Of the 27 films featured in the 2009 Chicago Palestine Film Festival held last April, two exceptional shorts demonstrate the breadth of recent Palestinian cinema. Approaching the Israeli occupation from contrasting vantage points, Be Quiet(2006) and The View (2008) press viewers to imagine life under a system that dictates virtually every minute of one’s being.
Sameh Zoabi’s 19-minute film, Be Quiet takes the viewer across the Palestinian countryside through the generational gap between a father and son and the subsequent difficulties that arise when an already unstable relationship is met with the challenges of navigating life in Israel. The film revolves around the story of Mahmood, who although attempting to protect his son Ibrahim, is unable to hide the weighty details of his brother-in-law’s death. This reality is then compounded by the complications they encounter when returning home from his funeral.
Shot in the tradition of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who used the intimacy and confined space of an automobile to inform the interactions of his protagonists, the journey in Be Quiet is at once physical and philosophical. It is also highly political, as the film’s characters must remain guarded and mindful of their every move. Tapping into the argumentative nature of a prepubescent boy and his father, Zoabi uses subtle, ironic humor to underscore the illogicality of Israeli policies, specifically those toward Palestinians living in Israel.
In one particularly poignant scene, Ibrahim asks his father why his grandfather has green license plates while theirs are yellow, to which his father explains that it is so people will distinguish between Israelis and Palestinians. Not seeing the rationale behind such preposterous logic, Ibrahim grows impatient as he exclaims, “I don’t understand. We are Palestinians.”
Unaware of the extent of these policies but thoroughly conscious of the inevitable humiliation and harassment of passing through an Israeli checkpoint, Ibrahim’s innocence and defiance is heightened when his father is searched by Israeli soldiers. He continues to test his father with endless questions while resisting the simplest commands despite Mahmood’s attempts to pacify him in the face of an unpredictable and taxing existence under occupation. As a means of survival, Mahmood must pass through Israeli society virtually unnoticed. Mistaking his father’s deliberate and calm demeanor for meekness, Ibrahim begins to resent his actions. Here Zoabi points to the innocence of a child and his genuine refusal to give in to the absurdity of his surroundings. In Ibrahim we find honesty and rebellion. Mahmood symbolizes experience and patience. Ultimately, a seemingly simple trip is overshadowed by the lingering truth behind their familial loss and the heightened state of political affairs that engulfs their lives.
While Be Quiet unfolds amidst the incessant harassment and second-class treatment of Palestinians in Israel, Hazim Bitar and Rifqi Assaf’s The View examines the social implications of the occupation through the eyes of an Israeli sniper. Shot entirely as though witnessed through the lens of rifle scope, the 16-minute short is both clever and impacting. The film’s narrative is twofold, as we hear the exchanges of Israeli soldiers and observe the interactions of a Palestinian couple through the window of their apartment. While the sniper waits for his target, presumably a Palestinian fighter, he is drawn into the private life of a young woman who sits anxiously in front of the window. As the sniper watches he becomes mesmerized with her, lusting over the woman as he awaits to inform his superior of the position of his target, who eventually arrives.
The conversation between the sniper and his commander via walkie-talkie turns from the topic of assassination to love and the question of being romantically involved with a Palestinian. Just as the Israeli soldier has no qualms about spying on the couple, he fantasizes about a possible rendezvous with the female protagonist. With a nonchalant attitude toward killing and an arrogance that speaks of his position of power, the soldier is fixated on the woman as though her existence is easily upheld by his desire and gaze. Through his rifle scope, he longs to be the object of her affection, pining over the position of the male suspect. Although bored with the task of watching the resistance fighter, as he seems to pose no threat, the sniper is quickly jolted back into reality by a sudden turn in the narrative and his romantic fantasies are shattered.
Positioned as a look into the workings of occupation and the mindset of the occupier, The View provides an interesting take on how the execution of power can expose the manifestation of psychological needs. Setting the vantage point of the film through the lens of a rifle scope alludes to another element of the occupation — the constant state of surveillance and violence under which Palestinians are forced to live.
The sniper’s romantic interest thus becomes an extension of Israeli attempts to co-opt all things Palestinian, which stems from the purported need to not only conquer land but the very essence of a people and culture. Today we find this evident in everything from the marketing of “Israeli” falafel to the adopting of Palestinian slang in the Israeli lexicon.
More than a dozen shorts were included in this year’s Chicago Palestine Film Festival, demonstrating a range of subjects. From a look at the establishment of the first micro-brewery in Palestine to a fictional account of a farmer and his family after the Palestinian revolt against the British Mandate ended in 1939, the festival’s selection highlights the exciting range of films that are emerging from an unconventional yet vibrant cultural scene. Although strained by the circumstances of the occupation — violent sieges, international embargoes, scarce resources and increasingly tighter restraints on mobility — Palestinian cinema has managed to blossom into an internationally-recognized movement. Notwithstanding the important full-length features of Hany Abu Assad, Elia Suleiman and Rashid Masharawi, today’s generation of filmmakers are using the short format to produce works that are building upon a wealth of post-Nakba (the 1948 dispossession of Palestine) visual culture. These films challenge and further the boundaries of aesthetics, creating a new language of storytelling that seeks to address the latest obstacles of the occupation and the changing face of Palestine.
Maymanah Farhat specializes in modern and contemporary Arab art. Her collected writings can be viewed online at http://maymanahfarhat.wordpress.com.