Early classic of Palestinian resistance cinema reemerges

In 2003, young Palestinian artist Annemarie Jacir had spent years trying to trace a group of resistance filmmakers who, in the 1970s and early 1980s, had devoted their talents to their people’s struggle.

Finally, during the 2003 “Dreams of a Nation” film festival in Palestine, she was able to bring together some of those directors and producers and their works. In the case of one 25-minute drama-documentary called They Do Not Exist, it was the film’s first ever screening in Palestine. It was also the first time its director, Mustafa Abu Ali, one of the founders of the PLO’s film unit, had seen his work in two decades.

Now, the film has been made freely available in versions on YouTube or Vimeo.

Abu Ali’s 1974 film depicts the final days of the Palestinian refugee camp of Nabatia, which was founded to house those fleeing the 1948 Nakba, or establishment of the State of Israel. The south Lebanon camp was destroyed by the Israelis in 1974. The surviving refugees were mostly moved to Ein al-Hilwe camp.

The opening sequences of the documentary show daily life in Nabatia – men, women and children carrying out their everyday tasks and taking leisure time together. In these quotidian acts – hanging out the laundry, baking bread, looking after youngsters and buying vegetables in the market – the Israeli narrative of Palestinian non-existence is quietly but comprehensively refuted.

Alongside the daily acts of “existence as resistance,” a little girl does her bit to support the armed resistance, by writing a letter to an unknown feda’i who will receive one of the bags of gifts sent by the camp’s residents to the fighters in the hills.

Liberation struggles

The film explicitly locates the Palestinian cause among the global wave of national liberation struggles of the time — Vietnam, Mozambique, South Africa — and in the historical setting of other imperialist crimes, including the genocides of Native Americans and Nazi massacres.

Against this backdrop we then see footage of the May-June 1974 air raids which destroyed large areas of Nabatia camp, killing large numbers of civilians and displacing many of the camp’s residents a second time, to other refugee settlements including Ein al-Hilwe.

Here, Abu Ali makes particularly neat use of his musical accompaniments, with the traditional Arabic folk which gave atmosphere to the bucolic scenes of camp life giving way to a baroque Bach violin concerto, sharp and alien in tone.

No music, however, accompanies the footage of the death and destruction which follows the Israeli raids; the film remains silent as we are presented with shell-shocked civilians carrying away the dead and injured and narrating their tales of loss.

As well as its 2003 West Bank debut, They Do Not Exist was also screened in the US as part of the “Palestinian Revolution Cinema” tour, curated by Emily Jacir, which took place in 2007.

Writing at the time, The Electronic Intifada’s Maureen Murphy noted that “The film boldly refutes both [former Israeli Prime Minsiter Golda] Meir’s assertion that there is no Palestinian people, as well as Moshe Dayan’s boasting that there is no longer a place called Palestine.”

And Annemarie Jacir has reflected on her quest, which culminated in the 2003 Palestine screening of They Do Not Exist, that:

These filmmakers included founders Mustafa Abu Ali, Sulafa Jadallah, and Hani Jawhariya. Others were Khadija Abu Ali, Ismael Shammout, Rafiq Hijjar, Nabiha Lutfi, Fuad Zentut, Jean Chamoun and Samir Nimr. Most were refugees, exiled from their homes in Palestine. And additionally there were fellow Arabs who stood in solidarity with them, devoting their work to a just cause. Their films screened across the Arab world and internationally but never in Palestine. None of the filmmakers were allowed into Palestine, or what became known as Israel, let alone their celluloid prints.

Now it is to be hoped that, with the recovery of these films and the mass access of the Internet, new audiences can view these classics of Palestinian resistance art and expand their understanding of the multi-faceted resistance of the 1970s.



Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.