My last Palestinian film was a more conventionally structured narrative fiction. So this time I decided to try a something different. Jenin Jenin (Bakri, 2002) is a documentary about the battle for Jenin (Kafala, 2002). The whole film is available online:
Jenin Jenin is an interesting film to watch, partly because its director, Mohammed Bakri, is a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship and the film has been banned in Israel for its “distorted presentation of events in the guise of democratic truth which could mislead the public (MacAskill, 2002)”.
Even more interesting is that Bakri himself admits that the film is not completely truthful. A case was filed against the director by five Israeli soldiers (whose images appear in the film) for defamation of character. Despite the case being dismissed, Bakri admitted at a hearing that he manipulated the footage to imply greater violence in Israeli actions:
When asked about a scene in which it is implied Israeli troops ran over civilians, Bakri admitted to constructing the footage himself as an “artistic choice.” He also answered “no” when asked if he believed “that during the operation in Jenin, the Israeli soldiers killed people indiscriminately”. (Klein, 2005)
How far a film which presents itself as a documentary should stick rigidly to the truth is an interesting question, and a potent one in such a volatile environment as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it’s not the question that I’m looking to answer here. Instead I’m interested in how Bakri constructs his film, the very artistic choices that he cited in that lawsuit.
The mix of realism and fantasy in Bakri’s film is clear as he cuts between traditional interviews with residents of Jenin and artistically shot montage of the subjects that they discuss. The interviews themselves are conventionally shot, perhaps examples of the type of documentary interview that Elia Suleiman subverted with his anti-interviews in Chronicle of a Disappearance (Suleiman, 1996). Yet one similarity between the two films is that Bakri never names his subjects, or gives any indication of how they fit into his story; our only clues to their identity and experiences come from their words.
Bakri intercuts these interviews with montage designed to create a subjective experience for the viewer. Very often this footage relates directly to what each interviewee speaks of; running from bombs, houses being bulldozed; children crying. Some of this footage seems to be archive footage, filmed during the battle itself, but it’s never clear if this is truly the case. Bakri uses editing to create the effect of archival film by adding vignettes, noise and the sounds of whirring film projectors to his film. And he uses extensive zooming, twisting of the camera and jump cutting to create a sense of panic and chaos in his montage sequences.
It’s difficult to tell how obvious Bakri was intending to be with this editing. To me, because it stands out, it seems clear that this isn’t actual footage of the battle, rather an artistic representation of it. But to viewers less aware of the manipulation inherent in this editing, it might seem much more real and they might believe it to be so. Intriguingly, the use of this editing alongside actual archival footage does suggest a repetition, the cyclical nature of the conflict, because what is past and what is present is unclear; both seem to exist simultaneously. However, there are other sequences where the editing is much more obvious; slow motion and dramatic music openly pulls at the heartstrings. Bakri’s use of children is another emotional tool. In one scene he asks a child in a graveyard where his father is; the child points at a grave and answers: “In heaven (Bakri, 2002)”.
Another child who appears repeatedly in Jenin Jenin is a young girl, who speaks eloquently and vehemently against the Israelis. Her words are so considered and powerful that we wonder, are they really hers? Or has she been given a script as a mouthpiece of the filmmakers? It’s another example of an uncertain veracity in the film. And Bakri’s intent is never clear.
Bakri uses the rabble rousing speech made by this girl as a means to connect several other scenes, by linking her words with similar ones from other Palestinians. Another character used to link scenes in a similar way is a deaf man who doesn’t speak, but mimes the actions of Israeli forces attacking Jenin to show how the Palestinians were suppressed. This man could be seen as a representation of Palestinian impotency in the face of Israeli force. Later in the film, another of Bakri’s subjects links to this idea, saying that “the world continues to turn a deaf ear (Bakri, 2002)” to Palestinian oppression at the hands of the Israelis. This mutation of the phrase “to turn a blind eye” highlights the oral tradition of Palestine and the desire of Palestinians to tell their story. The deaf man is an avatar for all unheard Palestinians.
A sense of marginalisation and displacement in both place and time permeates Jenin Jenin. Several of the older subjects interviewed by Bakri lament their age as a barrier to fighting the oppression that they feel. One man forlornly suggests that “there’s nothing you can do when you’re 72 (Bakri, 2002)”.
And the camp itself is a place of margins, a place of transience that has become permanent. One of the subjects, when describing his home before it was bombed focuses on the trees that grew there:
I was born in this room. How can I build this house again? This is not only a material loss, but a moral and family loss. Where else can I find such stones? Here was the bed where my father died when I was five. He brought each stone from a different country. These are the roots of a lemon tree. There was a 52-year old fig tree here once, and another one there. There were two olive trees here and one over her. All the neighbours noticed that the palm tree had disappeared. (Bakri, 2002)
As this man describes these trees Bakri jump cuts to him pulling the dead roots out of the ground, as if to demonstrate that they really once grew there.
The eloquent girl talks of a tree too, this time as a representation of the residents of Jenin:
The camp is like a tall, eminent tree. The tree has leaves, and each leaf of this tree bears the name of a martyr. I would like to say to the Jews that even if they break a few branches, others shall grow in their place, they were not able to reach the top of the tree. (Bakri, 2002)
The sense of putting down roots to make a home, but having the trees destroyed, is an affecting metaphor for the residents of Jenin. And the loss of roots is also noted in when Bakri follows a man walking home, pushing a buggy with his two children in. The man talks of serving a long prison sentence and on his release wanting to change his life, to build a home and start a family. Bakri leaves him there, but returns to him later as the man enters one of the many empty tents that have replaced the destroyed homes of Jenin. The man calls to his children “we’re home (Bakri, 2002)” and we see that despite all of his efforts to provide a home for his children, they have only this bare tent.
By the end of the film we find that just as the Palestinians are seen as “the other” by Israel, so too are Israelis seen as “not human (Bakhri, 2002)” by the Palestinians. Yet the film doesn’t end on a serious note. Despite the horror presented (and possibly embellished) by Bakri, he chooses to close with the absurd. The final scene is follows a man as he jokes about telephoning President Bush and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, asking comically about the cancelled UN investigation into possible Israeli war crimes at Jenin. This unexpected ending powerfully represents the suffering at Jenin by its juxtaposition with all of the scenes that preceded it. A final moment of artistic manipulation which embodies Suleiman’s principle of negative space and of shading round the cracks, highlighting the tragedy by (in that final moment) avoiding it.
Bakri, M., (2002), Jenin, Jenin, [film]
Kafala, T., (2002), The battle for Jenin [online], BBC, Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/1926194.stm [Accesssed on 23 August 2016]
Klein, A., (2005) Palestinian producer: False film funded by PA [online], WND, Available from: http://www.wnd.com/2005/01/28486/ [Accessed on 23 August 2016]
MacAskill, E., (2002), Israeli censors ban film about battle of Jenin [online], The Guardian, Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/dec/12/israel.middleeastthemedia [Accessed on 23 August 2016]
Suleiman, E., (1996), Chronicle of a Disappearance, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC)