Another Country

By Khaled Ziada

divine-intervention-elia-suleiman-1.jpgDivine Intervention, 2002

Thoughts on the emergent Palestinian cinema

Culture, as any review of the mechanics of imperialism throughout history will confirm, is of grave concern to colonial powers. To be successful, colonialism not only needs control of the land and resources of the people whom it wishes to dispossess or subjugate. It must also erode and delegitimize manifestations of the colonial subject’s identity, at its most effective reinventing the subject’s identity altogether. It is for this reason that, as I grew up in the occupied Gaza Strip, Palestinian cultural events, music and art were all subjected to strictly imposed controls.

Of course, Israel has failed to eradicate Palestinian national and cultural identity – this holds both in its own territories (the area recognised as Israel since 1948) and in those it has occupied by force since 1967 (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), as well as within the larger Palestinian refugee diaspora. However, preserving this identity over the generations that have grown up under military rule has represented a constant act of defiance. Only the courage and dignity of our parents and grandparents, who refused to bow to the threats of imprisonment or worse, ensured that the songs, stories and customs of our heritage were saved and passed on to the current generation.

But while the perseverance of past generations in fostering our identity consumed so much energy and was so restricted by the occupation, little space could be afforded the development of such contemporary arts as a modern Palestinian cinema. Films made by Palestinians abroad were routinely banned along with music and literature; documentary-making and photography was mostly illegal and efforts to bring film and television skills to schools and institutes were obstructed. Only when I left Gaza in the mid-1990s and reached the UK did I, to my surprise and joy, discover there was, in fact, an emergent Palestinian cinema; a unique cinema that would go on to enthral me as I learnt more and as more films appeared.

In subsequent years, as the Oslo-period reshuffle in administrative and policing operations in the Palestinian territories saw intermittent relaxations in censorship and access regulations, this cinema became more prolific, commercially successful and visible. This process reached a high in terms of international recognition, when, in 2002, Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and proceeded to do well at box offices and festivals around Europe.

As a Palestinian refugee and activist, I have, since ‘discovering’ the Palestinian cinema, organised annual film festivals in London and tried to familiarise my audiences and myself with the history of the genre. The first Palestinian-set and directed feature was not made until 1987 – Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee (winner of the 1987 International Critics’ Prize at Cannes). In 1994, Khleifi went on to direct the Gaza Strip-based Tale of the Three Jewels. Both films blend observations on Palestinian customs, family life and tradition with moving and realistic portrayals of the way in which day-to-day life is held hostage to Israel’s military-colonial projects. Wedding in Galilee, set in a Palestinian village, follows the ceremonial preparations against the background of occupation; curfews, the pressures of permits and the relationships between family, village and military sources of authority run alongside emotional tensions as the wedding nears. It is a critical work that has as much to say about power and politics generally as it about oppression and occupation.

With Tale of the Three Jewels, Khleifi turned to the youth of the Gaza Strip for a work filmed against the backdrop of the first Intifada. While making the film – the first Palestinian-UK feature co-production – Khleifi and executive producer Omar Al-Qattan operated a training program alongside the professional crew to strengthen and encourage a local pool of Gaza filmmakers. The story follows twelve-year old Yussef and Aida, the gypsy girl he falls in love and shares a series of imaginative journeys with; surrealistic flights of fantasy are set against the violence and fear of Israeli persecution. The film is a heartbreaking yet inspiring tale of the dreams and ambitions of youth that carry Yussef and Aida through the unyielding realities of the occupation.

divine-intervention-elia-suleiman-.jpgDivine Intervention, 2002

These two groundbreaking works were by no means the first forays into cinema from Palestinians; nor were they the first films to ‘portray’ Palestinian life and culture. From the earliest days of the Palestinian dispossession and expulsion (1948), Israeli cinema has sought to present a particular view of the Palestinian people through cinema. Israel has, for obvious reasons, long demonised the Palestinian ‘other.’ Its own need to instil amongst its citizens a false sense of justification for its excesses and atrocities since the start of the conflict has impelled the production of innumerable spurious works presented as historic accounts. In these the Palestinian is a nameless, faceless ‘Arab’, devoid of culture or morals and characterised solely through the negative stereotyping of dishonesty, uncleanliness, incest and barbarity. For those of us growing up under occupation this racist material formed the sole cinematic representation of our culture and identity permitted.

The Palestinian liberation movement recognised early on the value of film in documenting the struggles and histories of the people it represented. From the early 1970s, political movements managed to establish – in exile – film units dedicated to promoting their particular ideologies, documenting their activities and collating oral histories / archive materials amongst the refugee camps. Sadly, much of this important historical work appeared to have been destroyed or stolen during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

divine-intervention-elia-suleiman-3.jpgDivine Intervention, 2002

Documentaries however, do form a major part of the Palestinian filmography. Of particular note are the films of Mai Masri. Her work documenting the lives of Palestinian children includes Children of Fire (1990), shot when she returned from exile to her West Bank hometown, Nablus. The film examines the growth of the ‘Intifada Generation’ – children whose experiences are conditioned by siege, curfew and fear. In 1998, Masri turned her attention to the Palestinians of Beirut’s Shatilla refugee camp to make Children of Shatilla. More recently, with Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (2001), Masri observed the pen-pal friendship of two Palestinian refugee girls – one living in a West Bank camp and the other in a Lebanese one. The award-winning film shows the emotional meeting between the two at the Lebanon-Israel border fence before the outbreak of the second Intifada which dramatically alters the conditions under which both live, impinging upon this ‘friendship against the odds’.

Elsewhere, Omar Al-Qattan’s Dreams and Silence (1991) broke new and ostensibly fragile ground in examining the tensions between ascendant pressures of fundamentalist Islamic observance and the normal day-to-day needs of Palestinian refugees in Jordan. The film, set against the Gulf War and ongoing Palestinian intifada, challenged western as well as Arab presumptions and was awarded the prestigious Joris Ivens Award at the Amsterdam Documentary Festival. His Going Home (1995) was no less important in its timely engagement with the Palestinian tragedy of 1948 and the origins of the refugee crisis, coming as Israeli and PLO negotiators pointedly circumnavigated the essential issue of the right to return of the exiled majority of the Palestinian people.

Over the same period (1990-2000), a number of feature directors came to prominence; some from within Palestine and others from the refugee diaspora. Short-film festivals as well as international Palestinian and human rights film festivals saw new names and approaches displayed. By the end of the decade, accomplished works by Palestinian feature directors began to filter into the European foreign-language cinema circuit. Films such as Haifa (Rashid Mashrawi, 1995), Chronicle of a Disappearance (Elia Suleiman, 1996) and Milky Way (Ali Nassar, 1997) each received acclaim. The outbreak of the second Intifada (in September 2000) drew increased international attention to the Palestinian plight; the horrific nature of Israel’s assault provided a new and frightful backdrop for an engagement with our culture.

However, despite the heightened attention and interest afforded Palestinian filmmakers today, the real story of Palestinian cinema remains one of individual struggle against Israeli obstruction and efforts to impose a politically and racially motivated narrative upon Palestinian cultural representation. Numerous works, while well received here and throughout Europe, are virtually unknown in Palestine, where the social and physical prerequisites for a cinema-going culture can scarcely be attained given the weight of Israeli oppression and the immediate prerogatives of simple survival. A lack of trained Palestinian technicians, cameramen, sound-recordists, innumerable distribution and legal (including censorship) ambiguities across the Arab world, as well as the absence of distribution channels and cinemas in Palestine, all conspire to frustrate the growth of an indigenous industry.

divine-intervention-elia-suleiman-4.jpgDivine Intervention, 2002

Meanwhile, what has been called a ‘re-militarisation’ of Israeli society has seen military and political censors collude vigorously in a drive to smother Palestinian voices and impose instead Israeli versions of events. Cinema has, of course, been targeted in this latest aggression.

Muhammed Bakri’s documentary Jenin Jenin (2002), in which he recorded testimonies from survivors of Israel’s April 2002 atrocities in Jenin refugee camp, was banned by the Israeli censor. By April 2003, Israel’s own version of events was instead screened on national television: The Road To Jenin is stunning testimony to Israel’s ability to transform a brutal history into nationalist fantasy and in so doing protect the Zionist state from self-awareness. Outside Israel, such cack-handed propaganda might seem absurd – imagine Kosovo re-presented as a source of Serbian national pride – but in this conflict, control of the narrative is no less blunt than that of the land.

Zionism resents Palestinian cinema’s ability to enunciate cultural identity and political aspirations, just as it celebrates its own cinema’s ability to rewrite histories, delegitimize enemies and transform myths into givens. In such an oppressive atmosphere, the future of Palestinian cinema might depend more than ever on the projects of diaspora directors and the hard core of activist documentary makers willing to operate at risk in Palestine itself. Already, Israel is targeting these figures and obstructing their work. Al-Qattan, now London-based, has been prevented from entering Israel already this year to work on a project. Meanwhile, journalists are being killed by the Israeli military in the occupied territories, making documentary filming hugely dangerous. It is partly because of this ongoing struggle to narrate the common experience, that Palestinian cinema remains a unique genre and, above all, an expression of cultural defiance and national resilience. As such, it belongs – with much of contemporary Palestinian culture – within the wider context of a people’s struggle for liberty and dignity.

An illuminating interview with Sulieman by Jason Wood, as well as an extract from his shooting diary, appears in the current issue (6) of the film magazine Enthusiasm (available from cinemas and specialist outlets in London and across the country, or from Artificial Eye. Tel: 020 7240 5353 or visit

Khaled Ziada is a writer, researcher and activist living in London.