When the past has been subjected to a systematic process of erasure, how can artists, writers, historians, politicians, educators and activists on Palestine address it?
With villages destroyed, libraries and documentation centers looted and archives appropriated by Israeli forces, reclaiming history has become a mission and a mantra for Palestinian intellectuals and activists.
Accordingly, and increasingly, Palestine film festivals and venues screen not just recent works, but also audiovisual and photographic material from earlier periods.
At the New York Arab and South Asian Film Festival in 2007, tribute was paid to a group of Palestinian revolutionary filmmakers working between 1968-1982. Their work was also shown in Chicago that year. More recently, the work of documentary filmmaker Monica Maurer was screened at Dar Jacir in Bethlehem last April.
Last year’s London Palestine Film Festival presented an array of documentary and feature films by grandmasters, such as Elia Suleiman, as well as newcomers. It also heralded the launch of Azza El Hassan’s The Void Project.
El Hassan’s project addresses “the effect of the Israeli state’s abduction and destruction of Palestinian visual archive on Palestinian visual narrative.”
One component of El Hassan’s project, Archive Fever, is concerned with the identification, finding and restoration of films.
The London festival and The Void Project jointly restored and co-hosted two films that were shown at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. Layaly Badr’s Road to Palestine (1985) and Arab Loutfi’s Upper Gate (1991) were shot in Lebanon by women capturing the worlds they lived in and the people they loved, communicating the political through the heartfelt. Palestine in the Eye, a 1977 film by Mustafa Abu Ali, was also restored in collaboration with the Creative Interruptions project.
El Hassan is specifically interested in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Film Unit archive, which was lost in 1982 when the Israeli military invaded Beirut. The extensive film archive that the PLO was developing and storing in its basement not only documented Palestinian history in the making, but reformulated the image of Palestinians with empowered, personal depictions.
At the time of El Hassan’s 2004 documentary Kings and Extras, the ultimate fate of the archives was not known. However, some of its contents – including footage showing Palestinians crossing the Jordan River with modernist armchairs held above their heads and goats pulled by their ears – had been obtained from the Israeli state archives, without attribution.
Various theories surrounded the archive’s fate, with one interviewee in El Hassan’s 2004 film convinced that its contents were buried in the martyrs graveyard for safekeeping.
By 2019, the mystery of these archives had been resolved.
Rona Sela, an Israeli curator and researcher, made Looted and Hidden, a film documenting her findings that is freely available on Vimeo. It is now apparent that 38,000 films, 2.7 million photographs, 96,000 audio recordings and 46,000 maps and aerial photographs have been gathered into Israeli military archives since 1948, including the contents of the PLO’s Beirut archive.
Sela was only able to access some of this material as a result of a protracted legal battle.
“The ruling state plunders/loots the colonized’s archives and treasures and controls them in its colonial archives,” Sela writes.
Israel thereby erases “them from the public sphere by repressive means, censors and restricts their exposure and use, alters their original identity, regulates their contents and subjugates them to colonizer’s laws, rules and terminology.”
Palestinian historians, artists and researchers have long contended with the fact that their history is not only denied, but that the historical material that remains is more likely to be made available to Israeli researchers than it is to them.
El Hassan treats this “void” of accessible material as a challenge, a potential for further creativity. Another strand of The Void Project, the Pep Archive, explores the creative possibilities that gaps in factual documentation can allow for.
The name of the project is derived from the medical term “post-exposure prophylaxis,” a preventative treatment for infection given to patients who are exposed to a pathogen.
The idea is that the rearrangement and possible fictionalization of archival material can allow individuals who have experienced collective trauma to process their past into a more consoling narrative, or to fortify their beliefs in a way that allows them to readdress their past and move on psychologically. El Hassan and others are playing with this concept in documentaries in development and in production.
The third and final strand of The Void Project is Hidden, featuring work by Hani Jawherieh, who was killed by shrapnel while filming Palestinian fighters at the age of 37.
The Found Archive of Hani Jawherieh, an exhibition curated by El Hassan and shown late last year at London’s P21 Gallery, was not the first to showcase the work of the late Palestinian filmmaker. But it was undoubtedly the most personal, including the work of his wife Hind and daughter Hiba, as preservers of Hani’s work.
Providing the exhibition with a feminist angle, El Hassan chose to put a photograph of Hani next to his portrait of Hind, giving the two equal weight in their relationship. The exhibition further preserved Hani’s memory by showing his films that El Hassan restored after they were entrusted to her by his family, some not previously shown.
The exhibition also displayed for the first time some of Jawherieh’s photographs that were found in Israeli archives, as well as photographs from his own private albums. Pages from his personal albums are annotated by Hani in English and include pictures of Hind and Hani’s first meeting as well as outings in Jerusalem with friends, including the artist Vladimir Tamari (1942-2017). Also exhibited was the camera Hani was holding when he was killed.
The impact of this work is personally moving, visually striking and politically powerful. It goes a long way to filling the void in Palestinian collective memory.
This article was updated after initial publication to remove reference to Israel in regards to the shrapnel that killed Hani Jawherieh, who was slain in the context of the Lebanese Civil War.
All images courtesy of Azza El Hassan.
Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer of fiction.