The View From Inside

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Recent Palestinian Filmmaking in Israel


A small girl, dressed in blue and white, stands under the Israeli flag in an Israeli Independence Day celebration. This image, a school-day memory, is the starting point for Private Investigation (2003), Ula Tabrai’s documentary which takes her back from her self-imposed exile in Paris to her hometown of Nazareth. In a series of interviews with her parents, teachers and contemporaries she unearths the forging of her own identity as an Israeli-Arab through years of silence, conformity and acceptance of the Israeli-Arab identity.

In many ways, Ula Tabrai typifies the new trends of Palestinian filmmakers in Israel. Unlike their parents’ generation, whose defining experience was the Nakba, these directors are concerned with issues of national identity, gender relations and social structures. They offer a dual scrutiny of both occupying, colonialist Israel and their own community. At their best, they complicate for us the all-too-neat imaginary dichotomy between Western modern Israel and its traditional, developing Palestinian citizens. In many cases these new films are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical journeys, the personal stories of the filmmakers themselves who, as adults, now turn to their own villages, towns and families to understand their stories. For the generation raised in post-1967 Israel, awareness of the Palestinian historical narrative depended heavily on informal channels of education, and the circulation of personal stories within the family. The strictly supervised curriculum of Arab schools in Israel was designed to foster a ‘new’ identity — that of the ‘Israeli-Arab’ — and teach loyalty to the Zionist state. Recent history of the people of Palestine, needless to say, was not taught. These films, then, are a tool for young Palestinians to try to make sense of their national identity and immediate history.

In Ashes (Rima Eissa, 2001, screened at the London Jewish Film Festival showcase at the ICA), the young filmmaker interviews her mother about their family history. The family came from a village called Biram in the Galilee, whose inhabitants were forced out in 1948. Today, Kibbutz Baram and the Baram National Park, a beautiful nature reserve with relics of two ancient synagogues to demonstrate the Jewish historical claim on the place, lie where the village once stood. Eissa, like many other filmmakers of her generation, does not fall into the trap of romanticizing the Arab village or collective narratives of victimhood. Rather she exposes the mechanism by which the state of Israel ‘erased’ the Palestinians from the physical and cultural landscape of Israel and questions the response of her parents’s generation in 1948. Like others, Eissa struggles to understand why her parents did not fight back: why did they fear and collaborate with the Israeli authorities? She confronts her mother about her actions in 1948 and after, about her willingness to define herself as Israeli and about her father’s collaboration with the Israeli police force. What unfolds in the film is an intimate, loving, conflicted mother-daughter discussion, familiar to anyone scarred by the effects of war and dislocation.

Paradise Lost (Ebtisam Ma’rana, 2002) similarly dares to tackle the sensitive issue of collaboration. The filmmaker sets out to break the silence surrounding the history of her village, Furidies, one of the only villages that remained on the coastal plain after the 1948 war. It is often claimed by the villagers that the reason the village was left intact is that the Jews needed a labour force for the affluent neighbouring Moshav, Zichron Yaakov. Other versions talk about long-term collaboration of the villagers with the Israeli authorities. But none of this is outspoken. In Furidies, as Ma’rana’s film shows, politics is ‘nobody’s business’. Those who dared to side with the Palestinian struggle in the past, like one of the film’s protagonist’s Suad George, have been effectively cast out of the village. Ma’rana uses her camera to confront her family, neighbours and friends with the unspoken issues of political participation and collaboration. Ultimately, she questions her own position within her family and her village, vis-à-vis Palestinian national activism and her friends in Tel-Aviv.

Conflict with the older generation is a prominent theme. Abu-Wael’s 2005 debut feature Atash (Thirst) is an exceptional film. With minimal dialogue and immense visual poetry the film tells the story of the Abu-Shukri family, who live in a deserted valley, in a bare concrete construction, totally isolated from society. This banishment has been inflicted upon them by their tyrannical father, fleeing from a scandal involving the oldest daughter. Incensed by his father’s despotic rule, the son eventually rebels and kills him. Yet the father’s death does not mean freedom, as the son assumes the father’s role, perpetuating the same oppressive regime. The film is universal; its style and narrative reference draw on archetypes and myths shared by many cultures. At the same time it is absolutely local and close to the director’s hometown — Umm el-Phahem in the heart of Wadi Ara. This is the first ‘Phahemean’ film, according to Abu-Wael. The film’s location is part of his childhood landscape and the cast are all non-professional actors from Umm el-Phahem.

The production and reception of Atash outline a common problem for many Palestinian films  produced inside Israel. The film, financed primarily by the Israeli Rabinowitz Foundation, was received warmly in Israel and won prizes in festivals around the world. Many critics and academics chose to see it as a political allegory, despite the director’s intentions. But when trying to distribute the film internationally, Abu-Wael encountered problems. ‘Distributors in Europe are not engaging with the film itself but with the politics around it,’ he says. ‘I am expected to make very particular films. If I’m Palestinian, I’m supposed to make films about the conflict. I was asked, “Where are the soldiers? How can one tell it’s Israel?” At times, I felt they were angry with me for making a film that criticizes Arab society.’ Abu-Wael believes it is important to make  Palestinian films inside Israel despite the difficulties. He resists the dictations of both Zionist and Palestinian national discourses, or for that matter of the Islamic movement, which has a strong base in the place.

Ebtisam Ma’rana, who directed four documentaries in the last few years, all within Israel, faces a similar challenge: her films deal primarily with gender relations in the Arab society.  In Israel they are welcomed as they steer away from dealing with the occupation. But by making films that deal with male oppression in Arab society, she is accused of playing into the hands of the modernist Zionist discourse and reinforcing stereotypes about Arab culture. ‘The reality of Palestinian society in Israel is an outcome of the occupation,’ she says, ‘but I cannot continue blaming it all on politics or the operation of the security services (shabak). I have something to say to my own society as well, specifically about the social codes regarding women. We have an open wound that requires treatment and it is about time we start. Exposing things is part of the treatment.’

The fiction film, A Sense of Need (Chady Srur, 2003), and the award-winning short, Be Quiet (Sameh Zoabi, 2005), engage with questions of national identity and feelings of belonging, marking a space of ‘in-betweenness’. Be Quiet takes place on the road between Jenin and Nazareth, as young Ibrahim and his father are returning from the funeral of Ibrahim’s uncle. Along the short journey, instead of keeping quiet and allowing his father to negotiate with Palestinian snipers and Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, Ibrahim insists on asking questions. He demands to know what was really the cause of his uncle’s death in Jenin, not satisfied with his father’s dismissive answer of ‘heart problems’. He asks, ‘Why do we have different coloured car plates than our relatives in Jenin?’ and when his father replies that it is so ‘people can tell the difference’, he insists on understanding who those people are and exactly which difference. The physical journey and the seemingly naive questions of Ibrahim, can be understood metaphorically as a journey of self-assertion. Zoabi’s Palestinian-Israeli child, like many members of his generation, is no longer willing to keep quiet and accept things as they are. A Sense of Need tells the story of Yussuf/Joseph, a Palestinian-Israeli who grapples with his identity while studying in the US. As in Be Quiet, Joseph is positioned physically and metaphorically ‘in-between’ Israel and Palestine. The 1967 border actually goes through his room in Jerusalem. His ‘in–betweenness’ is also manifested in recurring fantasies in which Joseph imagines himself to be Jewish: images of him wearing a yarmulke appear thoughout the narrative, he narrates that he was mistakenly swapped with a Jewish baby at birth and he is even mistaken for a Jew. In the US, introducing himself as coming from Jerusalem, he is embraced by representatives of both Jewish and Palestinian diasporic communities, each assuming immediately that he ‘belongs’ to them.

Joseph’s ‘in-betweenness’, however, assists him when he is confronted with the brutality of the occupation. One poignant scene depicts a military night search in his home in East Jerusalem. Resonating with similar scenes from other films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the scene starts with the Israeli soldiers breaking into the house, intruding on an intimate moment between Joseph and a Palestinian girl. Initially, the soldiers are depicted as senseless, automaton-like figures — a depiction which seems to borrow from Elia Slieman’s films — but later the scene shifts to show a more complex and multi-layered ‘negotiation’ between the parties. As the scene unfolds it is Joseph’s command of the four languages spoken in the room (Arabic, Hebrew, English and Russian) and his exclusive ability to oscillate between all the points of view in the room (an Israeli solider, a Russian-Israeli soldier and his Palestinian girlfriend), that manages to dissolve the potentially explosive situation.

In the past, making Palestinian films in Israel was virtually impossible. Recently, despite the lack of infrastructure, minimal cinematic culture and political restrictions, the production of Palestinian films has increased. In the last four years, not just the number of films produced but the number of students studying film has increased. Anan Barakat has established the Arab Cinema School in Nazareth, which he runs almost single-handedly. In the town of Taybe, the Almanar College offers cinema and television studies for Arab students, particularly girls, and in Jaffa, Scandar Kufti started local cinema workshops that aim to engage with the city’s past and present. These initiatives — all led by pioneering individuals — aim to foster local cultural production, free to express itself and tackle issues relevant to the Palestinian society in Israel.

Funding for these films is a tremendous problem. From 1995 until today, different Israeli film funds have financed around eight Palestinian fiction films and thirty documentaries. Broadcasting is a source of funding, and a small number of documentaries were commissioned by different broadcasters. The Second Authority for Television and Radio is committed to produce a certain amount of public service programmes and between 1999 and 2003 it produced 178 documentaries. Only three of these 178 were made by Palestinian directors, hardly a number that corresponds to the ratio of Palestinian citizens in the Israeli population (almost twenty per cent to date). The part played by the public service television of IBA (Israel Broadcast Authority) in financing Palestinian films is negligible, despite its obligation to produce and broadcast in Arabic.

Only a small number of independent Palestinian production companies are currently in business, but most of them manage to survive financially through production of news items rather than films. The lack of infrastructure for cinema exhibition or education is an additional problem. There are no cinema halls in the Arab towns in Israel. The only cinematheque in operation is the El Sana cinematheque in Nazareth, which is funded by private donations rather than public funding. Sapha Dabur, one of the managers, says ‘Our application for funding is rejected repeatedly because we do not meet the minimum number of screenings of Israeli films. But our audience is not interested in Hebrew-speaking films. The whole point of the cinemateque in Nazareth is that it will meet the demand of the Palestinian public to see films in their own language: Arabic’.

Making a Palestinian film inside Israel, with Israeli funding, is not only financially difficult but ideologically fraught. Those who desire the end of Israeli occupation find it hard to work with the the Occupier. Those who try to work from ‘within’ often come up against prejudice from international distributors. In the contemporary Western film markets, commissioners and distributors are largely interested in the militant conflict that takes place in Gaza and the West Bank. Audiences are accustomed to seeing Israelis and Palestinians in their by-now iconic representation of ‘soldiers’, ‘resistance fighters’ or ‘civilians at checkpoints’. Films that deal with the complex realities of Palestinians in Israel are thought to be too complicated and obscure.

All in all, the voice of Palestinian filmmakers in Israel is one that is hardly heard in the cacophony that the conflict produces, but it is one worth listening to. Viewed together, these films hold up a mirror to Israeli society and tell us about the social and political dynamics that are currently in operation in Israel/Palestine, if not about the discourse of the conflict in general.

Yael Friedman is a film scholar completing a PhD. about Palestinian filmmaking at the University of Westminster.

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