Issue 004 Summer 2022 Essays

Dissonant Narratives

Palestinian Youth Remake Archival Films

By Mahasen Nasser-Eldin

Still from Yom al-Ard (2019), dir. Monica Mauer, image courtesy the filmmaker.


“The necessity of trying to represent what we cannot, rather than leading to pessimism or despair, must be embraced as the possibility that conditions our knowledge of the past and animates our desire for a liberated future.” —Saidiya Hartman1 


Archives present subaltern artists with viable possibilities to engage with their realities and colonized histories. In Palestine, where Palestinians live under Zionist/Israeli colonial rule, apartheid, and occupation, the issue of archives is a pressing and critical one. Palestinian archives, both institutional and personal, have been systematically looted and destroyed. Palestinian national archives are nonexistent, while Israeli state archives keep these pillaged records of Palestinian history and its people, with minimal accessibility to Palestinian researchers.[1] In this condition, Palestinians and societies with experiences of colonization are denied their history and narrative. The occupier continues to write our history, dictating how we view our past, present, and future.2

Through formal and informal initiatives, Palestinian historians, writers, academics, and art practitioners are continually mapping and gathering Palestinian archives.3 These initiatives present filmmakers with serious opportunities—to engage with present and past realities, and to create personal and collective alternative narratives of self-representation and emancipation. This essay shares a personal reflection on archival film and counter youth narratives in Palestine as part of this effort.


Still from Yom al-Ard (2019), dir. Monica Mauer, image courtesy the filmmaker.

As a documentary filmmaker, researcher, and educator, I taught film to young Palestinian filmmakers for numerous years at Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, Palestine. My research and practice focus on exploring creative approaches to generate alternative knowledge with the (re)use of audiovisual archives. These approaches are linked to visual and audio storytelling rooted in our identities and relationships to the places we come from. My work with students also allows me space to explore our positionalities as filmmakers vis-a-vis the archive we work with. Reckoning with the archive allows us to understand the present and to project meaning into the future. It becomes a process through which we piece fragments together to create coherent stories and to build intergenerational bridges. Thereby, through this process, we aim to understand how past experiences of previous generations influence our lives and present opportunities for understanding where we are today. Moreover, this process of reckoning allows us to identify patterns in our history that relate to communal struggles and a sense of cohesiveness much needed today, as there is a general sentiment of political bleakness and static, nonevolving conditions. This process allows us to critically contemplate and reflect on the role that women played in political and public spheres during revolutionary times. For example, I include these sorts of reflections in my own film, The Silent Protest: 1929 Jerusalem (2019), which follows a day in the life of the Palestinian women’s movement in 1929 in the aftermath of the Buraq Uprising.4 Moreover, this process allows us space to gauge how gender discourses have evolved over time and how we can continue the struggle for liberation, self-determination, selfhood, and womanhood.

Recently, my class was able to undertake this process in a collaboration between filmmaker Monica Mauer, a veteran in militant cinema, my filmmaker comrade Salim Abu Jabal, and the remarkable students at Dar al-Kalima University—Rana Abushkaidem, Mira Jibreen, Saif Hammash, Abed Zboun, Mahmoud Hamdan, and Rami Fararjeh.

In their film Wadi Foukin, Deir Hanna (2021), Abushkaidem and Jibreen create a fictional diary in the present that engages with the changing political geography of the country and the colonial measures and apartheid policies against the Palestinian people’s freedom of movement on our land. They transcend their reality by visually crossing geographical spaces that they are not allowed, by law, to access. While in No Title (2021), Hammash, a musician studying filmmaking, creates a sound journey of a present daydream in a quiet Palestinian locality that is faced with destruction, only to rise again. He produces a looping poetic narrative that embodies the reality of resistance through its aesthetics and archival sounds.


Wadi Foukin, Deir Hanna (2021), dirs. Rana Abushkaidem and Mira Jibreen, film courtesy the artists.

In this film Rana Abushkaidem and Mira Jibreen take us on a diary journey in present time Palestine. The filmmakers saw present Palestine in the archives and connected the images of Deir Hanna (1948 occupied Palestine) with a voiceover from the present about Wadi Foukin in the West bank (1967 occupied Palestine). They pay tribute to Raja Khateeb, a farmer and public political figure who appears in the footage.

These films are the result of the collaboration with Abu Jabal and Mauer. For the past 10 years, Mauer has been working on restoring and digitizing her films—including hours of unedited 16 mm footage of Palestine, filmed between 1977 and 1987—to make them accessible to Palestinian filmmakers and audiences. This collaboration was the first to open Mauer’s archives to film students in Palestine.

Abu Jabal has been working closely with Mauer on organizing, describing, and referencing her film archive. His familiarity with Mauer’s material facilitates students’ ability to access her archives. Students worked with Mauer’s original film, Yom al-Ard (2019). The film was shot in 1981 in the Galilee region (Nazareth, Deir Hanna, and Sakhnin) and pays homage to the prescient topics of transversal unity, and the collective energy of the Palestinian people in the defense of their identity. The footage captures Palestinian crowds of women and men united in protests, at popular political events, and taking part in the funeral processions of martyrs. Palestinian women are represented in their full spectrum of roles: as peasants working the land, as young people resisting and opening up space for themselves in the public sphere, and as mothers taking care of children and managing households.

The footage also brings to life the powerful and courageous political discourse of the time, from political leaders, poets, intellectuals, and religious figures. Tawfiq Abu Zayyad and Emile Habibi address Palestinian crowds in the footage calling for sumoud.5 The footage also documents destroyed Palestinian neighborhoods, where Israeli-occupied public spaces now stand.

Through their critical engagement with the archives, students turned away from nostalgia for the past and focused instead on how to read the archives in the present. Their contemporary understandings of suspended time, dislocation, and their relationships to place shaped their expressions. A sense of kinship and family engendered by the archive’s contents triggered their personal and ancestral memories of life and resistance. The collaboration created opportunities to voice dissonance and find hope for voicing dissonance and hope through film in politically dire times for the Palestinian people.


Yom al-Ard (2019), dir. Monica Mauer, film courtesy L'Archivio Audiovisivo.

Mauer’s Yom al-Ard Archive in the Context of Palestinian Revolutionary Cinema

Palestinian revolutionary cinema emerged in the latter part of 1960, from the heart of Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Initiated by filmmakers such as Mustafa Abu Ali, Sulafa Jadallah, and Hani Jawhariyya, this cinema became part of a global movement of militant filmmaking confronting imperialism and colonialism, from Chile to Vietnam. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, and with that invasion came the deliberate destruction of human life and the looting of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) film archive. Very few Palestinian films from that era survived this aggression. It was not until the 1990s that copies of these films were unearthed through efforts by Palestinian as well as regional and global participants in Palestinian revolutionary cinema of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s.6

In 1981, Mauer had plans to make a film about the commemoration of Yom al-Ard (Land Day)7 in occupied Palestine, to connect Palestinian communities in the diaspora with society in occupied Palestine, celebrating a shared identity for sumoud and resistance. At the time, she was working with the Palestinian Cinema Institution of the PLO in Lebanon. However, due to her affiliation with the PLO, she was considered persona non grata by the Zionist state and was denied entry. She enlisted her militant filmmaking comrades, Piero Tartagni as cinematographer and Francesca Pardini to capture sound, to travel to Palestine to document the commemoration.

 

Working with Retrieved Archives

The process of retrieving what was lost in the past is an experience filled with joy, melancholy, and hope. Working on this project, it was important for us to reflect on these sentiments and to seek out ways to express our relationship with the archival material through our filmmaking craft.

Thus, the initial step was to conduct group viewing sessions of the material and reflect on how the visual and sound material spoke to us as artists working and living in occupied Palestine today. The students were all born after the signing of the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords by the PLO and Israel.8 This “post-Oslo” generation of Palestinians was born after the West Bank was turned into enclaves where Palestinians have been trapped by a system of Israeli military checkpoints, denying us our right to free movement and access to Palestinian cities in 1948 Palestine, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.9 Mauer’s archives included footage of places the students have never been able to visit, due to the continued occupation and Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the West Bank, which began in 1967. We saw firsthand how the archives can transcend the Zionist state-imposed prohibition of movement and geographical access to our land for generations of Palestinians. In one viewing session, Abushkaidem declared: “The archives allowed me to travel to areas I have always wanted to visit. Seeing the material that documented the commemoration of Yom al-Ard provided me space to imagine a world where there was a collective communal vision for the future, which is a vision we lost.” In her attempt to counter the noncontiguous physical geography in Palestine and comment on the underdevelopment of areas in the West Bank today, she added, “The landscape of 1948 Palestine that was filmed in 1981 reminds me of areas accessible to me in the West Bank today. The West Bank is underdeveloped, as if we live in the past.”


No Title (2021), dir. Saif Hammash, film courtesy the artist.

Saif Hammash uses archival sound as a lead to the moving images in his film, creating a narrative about livelihood, destruction, and survival. With the rhythm of the sounds, we go from a state of normalcy to a state of chaos and then resistance.

Commenting on the settlement architecture and encroachment of colonial Zionist settlers on the land, Jibreen noted: “It is interesting that colonial Zionist settlements from 1981 and their confiscation of mountain[tops] and hilltops [are] very similar to the colonial practice and invasion of the land we see today. It is as if the past and the present are one. It is a continual process of land confiscation and occupation, pre- and post-Oslo. The colonial architectural style of settlements violates and intrudes into the landscape in past and present times.”

Through social media, students began to search for and reach out to members of the Deir Hanna community, looking for the individuals they saw in the archives filmed by Tartagni and Pardini. This realization on behalf of the students concerning how the archive could connect them with Palestinian communities of 1948 was particularly exciting. The archives provided them concrete space to connect with Palestinian communities they had been unfamiliar with and to question and contemplate the realities of identity fragmentation. To that end, Hamdan explained: “The process I am going through of viewing the material, of thinking about the archive we are working with, is making me realize how flexible and nonstatic the archive is. I am thinking of building bridges and connecting with the people I see in the archives, virtually creating access for myself and my peers into communities we have been denied connections with.”

Questions about the gaze, the fetishization of Palestinian bodies, and approaches to solidarity formation were other salient points students raised. Critical of the representation of the Palestinian people through a white or European male gaze, Zboun declared: “I am weary of the images that show Palestinians as victims and helpless, or images of the Palestinian women in traditional roles or stuck in a static world between modernity and tradition. Whenever there is a political event, an intifada, major protests, or whenever Israel wages a war on the Gaza Strip, our cities get flooded with journalists who are eager to create news. Under the auspices of solidarity, we open up our homes to them and share with them our stories, and on numerous occasions our positions are misjudged and we are misrepresented.” To Zboun, nuanced gender realities and complexities of gender representations are not captured by this type of gaze. Women were not depicted as agents for change, and Palestinians remained stuck in a position of victimhood. Students raised these points in their discussion with Mauer, Tartagni, and Pardini and were interested in knowing how Tartagni and Pardini treated their subjects. Tartagni made the point that the most important aspect of the work they did was to have empathy with the people they filmed. The context of the times also mattered. He explained, “We were working at a time when people’s grievances, globally, were closer to one another, and at times of transglobal solidarity when people’s vision was more unified across geographic boundaries.” Tartagni did not expect these questions. The students, based on their experiences with white foreigners coming to the country, argued that, for them, solidarity is an evolving condition that entails spending time in a place and building networks and relationships with people on the ground through forms of kinship.

Through this collective viewing of the archive, we interrogated contested political and cultural realities in Palestine together. We were working on our project when the Israelis were confiscating Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah and more broadly across Jerusalem.10 It was a moment for us to reflect on pre- and post-Oslo conditions and contemplate sumoud and resistance in the present context. Through this reflection, we aimed at garnering a sense of hope and affirmation for how film may be used as a medium of change and expression.



Footnotes:

1. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe, a Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 1–14.

2. For more on the looting of Palestinian archives, books, arts and artifacts refer to the writings of Samia Halaby, Bashar Shammout, Sherene Seikaly, and Mahmoud Yazbak. Also refer to the works of Ariella Azoulay and Rona Sela. Also see “History suppressed: Censorship in Israel’s archives” Al Jazeera, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PcCtuKGURE&t=342s.

3. See The Palestinian Museum digital archive: https://palarchive.org/?lang=en_US; Khazaaen: https://www.khazaaen.org/en.

4. An uprising on behalf of Arabs (Palestinians) against British colonial policy and Jewish encroachment on the land in Palestine.

5. The Arabic word sumoud—the concept that steadfastness and remaining on the land is one meaningful form of resistance—is very important in the Palestinian cause.

6. This is not a comprehensive list of names for people leading this effort, but see Mustafa Abu Ali, Khadijeh Habashneh, Tamam al-Akhal, Azza al-Hassan, Bashar Shammout, Emily Jacir, and Mohannad Yaqubi.

7. Yom al-Ard is a Palestinian remembrance day of protest and strikes that took place in the Galilee on March 30, 1976, against the Israeli settler colonial policy of land confiscation. Six Palestinians were killed by Israeli Zionist police that day, and hundreds were injured. The villages of Sakhnin, Arraba, Deir Hanna, Tur’an, Tamra, and Kabul were placed under curfew. Yom al-Ard is considered an important commemoration of Palestinian resistance to this day.

8. The Oslo Accords, also known as the Declaration of Principles or just Oslo, were an agreement signed between the Israeli government and the PLO in 1993, brokered by the US government as an interim peace agreement that would have ushered in the two-state solution after five years. Instead, the Oslo Accords legitimized the Israeli occupation of Palestine in many fundamental ways.

9. Palestinians use the term 1948 Palestine, or 1948 or 1948 lands, to refer to the Palestinian geographical land mass that Zionists colonized in the year 1948. The Zionist movement depopulated and ethnically cleaned 80% of the Palestinian people between 1947 and 1949 and declared the state of Israel over that land.

10. While various Israeli government and military agencies are constantly stealing land and homes from Palestinians and handing them over to Israeli Jews, a particularly volatile, massive, and violent series of land and home confiscations took place in Jerusalem in early 2021 as a rapid continuation of ethnic cleansing policies, which ultimately resulted in a major and visible uprising among the Palestinian people in the spring and summer of 2021.