London festival expands view of films about Palestine

A film still from Bashir Meraish’s This is My Picture When I was Dead.

The 2011 London Palestine Film Festival runs from 29 April to 11 May, opening with pioneering Palestinian filmmaker Michel Khleifi’s latest feature, Zindeeq. The festival showcases some thirty works ranging from documentary to fiction and animation. Four very different works typify the breadth of the program, Mahmoud al-Massad’s This is my Picture When I was Dead, Shane O’Sullivan’s Children of the Revolution, Heiny Srour’s Leila and the Wolves and Far from Vietnam by a group of French filmmakers.

The picture of This is My Picture When I was Dead is of Bashir Meraish when he was five, today a prominent cartoonist in Jordan. Wind back to 1983 and Bashir was with his father, a prominent Palestine Liberation Organization fighter, when the latter was assassinated in Athens. Bashir was declared dead along with his father, “but I am still alive, I am still in this life,” he tells us.

We see Bashir throughout, working on his cartoons, the computer filling the screen, as he produces cartoons that are direct, sarcastic, searing. The journey that al-Massad takes us on interweaves interviews, archival and fictional footage. One day Bashir’s father gets caught by his teacher typing revolutionary slogans during a test, only to be let off by the headmaster. Years later, Bashir gets caught drawing a caricature of his teacher. To his surprise, his teacher tells him something that reverberates through the years: “Like father, like son. If your father’s weapon was the gun, yours is the pen.” And with these words echoing in his mind, Bashir becomes a cartoonist. In a sense, continuing his father’s work, not considering the pen to be superior to the gun, but working in a different way, in a different time.

Indeed, the different times are the backdrop to this boldly-crafted documentary. As Bashir gathers stories from his father’s friends and comrades, his mother, as he looks through newspaper montages, pictures in albums, we are brought back time and again to the present moment of Gaza, to Israel’s 2008-09 winter invasion, the Goldstone report, Hamas and Fatah. His mother says wistfully that she wished the revolution had stayed as it was, clean and noble.

Bashir listens to stories of his father, his face concentrated, moved yet composed, smiling from time to time. Al-Massad’s film is beautiful, the narrative measured and unobtrusive. Bashir describes, for instance, forty years of occupation turning a country against itself, “Fighting for the rewards of a victory they haven’t even won.” This one line, pithy like Bashir’s cartoons, captures all that is wrong with the Palestinian leadership today. Al-Massad and Bashir Meraish have made a film that is a moving and grounded testament both to the past and the present moment, an ode to Bashir’s father, to life, to mortality, to Palestine, to all that has been “clean and noble” about the Palestinian struggle.

Bashir’s father, a larger than life figure, like any father, says his mother “Dreamed of having a family, raising his children.” Yet despite this wish, the son of the revolutionary lives without a father — just as the two women of O’Sullivan’s Children of the Revolution, daughters of revolutionaries, lived most of their lives without their mothers, and in the shadow of these same figures.

Bettina and May are daughters of leading revolutionaries of the 1970s, women who were at some point fugitives from the law, maligned by some, adored by others — Ulrike Meinhof of Germany’s Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, and Fusako Shigenobu of the Japanese Red Army. While the focus is on the narratives of the two daughters, the film essentially consists of two sets of interviews that have moments of intersection, as the history of a generation of political militancy is told through an artful combination of home movies, archive footage and first-hand testimony.

The two daughters offer very different accounts — they espouse different politics, they had different mothers and different relationships with them. It is tempting as a viewer to try to draw the lines, patterns of causation. Did Bettina develop different politics because she was so hurt and alienated from her mother’s life? Is May more sympathetic because she shared the experience with her mother, changing names and identities as her mother did? The film does not offer answers, and of course answers are not possible. Instead, the viewer simply accepts that these two narratives are very different, both characterized by love and pain, both women having struggled to make sense of their lives, as daughters of women seen both as heroes and villains.

Bettina, a journalist like her mother, speaks in a dead-pan tone. She recounts that there was a request through her mother’s lawyer to see her and her sister “But that didn’t happen and then she was dead,” she says, the even tone of voice paradoxically pointing towards her pain. Bettina rarely describes Ulrike Meinhof as her mother, referring to her mostly by her full name. For Bettina, Ulrike Meinhof the mother was a different person from the activist, the woman living underground because the “mania for terrorism” had taken hold of her personality, as Bettina puts it. For May, daughter of Fusako Shigenobu, the mother was also the activist.

Indeed, May was born in Lebanon and lived her mother’s life for some years. Unlike for Bettina, the mother’s activism did not mean a lack of a family life, and May describes a community of Marxists living together as a big family. Several of the interviews with May take place in Lebanon; she chooses the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila as the site of one of them and wears a kuffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian checkered scarf. We find out only towards the end of the film that like Bettina, she is also a journalist, and a news anchor. In her work, she discusses Palestine, arguing that if she can show the fight for Palestine is just, she can show her mother’s fight was not a useless one.

We learn that the question of how to be a revolutionary activist and a mother was a major preoccupation for Ulrike Meinhof. She argued that the problem of women activists with children is not very different from the problem of all women in patriarchal societies, that the source of women’s oppression is that their private are lives set against their political lives. This nexus of the personal and political, a key concern of feminism of course, is taken up, examined, turned around and explored in Heiny Srour’s feminist masterpiece Leila and the Wolves.

A film still from Heiny Srour’s Leila and the Wolves

Leila is in London curating a photography exhibition on Palestine. She predicts that Rafiq — who we assume to be her partner — will tell her it is very nice. Which he does. He visits the exhibition and when she asks him why he has not chosen pictures of women, he says that he doesn’t remember seeing any, that women have nothing to do with politics. She says she will take him with her to see. And in acts of remembering, where she is cast as a woman in white, she casts him in different roles, once at the head of a demonstration against British imperial rule, another time in a role she describes as a traitor. Most of the film consists of an answer to his comment, not a question about the women, but a confident declaration about the absence of women. Through excursions of memory to times and places she has not been, she describes the presence and centrality of women, not an element to be added or excised but an inextricable part of history.

During the Palestinian revolt 1936-39, as men fought on the street against British troops bearing superior arms, we see women throwing plant pots and massive pans of boiling water from the balconies on the heads of British troops. Later we see women searching for ammunition, scraping bullets on stones, to then take along with food and water to the men fighting along. It is hard physical labor. They do not complain. They are not helping or assisting the men; it is their struggle also. And they have their own struggles. A girl is taken out of school by her father. The aunts cannot object for he is right, they say, school or no school she will end up a wife and a mother, perhaps like one of the aunts who is beaten by her husband because the food is burnt.

And in extraordinary acts of bravery and creativity, we see women preside over a wedding which is at the same time a major operation — ammunition is placed under the henna and flowers, and in the sweets, the guns under the vegetables and within their clothes, as the women then pass a checkpoint bearing these arms, confidently singing the pre-agreed songs. When the villagers of Deir Yassin are being rounded up to be killed by the Irgun, a woman screams to them to fight, not to die like sheep. In a scuffle she takes the rifle from a young Irgun man, and as she is about to shoot him, she is herself shot. The point of this remembering is not whether or not it happened in these details. For all we know, it might have. And for all we know, it might also have happened that a young girl fights with young men in Lebanon, as we see later in the film, only to be ignored by those she is fighting with. So she leaves and within minutes is shot by snipers. For all we know it could have happened exactly this way to a young woman whose name none of us know.

We see young women in Lebanon, fighters, being blamed by other women for men leaving their wives. We watch women argue and debate and reflect and agonize. One woman wonders what the point of all the training was if they are just going to sit back because of these stories? As Srour, through Leila, takes us to different times and places, we see different elements of social oppression, each sustaining a call to resist.

The excursions of memory, journeys to the past in Palestine and Lebanon, are interspersed with returns to the exhibition — from far away, in London, Leila remembers. And far away in Paris, a group of French filmmakers make a film that they declare to be in solidarity with Vietnam — Far from Vietnam, restored in 2009. The different chapters by Chris Marker, Jean Luc-Godard, Joris Ivens, Agnes Varda, William Klein, Alain Resnais and Claude Lelouch approach from various directions the question of how to be and act in solidarity with the struggle in Vietnam as they themselves are “far from Vietnam.”

Masterfully brought together by Chris Marker, the result is a unified yet fractured work, a searing and powerful anti-war piece of cinematic protest. Documentary footage, newsreels and fictional footage mingle together to pose difficult and important questions of cinema and of political solidarity. Vietnam, they declare, is the fundamental question of their time. And in some ways Palestine is the fundamental question of our time, or at least a general symbol of resistance, as the ubiquity of the kuffiyeh is testament to. Problematic though this ubiquity may be, it also represents a commitment to the Palestinian struggle and to global justice in general. And many of us are far from Palestine.

Godard wonders what films he would make if he was there in Vietnam; he tried to go, he couldn’t go, and says with honesty that perhaps this was a good thing, for he might have caused more harm than good. But making films in Paris, it is hard to speak of bombs when they are not falling on your head and you speak in the abstract. What kind of aesthetic pursuit is possible, is acceptable? He knows what films he would make if he was there, but his place is Paris. As a director, he is isolated from the working class, and that fracture is a similar one both to the fracture between him and Vietnam and the working class and Vietnam. With these fractures of distance and isolation, what shape does meaningful resistance and solidarity in our own societies take? It is a question we cannot shy away from.

What is solidarity? What kind of political activism is possible when you are far?

What is Vietnam, and what is Palestine? Do we use them to absolve our guilt? Do we do what is best for us? Who is solidarity for? How do culpability and complicity fit in? How do we resolve — or seek to resolve — our internal dilemmas, to absolve ourselves through our positions and acts of solidarity? Do we have a right to applaud when others give their lives if we are not willing to give our own? While a writer who poses some of these questions in one segment of the film agonizes, thinks himself into an impotent “I don’t what to write anything,” the film challenges us as activists, artists, viewers of the film, to ask the questions, to ask them honestly, and not to sink into a self-indulgent inactivity, but to a self-reflective and meaningful solidarity.

We might expect the films at a Palestine film festival to include works by Palestinian filmmakers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in 1948 Palestine, and in the Diaspora, works by non-Palestinians about Palestine, by anti-Zionist Israelis and Jews. But do we expect to see works seemingly not about Palestine, such as Far from Vietnam? The inclusion of such a film prompts us to ask what a film about Palestine consists of, to recalibrate and expand on what our expectations of a Palestine film festival are.

The directors of This is my Picture When I was Dead, Children of the Revolution, and Leila and the Wolves will be present at the film showings for Q&As. For a full programme please see

Naira Antoun lives in London and works in the field of education.