Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema

By Sheila Whitaker


Despite the success of Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention and Hany Abu Assad’s Paradise Now, to many the notion of a Palestinian cinema comes as a surprise. But these films did not appear from nowhere – as Dabashi points out in his introduction, the beginnings of Palestinian cinema pre-date the dispossession of their historical homeland. Perhaps the real question, he says, should be, “how exactly is it that a stateless nation generates a national cinema – and once it does, what kind of national cinema is it?” Hamid Naficy adds to this: “Palestinian cinema is one of the rare cinemas in the world that is structurally exilic, as it is made either in the condition of internal exile in an occupied Palestine or under the erasure and tensions of displacement and external exile in other countries.” Indeed, Omar al-Qattan, in his thought provoking article, raises a further question: “what, though, is a Palestinian?”

Edward Said’s preface focuses on what he sees as the defining contradictions facing Palestinian filmmaking: firstly the necessity of making visible what the Zionists/Israel have unceasingly strived to make invisible – the Palestinian people, their history and land – and secondly to counter the stereotype of stone throwing youths/suicide bombers, these being accretions to the long standing image in the West of the evil Arab. The issue, as Said writes, is that, to the oppressor, not only a people but its culture (my italics) has to be invisible.

Joseph Massad’s piece on Palestinian cinema in the liberation struggle refers to Amilcar Cabril’s contention that “…as long as part of that people can have a cultural life, foreign domination cannot be sure of its perpetuation.” The Israelis clearly recognise this – their bombing of city and cultural institutions is the reverse side of the coin of trying to ensure that no Palestinian cultural event or artefacts reach international audiences – but, as Massad shows, over many decades Palestinian filmmakers have defied the onslaught.

There are two chapters dedicated to Michel Khleifi, one written by himself, the other by Bashir Abu-Manneh. Khleifi has a rightful place in world cinema history and his importance as a filmmaker and pioneer is unchallengeable. After time spent making documentaries his 1987 feature film Wedding in Galilee is not only a masterpiece of (political) filmmaking but also the first Palestinian film to be screened in Cannes, becoming an international landmark. As he writes, central to his politics is the recognition that “…our weakness does not stem from Israel’s strength but rather derives from Arab society’s archaic structures: tribalism, patriarchy, religion and community life, where there is no recognition of the person as an individual nor of men’s, children’s and, above all, women’s rights.”

This coincides with Ella Shohat’s chapter on gender, nation and diaspora, in which she points out how “…the subject of the Third World nationalist revolution has been covertly posited as masculine and heterosexual.” It is how “…the image of the bride who deflowers herself in Wedding in Galilee allegorises the failure of an impotent patriarchy to lead towards national liberation.” Further chapters include Dabashi writing on Elia Suleiman, Anne-Marie Jacir on curating a Palestinian film festival in New York and Nizar Hassan’s highly ironic take on trying to have his film classified as Palestinian at an Input conference.

As the only national cinema lacking a state and fixed borders, it is perhaps inevitable that Palestinian film-making raises more questions than answers but surely it contributes not only in terms of resistance to the endless images that come out of Palestine with, as al-Qattan points out, “...rarely a corresponding understanding of what lay behind [them]…” but also to a global recognition of Palestine, in all its complexities and specificities, thus making the invisible visible.

Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, edited by Hamid Dabashi; preface by Edward Said (Verso, 2006, £14.99)

Sheila Whitaker was director of Tyneside Cinema and Festival 1979-84; Head of Programming, National Film Theatre 1984-90 and Director, London Film Festival, 1987-96. She co-edited Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema (BFI 1999) and An Argentine Passion: The Films of Maria Luisa Bemberg (Verso 2000). She is currently a programme consultant for the Dubai International Film Festival.