“Material for a film”: Retracing Wael Zuaiter (Part 1)

Detail of Emily Jacir’s mixed media installation (in this shot a photograph of Wael Zuaiter) currently featured at the 2007 La Biennale di Venezia.


Wael Zuaiter was the first victim in Europe in a series of assassinations of Palestinian artists, intellectuals and diplomats perpetrated by Israeli agents that was already underway in the Middle East. Zuaiter was gunned down by 12 bullets outside his apartment in Piazza Annibaliano, Rome on 16 October 1972.

In 1979, Zuaiter’s companion of eight years, Sydney-born artist Janet Venn-Brown published For a Palestinian: A Memorial to Wael Zuaiter. One chapter, titled “Material for a film” by Elio Petri and Ugo Pirro, is comprised of a series of interviews conducted with the people who were part of Zuaiter’s life in Italy, including Venn-Brown herself. They were going to make a film, but Petri died shortly afterwards and the film was never realized. This chapter was the point of departure for my project.

I went back to Rome in 2005 to continue collecting material for a film.

I visited his friends in Rome, Massa Carrara and elsewhere and I made several trips to Nablus to visit his sister Naila and see his family home where he grew up. I visited Venn-Brown in Rome regularly during these three years. We spent many weeks together, calling on Zuaiter’s old friends and going through her extensive archives. I found a letter Venn-Brown had written to filmmaker Costas Gavras asking him to consider making a film about Zuaiter because she believed that through his story, that of thousands of other Palestinians could be told.

Zuaiter’s friends during his ten years in Rome included a myriad of cultural leaders, artists, journalists and poets, including Alberto Moravia (with whom he traveled twice to the Middle East), Raphael Alberti, Antonio Gambini, Bruno Cagli, Jean Genet, Ennio Politi, Piero Della Seta, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Venn-Brown told me, “He was a poet. He was completely lost without poetry.”

The following are two videos and texts which are part of the ongoing work “Material for a film” currently being shown in Venice:

WAEL ZUAITER IN PETER SELLER’S PINK PANTHER

When Zuaiter was living in Italy he used to sometimes be an extra in films in order to have some money. During my research I discovered that Zuaiter had a role as a waiter when he was an extra in Peter Seller’s film The Pink Panther, Rome, Cinecitta Studios, 1963. According to Venn-Brown, he was so charismatic that the director picked him out of the crowd and offered him a speaking part but each time he got in front of the camera and they said, “Ready! Shoot!” he froze and forgot all his lines.

After Venn-Brown described his role to me, I managed to find three glimpses of him in the film. Venn-Brown told me she was quite disappointed when the film came out, as she sat through it twice only to see that he was a quick flash across the screen.

PIAZZA ANNIBALIANO, ROMA

Zuaiter lived here in apartment no. 20 on the seventh floor. The 93 bus and the 80 bus come here. I am sitting outside across the street from his building eating lunch on Viale Eritrea, wondering which streets he walked down. Did he ever eat here? Where did he buy his paper and cigarettes?

He made a phone call at the Trieste Bar next door before going home as both his electricity and phone bills had been cut because he did not have enough money to pay his bills. Zuaiter entered this doorway to go across the courtyard and enter Scala C, which was the entrance to his wing of the building (to the left).

Where were the Mossad agents hiding? It was around 10:30pm when Zuaiter headed to the stairwell of entrance C to take the elevator up to his flat. He reached the elevator. He was shot 12 times with a .22 caliber pistol with a silencer at close range.

After spending several hours inside his building examining his floor, the courtyard and elevator, I leave. As I am crossing the street to take one last picture of his side of the building I look down and see an old suitcase before me.

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Artist Emily Jacir’s “Material for a film” (2005-ongoing) is an installation comprised of photographs, text, video and sound pieces, is currently featured in the exhibition entitled Think with the senses - Feel with the mind as part of the 2007 La Biennale di Venezia. The installation was devised in part with the support of La Biennale di Venezia and will be showing through 21 November 2007.

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