Film review: Pastoral resistance in “This Palestinian Life”

A Palestinian farmer interviewed in a scene from This Palestinian life.


“Is it true that the Jews want to retake this country?” asked a Palestinian farmer close to the turn of the 20th century, according to the notes of Albert Antebi, an official of the Jewish Colonial Association. They did and do. Palestinian peasants were the first to feel the effects of Zionist encroachment. And today, the countryside and its villages are where the struggle against territorial maximalism continues, dunum by dunum, olive orchard by olive orchard.

This Palestinian Life, a 28-minute documentary, surveys rural resistance in occupied Palestine: in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, in the Jordan Valley, and in the south Hebron hills. The film was made by Egyptian-German journalist Philip Rizk, who lived in Palestine from 2004 to 2007, talking with those struggling under the daily violence and oppression of Israel’s occupation, and recording their stories. The project was political, a sort of ad hoc social history of agrarian resistance. Rizk narrates his wish to “Capture the stories of villagers because these examples of sumud … are the most rarely told.” This film begins to fix that problem.

Sumud is Arabic for “steadfastness,” a survival strategy oriented towards communal self-preservation in the face of ideologically-motivated territorial expansion. It is a sensible strategy of resistance when one’s opponent is intent on ethnic cleansing to create a homogenous, territorially contiguous homeland, and when that opponent is steadily isolating the native fauna — in this case, farmers, shepherds and villagers — in quarantine clusters. Simply telling the stories of Israeli home destruction in the hills, or explaining how Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem can build as they wish while the native Palestinians need permits to build higher than 60 centimeters corrodes the Zionist narrative. More effective still is showing the destruction of ancient olive trees by the Israeli military, or the shattered lemon boughs and upset earth scored deep by tank-treads, all of it composing a bracing curative for Israeli hasbara, or propaganda.

In addition to telling a neglected part of the Palestinian story, Rizk also cleverly interweaves broader sociological and economic points into the anecdotal fabric of the film. One shot is of verdant stands of trees in the occupied West Bank. Another is of arid scrub or rock. Why? Because Israelis can dig wells willy-nilly, while Palestinians may not dig wells of any appreciable depth. Shots of the neat trees and buildings of Israeli settlements edging up against the rock desert at their borders evocatively captures this dynamic. It is not Occidental technological wonders versus primitive pastoralism but advancement enabled by enforced resource deprivation: the Israeli theft of Palestinian water, which strengthens Israeli agriculture while preventing Palestinian agricultural development.

Even more stirring are the shots of Israeli tanks and military bulldozers destroying farmland in Gaza. Some of this land was razed to create the Israeli “buffer zone,” a newfangled Israeli imposition, which essentially means that Israel destroys as much vegetation as possible in tremendous swathes, 300 meters or so wide, on the Gaza side of the boundary with Israel. Israeli soldiers shoot farmers who enter that zone, often up to two kilometers inside the boundary. Destroying land means destroying lives. To hear a Palestinian woman describe an Israeli rocket blowing up a chicken coop or a rabbit hatch to bits, or to see the footage of a Palestinian man in desperate anguish as he wails over the goats he has raised lying crushed to death under Israeli army bulldozers is to slice clean to the conflict’s core.

Other footage — it’s unclear if Rizk shot it — alludes to waxing fanaticism amongst Israeli settlers in the West Bank, among them the Gush Emunim, or bloc of the faithful. To watch ski-masked settlers come in bands with baseball bats and batter shepherds and old women has the double-effect of laying bare the violence that penetrates every layer of modern Zionist practice and to show how modern Israel has become a seminary for ethnic hatred. Vigilante terror is never pleasant to watch, and to watch it amidst Israeli politicians publicly pondering “transfer,” or ethnic cleansing of Palestinians inside Israel, is portentous and horrifying. It could be as simple as simply looking away while Uzi-armed settlers once more displace Palestinians from their land.

From a cinematographic standpoint, the documentary has issues. Production quality is over-determined by the amount of money the producers of the film have to polish it, to slickly gloss over problematic footage, to sound edit, and to touch up the colors. Documentaries on Palestinian daily life are not exactly something to which funders are drawn. Some of the camerawork is jerky. The coloration on the stills lacks a certain vibrancy — often enough the product of post-production retouching. All this is not shocking from a low-budget political documentary.

Another issue: the shots of sheep and goats moving over dried-out dirt, then slate grey rock seldom last long. Instead of lingering, Rizk rushes over them, perhaps worried that they won’t hold the viewer’s eye. But that sort of naturalism is perfect for expository voice-overs. Livelihoods, ecological cycles, husbandry and land and agriculture are axial to the conflict for the poor village folk Rizk makes his protagonists. They are their lives. Why move so hurriedly past them? He also moves too quickly over viciously uprooted trees, a metaphor for the conflict and the Israeli attempt to excise Palestinian cultural roots and cultural identity from the ground in which they sit.

But the trees can be replanted, the seeds, resown. “God willing, this tree will grow … and your children will swing from it, and you will eat its fruit,” says a white-haired, nattily dressed Palestinian man from the village of Beit Sahour in the occupied West Bank, located near Bethlehem. That is the essence of sumud: replanting a tree that an armor-plated military bulldozer has repeatedly demolished, in the full knowledge that you will never see that tree bear fruit. It is planting trees for children, and for their children.

Abu Musa, a villager in Ghwein, near Hebron, says, “We will remain, but we are living a way no one would deem acceptable. Life is really difficult … we will bear this humiliation because of our land, but we are always anxious.”

Village sumud is interesting sociologically, too. Conflicts such as those Rizk has highlighted don’t have the excitement of the weekly protests in Bilin or Nilin, which are understandably enchanting to the progressive press and international solidarity movements. Rizk points out that violence makes news. But so does more confrontational resistance, rather than the quiet kind that he highlights. One villager comments, “My weapon of defense is that I won’t leave this place and my hope is that the world will react when they realize Israel’s treatment of us.” Unfortunately, the world often reacts not to stoic bravery but to confrontation, filtered through the prism of a media that reacts to the conflict mostly as a violence-riddled war safari. Palestinian culture and sumud simply aren’t media attractions.

Two points follow. One is that resistance in Palestine has not yet suffused the political landscape. Thousands of dead and injured during the second Palestinian intifada linger in the collective memory. But the type of villagers Rizk has recorded are the ones capable of creating a more mediatic spectacle, the kind that could capture the sort of attention that could change the symbolic structure of the conflict, and restructure it in a way that empowers Palestinian resistance. Sociologists have little idea what catalyzes a transition from sumud to more open confrontation like that in Bilin, Nilin, or Budrus, but it’s worth wondering. It’s unfortunate that Rizk didn’t ask the villagers what they thought of the more active struggles.

The second is that as many have remarked, these attempts at popular mobilization have so far had a rural social base. These sorts of rural conflicts are zero-sum. Either settlers rob the land or Palestinians stay on it. Either settlers plant pine trees or Palestinians grow olive trees. Sharing the land is impossible, and this in turn engenders resistance. The centrality of the rural people, the villagers, not only to Palestinian cultural continuity but also to the next Palestinian intifada, is clear, and for that reason, too, it’s wonderful that Rizk chose to showcase their stories.

The short’s finale, appropriately, returns to tactile naturalism: men picking wheat, goats milking, goats and sheep running into shelter in the caves, women making the mud-bricks that Palestinians in the Jordan Valley — and now in Gaza too, for different reasons — use to construct their homes, to keep rebuilding costs low when the inevitable Israeli demolition comes. Even amidst unspeakable oppression culture never reduces to conflict. Rizk’s ambition to show the culture, replicated though sumud, of unglamorous and ignored villagers is laudable, and in This Palestinian Life, he’s done it well. In so doing, he’s added something to the flow of Palestinian life and resistance that percolates through media filters, and given us something more textured—earthier, realer, more grounded, more honest. For that, thanks.

Max Ajl is a writer living in Gaza. He has written for Adbusters! and The New Statesman, among others, and blogs on Israel-Palestine and ecological issues at www.maxajl.com.

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