New documentary presents shallow view of Arafat

“What would you sacrifice for what you believe in?” This is the tagline to a recently-launched 80-minute biopic of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the first in a series of documentaries entitled The Price of Kings, from London-based filmmakers Spirit Level. The series claims to “reveal the sacrifices made by some of the world’s most influential, controversial and powerful leaders,” offering “unrivaled access to the protagonists and close family members at the heart of modern history.”

In the case of Yasser Arafat, the filmmakers’ prize interviewee is his widow Suha. Her recollections start with childhood memories of Israeli military curfews imposed on her home city of Nablus, when the army was searching for “Abu Mohammed” — the guerrilla Arafat under one of his noms de guerre.

She states that “he got married with me and had a daughter but he was really married to the cause” and gives some accounts of Arafat’s behind-the-scenes reactions to major events in Palestinian history, ranging from the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon to the various negotiations of the 1990s. Finally, she delivers a tearful description of the 4am phone call to her dead husband’s Paris bedside.

Suha Arafat’s testimony is backed up by more politically informative interviews with Palestinian figures including Palestinian Authority minister Nabil Shaath, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine spokesman-turned-Arafat-advisor Bassam Abu Sharif, and Fatah stalwarts Jibril Rajoub and Husam Zomlot.

Israeli voices include President Shimon Peres (the subject of Spirit Level’s second film in the series), former director-general of the foreign ministry Uri Savir and major peace movement figures Uri Avnery (founder of the organization Gush Shalom) and Arik Ascherman (of Rabbis for Human Rights). Guido Demarco, the late president of Malta and a frequent player in Eastern Mediterranean politics, also gets his two cents’ worth.

Personal portrait or political analysis?

The combination of Suha Arafat with the rest of these interviewees exposes the two main problems with this documentary. Firstly, is this a personal portrait or a political analysis? And secondly, does it seek to give a critical assessment of Arafat’s record, or to deliver a reverential hagiography?

On the first point, the film delivers a number of personal reflections on Arafat — that of Suha, plus early memories from Nabil Shaath of Arafat in his student activist days. Shaath describes Arafat’s “charisma … he was attractive to people” — a characteristic also dwelt on in Shafiq al-Hout’s recent memoirs.

Uri Savir, one of the lead Israeli negotiators in the early days of the Oslo process, notes that his first encounter with Arafat was with a man “as afraid and as cynical as I was.” However, the preponderance of political figures among the interviewees means that any genuine personal insights are far and few between.

So, too, are in-depth political analyses. Much of the narration comes from a middle-of-the-road Western liberal position, nodding its head to Palestinian rights but intoning ponderously that “Attacks [in the 1970s] cast doubt on whether the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] wanted a peaceful resolution.”

Arafat’s continuation of talks with the Israelis after Uri Savir and deputy chief of staff Amnon Shahak refused point-blank his call to remove all settlers from Hebron in the wake of extremist right-wing Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre in the Haram al-Khalil (Ibrahimi Mosque) is portrayed by the narrator as “perseverance” in the face of internal opposition.

Coverage of the second intifada features little information on Israeli invasions and human rights abuses, instead concentrating (predictably) on the phenomenon of suicide bombing.

An unsatisfactory critique

Regardless of the political viewpoint from which the film appears to come, the rather haphazard approach to facts hamstrings its ability to offer a useful historical and political narrative. Fatah spokesman Husam Zomlot, for example, is the main voice on the early history of the movement, giving no context to the founding of the PLO or the existence of other factions in the Palestinian resistance.

Arafat, we are told in the 1970s section of the film, was “now based in Lebanon,” but despite comparatively-protracted footage of the passenger planes at Dawson’s Field, we are never told why the Palestinian resistance movements had to leave Jordan. And a decade later, a viewer new to the subject would be forgiven for thinking that only Arafat, rather than the entire resistance, was driven from Lebanon. The massacres at Sabra and Shatila are mentioned — but the perpetrators go unnamed.

On the one hand, the film doesn’t go into enough depth to satisfy a viewer with a good grasp of Palestinian history and politics, but on the other it assumes far too much background knowledge for a general audience. Who, then, is it intended for? Visually, meanwhile, the film packs in all the cliches of current documentaries on Palestine — Israel’s wall in the West Bank, flying doves, galloping horses and children in refugee camp alleys.

As for the second issue — that of the extent to which The Price of Kings critiques Arafat’s record, and why — the outcome is again unsatisfactory. Suha Arafat, of course, delivers an emotional portrait of a man devoted to his cause but nevertheless loving towards his wife and child. The majority of the Palestinian speakers are members or former members of the Palestinian Authority, mainly from Arafat’s Fatah faction. Opponents of his negotiations with Israel are barely mentioned, or hover on the sidelines as “extremists.”

PA minister Hanan Ashrawi’s criticism of Arafat’s use of corruption and nepotism to control West Bank politics is the only proper attempt to grapple with the issues thrown up by his leadership. In the final minutes of the film, the level of analysis is that of statements such as “the greatest sacrifice is self-sacrifice for a cause” from Jibril Rajoub, Suha Arafat’s “he gave us a place where we can bury our dead” and Guido Demarco’s assertion that “as people united, as a nation, it was Yasser Arafat who made [the Palestinians] believe.”

Husam Zomlot, meanwhile, claims that in “every guest room in the West Bank” there is a photograph of a family member with Yasser Arafat. This leaves it almost entirely to Israeli voices such as Shimon Peres to criticise the best-known leader of the Palestinian people — surely a serious mistake from anyone attempting to make a serious documentary on this subject.

Lack of context, depth

The result of this confusion of aims and objectives is that, while The Price Of Kings: Yasser Arafat delivers an interesting selection of interviews and footage, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The rather shallow research and analysis is revealed in the narration, for instance when Arafat is described early on as being intent on “returning to Jerusalem and the land he grew up in.” Yasser Arafat spent about four years in Jerusalem as a young boy, living with an uncle after his mother died. The bulk of his childhood was spent in Cairo — but that doesn’t sound quite as dramatic.

The failure of this documentary to probe into its subject in any real depth also leads to some controversial remarks being left unchallenged. Suha Arafat, in a move to distance her husband from accusations of “terrorism,” claims that Fatah’s 1960s raids across the Jordanian border only ever attacked Israeli military targets and that any missions against non-military targets were carried out by “other factions.” The historicity of this claim — or the fact that it falls straight into the trap of accepting Israel’s characterization of armed resistance as “terrorism” — is left unquestioned.

No context to the early armed struggle is given; the whole of the 1960s, ranging from the establishment of the Palestinian resistance factions and the PLO, the 1967 war and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, is skipped over in a few brief references to the foundation of Fatah, immediately followed in the narrative by Arafat becoming chairman of the PLO.

The failings of this film are a pity. It is rare to see major interviews with Palestinian figures such as Ashrawi, Shaath and Suha Arafat — the filmmakers obviously have been given good access to major names in Palestinian politics. Uri Avnery’s account of his role in a tank unit during the Nakba is an illuminating challenge to claims that Palestinian refugees were free to return after the establishment of the State of Israel. And some of the footage of Arafat himself, dating back to the 1960s, including an interview in which he states that he was to become an engineer in a State of Palestine with Jerusalem at its center, and wishes to “return to the world as a civilian,” is fascinating.

But in the end, the components have been poorly formed into a documentary whose purpose is unclear. It is a sadly wasted opportunity.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs. She is currently working on a biography of Leila Khaled, due out in summer 2012.

For more information about The Price of Kings film series, visit