In 1905, when a nation called Israel was merely an obscure dream among a handful of fervent Zionists, Jewish writer Israel Zangwill referred to Palestine, that small slice of land yawning along the Mediterranean from Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights in the north to the Negev Desert in the south, as a “land without people for a people without land.”
In the midst of the war of 1948, which Palestinians call the Naqba (Catastrophe) and Israelis call the War of Independence, future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion plotted the blossoming nation’s course: “We must do everything to ensure they [the Palestinians] never return.” He predicted, “The old will die and the young will forget.”
By the time Golda Meir had assumed Ben-Gurion’s position, virulent honesty had given way to dissimulation (or self-deception): “How can we return the occupied territories?” asked the silver-haired “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics. “There is nobody to return them to.”
Since 1948, Palestinians have not only occupied the painful position of many oppressed peoples who are systematically displaced, disenfranchised, denationalized, brutalized and murdered; they have also been put in the awkward, even tragicomic, position of having to convince the rest of the world of their very existence. This problem of visibility lies at the heart of Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, an illuminating, if incomplete, anthology of essays on the efforts of Palestinians to represent themselves on film to the world and to each other.
Palestinian cinema takes as its point of origin the traumatic events of 1948. In his introduction, Hamid Dabashi identifies the central problem for Palestinian filmmakers, “the problem of representing the unrepresentable,” an insurmountable charge akin to portraying the Holocaust on celluloid. As of yet, Palestinian film has no foundational narrative — no Shoah, no Exodus and, thankfully, no Schindler’s List. What it does have is a relentless and increasingly diverse body of films intent on remembering a culture and a history that have been meticulously dismembered by 60 years of occupation, a creative resistance born from continuous destruction.
The filmmakers, critics, curators and academics who contributed to Dreams of a Nation track the history of Palestinian film from the PLO-sponsored agitprop documentaries of the ’70s, through the films of Michel Khleifi, whose “internal front” in the fight for emancipation challenges the strictures of traditional Palestinian society (which he sees as bolstering the occupation), up to the breakthrough films of Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention) and Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), which have recently garnered attention on the international festival circuit.
But how do you create a national cinema for a stateless people? Dabashi invokes the specter of invisibility by recounting Elia Suleiman’s experience with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2002, when Divine Intervention was up for an Oscar. The Academy rejected his film on two grounds: first, he was considered a stateless person; second, eligibility demanded the film first be released in the filmmaker’s own country. Technically, Suleiman is an Israeli citizen, though as a Christian Palestinian he does not enjoy equal citizenship rights. Though the UN resolution recognizing Israel also recognized a state called Palestine, the occupation has prevented a government from functioning effectively. Furthermore, most Palestinian directors must look to Europe for funding, as their own country is too impoverished to support more than a handful of theaters, much less a film industry.
A decade ago, these circumstances encouraged Dabashi to gather Palestinian films for a class on global cinema he was teaching at Columbia University. He talked to Edward Said, who helped him with the arduous task of tracking down filmmakers and archivists in Palestine and the diaspora who could transport films to New York. The most extensive collection of Palestinian films was located in Beirut, but disappeared during the Israeli invasion of 1982. Since then, the widely documented confiscation of Palestinian films and targeting of archives and cultural centers in the West Bank has dispersed the remaining prints. In her essay, “For Cultural Purposes Only: Curating a Palestinian Film Festival,” Palestinian filmmaker and curator Annemarie Jacir recalls her childhood in Bethlehem during the first intifada, when “it was illegal to show red, white, black, and green together because they represented the Palestinian flag.” She goes on to recount how, on her way to Europe years later, one of her own films was temporarily confiscated as a possible “security threat,” suggesting that “colors, symbols, and images are still subject to criminalization,” and that Palestinian cultural production is still viewed as a threat by the Israeli occupiers.
“When it became clear that this was a real cultural problem,” Dabashi told me, he decided his collection should spawn an archive, and he “talked to Annemarie Jacir about doing a festival.” The result was Dreams of a Nation, four days of screenings and lectures at Columbia that took place in 2003, despite a campaign by Americans for a Safe Israel and other groups to pressure the university to cancel the event. The Dreams of a Nation book takes up where the festival left off, and succeeds in articulating the challenges of and possibilities for Palestinian cinema, though it stops short of a comprehensive discussion of its current direction. Beyond the already iconic Suleiman and emerging Abu-Assad, there is little mention of recent, younger Palestinian filmmakers, though Kamran Rastegar’s excellent filmography and bibliography act as correctives.
Perhaps the curse of such a book is that it is destined to provide context for interpreting and studying films without hoping to parallel their effect. The most compelling moments in Dreams of a Nation do little more than describe scenes from films — this is a testament to the power of the films rather than any shortcoming of the authors.
In order to illustrate the absurd paradox of Palestinians being declared absentee landowners as a result of their displacement by the Israeli army in 1948 and 1967 — and the resulting, haunting absence that occupies the center of Palestinian cinema — Bashir Abu-Manneh describes a scene from Michel Khleifi’s documentary Ma’loul Celebrates Its Destruction. Khleifi has brought an old man to his former homestead in the village of Ma’loul, which was destroyed by Israel in 1948, its people banished and its land given to settlers. The old man, who lives nearly close enough to see what has become of his olive groves, can come back to visit his land but can never return permanently. He has, quite literally, become invisible, a “present absentee” landowner, recognized as a person but denied the benefits of a citizen. As the man roams the untended groves, Israel celebrates its “Independence Day” — here at once is the paramount irony of life under occupation and the most glaringly banal sin of the occupiers.
Elsewhere, Dabashi invokes Suleiman’s Divine Intervention as exemplary of Palestinian cinema’s potential. In the first scene, Suleiman’s mute avatar, ES, is driving a car impassively. After a few moments, he reaches for a piece of fruit, eats it mechanically, then pauses to consider how he might dispose of the pit. After a moment of contemplation, ES reaches to roll down the window and tosses the pit toward the side of the road, where an Israeli tank is parked. Upon impact, the pit explodes the tank into countless shards of steel. ES continues down the road without blinking. In a single gesture, Suleiman has employed pure will to explode the entire machinery of the occupation and, in doing so, has also transformed cinema into an act of emancipation — it is an emancipation made all the more sweet by its impermanence.
Alexander Provan is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. This article was originally published by Stop Smiling and is republished with the author’s permission.