Since we only need a little bit of salt to flavor our food, a little bit holds the power to influence a greater whole, alluding to the small Christian communities in Palestine. The film was produced and directed by Presbyterian missionaries Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders while living and working in the Palestinian Christian village of Zababdeh.

Aside from movies, located in the Jenin Refugee Camp, The Freedom Theater is a Palestinian community theater and cultural center in the north of the West Bank. This theater group believes in mirroring the life, hardships and contradictions that lie at the heart of Palestinian society. The group believes that the values โ€‹โ€‹of freedom, justice and equality are universal and that artistic expression is the tool that helps affirm this determination. Their productions include Suicide Note from Palestine, Power/Poison and adaptations of Animal Farm, Alice in Wonderland, Men in the Sun, The Island and The Caretaker.

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