Visions of Palestine’s present and future in “Invictus” and “Avatar”

Palestinians dress as Avatar’s Na’vi people at a protest against Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)

The stage was set; Nelson Mandela stood among millions of his fellow countrymen and women, tall as ever, stronger than ever, welcoming the world to the new South Africa, or as he loved to call it: the rainbow nation.

This was the theme of the 2009 movie Invictus which dramatizes the true story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted and won by South Africa just a year after its first democratic, post-apartheid election. The South African national rugby team — known as the Springboks — which long excluded nonwhite players, had symbolized the racist regime and was subject to international boycott. Mandela made its victory a symbol of national rebirth when he emerged on the field wearing a Springbok jersey, an iconic act of reconciliation. The film honors Mandela and his achievements in the later period of his political life; it is a movie about strong will, persistence and a belief in an idea many saw as unrealistic.

Today, South Africa is not an ideal place, many of the old apartheid structures still plague the country, poverty is rampant and discrimination is still alive. Nevertheless, the 1995 rugby championship marked a moment when a nation was born, with tension perhaps, with old divisions possibly, but for that day all of the carnage of the past seemed trivial and a bright future possible.

Many have seen a resemblance to Palestine in another recent Hollywood movie, Avatar. It depicts the struggle of the “Na’vi” people whose planet is invaded by the “sky people” (humans from Earth) who attempt to confiscate their land. And although many people also link the struggle against apartheid in South Africa with the struggle for freedom in Palestine, the specific lessons that can be drawn from the victims of apartheid deserve further analysis.

Avatar highlighted the unbreakable and unyielding bond of a people with their land, a bond that Palestinians understand today more than ever as settlers set their eyes on denying us even the scent of olive trees, a scent Palestinians grow up with since the youngest age.

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela, offered us the hope of a future not imprisoned by the past. Mandela rallied a broken nation around a rugby team that had been a potent and visible symbol of oppression for apartheid’s victims, and turned it into a national moment of triumph and unity. Mandela was able to see that a peaceful transition to freedom for black people from apartheid was interconnected and linked with the freedom of whites from existential fear and prejudice as they relinquished the power they unjustly enjoyed for decades.

This theme has much to do with our struggle as Palestinians: is a victory in the struggle for Palestine and to achieve all our rights and aspirations also intimately related to freeing Israelis from their own self-made shackles of post-holocaust annihilation fears? These are the questions that can be drawn from Invictus.

What differentiates the world of dreaming from the melancholy of what we experience here and now is our ability to see the dream unfold in front of our eyes. This was the power of the main character in Invictus as his deep resolve gave impetus to a new nation born out of its diversity. Here in Palestine, the dream takes different forms, shapes and colors. Do we fight for one state for all? Or do we fight for two states for two nations? Do we continue our struggle to turn Palestine into an Islamic state as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad advocate?

Avatar depicts another vital theme which Palestinians must take to heart: unity as a precursor to freedom. The unity of the Na’vi tribes was fundamental in their victory over sky people. It was the unity in shedding blood and tears but also the unity in vision and struggle that allowed the Na’vi to overcome the threat of colonization of their land. Unfortunately this is a missing reality here in Palestine as divisions among rival factions deepens and a unifying vision seems further away than ever.

Invictus and Avatar inspire reflection on the past, present and future hopes of our nation. The response to these movies among audiences around the world underscores the amount of sympathy around the world for moral struggles that ensue after the creation of an unjust reality, a sympathy Palestinians have been slow at garnering. But if Martin Luther King Jr.’s proclamation was right, “the arch of the moral universe is long, but it is tilted towards justice,” we Palestinians may have some hope.

Abdaljawad O.A. Hamayel is a graduate of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands where he was Editor-in-Chief of the University College Utrecht’s newspaper The Boomerang and chair of the All Student Interest Council at the same university. He now resides in Ramallah.