The Nakba and the construction of identity in Palestinian film

The Nakba and the construction of identity in Palestinian film (Hedges, 2011) is a paper that I came across while researching the last film that I watched, Rana’s Wedding (Abu-Assad, 2002). It’s full of interesting quotes and theories, so this post is more a collection of them than a coherent piece in itself.

Hedges begins by identifying memory as performative:

The work of memory is described here as “performative” in the sense that it creates a shared world and ultimately helps to forge a collective identity. (Hedges, 2011)

And she gives some good background on Palestinian history and suggests that:

The idea of Palestinian nationhood is now increasingly associated with cultural manifestations—in film, in literature, in art, in music—that serve to bind together the sense of a community with common goals.(Hedges, 2011)

She references a quote from Edward Saïd:

No Arab community has in so short a period of time—a little less than a generation—reflected so deeply and so seriously as a community on the meaning of its history, the meaning of a pluralistic society given the dismal fate of multiethnic communities in the world, the meaning of national independence and self-determination against a background of exile, imperialist oppression, and colonialist dispossession (Saïd, 1992 p176-177).

She also writes about culture as “performative memory”:

There is a sense in which the languages of art in all of these cultural manifestations can truly be called “performative,” in the linguistic sense of the word. They are “speech acts” in that they do not merely describe the state of things but rather actively engage the process of redefining the world or creating a new awareness. (Hedges, 2011)

She goes into more detail about how discourse is vital in creating national identity, looking at Nation and Narration (Bhabha, 1990). She writes that:

[Bhabha’s] use of the term “performativity” in discourse comes close to the way I am describing the uses of memory, in the sense that the recounting or preservation of memory often takes the form of narrative. (Hedges, 2011)


What I am calling “performative memory” is similar to philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s “instrumental memory,” namely a memory employed in order to establish a claim. (Hedges, 2011)

She also makes a comment which seems to link to the cyclical and repetitive nature of some of the Palestinian films that I’ve watched so far, writing that:

As for time as a countervailing force, how can a culture claim to have remained the same across time? And if not, how can it justify the claim to exist as a unique identity? In point of fact, all that anyone can say is that they have remained true to a certain version of themselves that they promise (to themselves, to others) to fulfill. (Hedges, 2011)


By embodying the experience of exile, loss, oppression, and diaspora,Palestinian cultural manifestations create the shared world that have helped to define what it means to identify oneself as Palestinian today. The outpouring of works in all media can be seen, also, as a vast “memory project.” In the words of cultural sociologist Iwona Irwin-Zarecka, such a project defines “how the past is made to matter: by whom, to whom, when, where, and why (Irwin-Zarecka, 1994 p7-8)”. (Hedges, 2011)

Discussing the aesthetics of Palestinian film Hedges writes that:

Film has been at the forefront of the Palestinian struggle for self-representation and self-definition. In the process, a unique aesthetic has developed, out of the limitations of space (the freedom to move about) and time (the limited future that many young Palestinians see for themselves). This aesthetic has two contrary movements. On the one hand filmmakers have found original ways of portraying the amputation of time and space in their daily life. On the other hand, the films often represent transgressive strategies of liberation, both in their cinematographic qualities and also often through their female characters. (Hedges, 2011)

She also discusses what makes a film “Palestinian” and the different viewpoints of Palestinians living in the diaspora , in Israeli-occupied Gaza or the West Bank , in refugee camps, or as Arab Israelis within the borders of Israel as they are currently defined (Hedges, 2011). She notes that “like the Palestinian identity itself, the idea of “Palestinian film” is constantly evolving (Hedges, 2011)”.

She begins by looking at the work of director Michel Khleifi, writing that “he was among the first to argue for a merging of the genres of documentary and fiction (Hedges, 2011)”.

She quotes Khleifi as stating that he aims for the primacy of narration, to integrate “drama, theatre, action, and reportage all into one work (Khleifi in Dabayashi, 2006 p49)”. And she writes that “[Khleifi] uses the camera as a form of writing (the “camera pen”), he has developed a cinema of personal vision and subjective expression (Hedges, 2011)”. She then goes on to analyse his films Fertile Memories (Khleifi, 1980), Ma’loul Celebrates its Destruction (Khleifi, 1985) and Wedding in Galilee (Khleifi, 1988). Of the latter of this trio, she writes that Khleifi wanted to present multiple points of confrontation: “Israeli/Palestinian, soldier/civilian, power/emotion … old/young, men/women, sexuality/tradition, symbols/needs.” (Khleifi in Dabayashi, 2006 p52) which references the binary nature of Palestine that I’ve researched a little already.

She also writes about another film Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel (Khleifi, 2004), before moving on to analyse “geographies of fragmentation and a time out of joint (Hedges, 2011)”.

The Palestinian experience in the occupied territories today is one of spatial fragmentation (checkpoints, roads that are open only to Israelis, settlements that intrude on Palestinian land, and now the separation fence/wall/border) and temporal disjunction: without the ability to travel freely in their own country or even get routine access to educational and medical facilities, time is interrupted and even the idea of “the future” is in suspension. This places a special burden on memory, which, paradoxically, has to be oriented toward the future in order to be meaningful—performative memory is instrumental and forward-looking. (Hedges, 2011)

She specifically picks out Elia Suleiman’s work as highlighting a “seemingly endless repetition of meaningless gestures and actions carried out by a terminally bored and frustrated population (Hedges, 2011)”. And she again quotes Edward Saïd:

In a very literal way the Palestinian predicament since 1948 is that to be a Palestinian at all has been to live in a utopia, a nonplace, of some sort […] One redeeming feature of the cubistic form of Palestinian life is that it is focused on the goal of getting a place, a territory, on which to be located nationally. (Said, 1992 p120)

She analyses Chronicle of a Disappearance (Suleiman, 1997) asking “what then, is the “disappearance” that is chronicled? (Hedges, 2011)”. She also analyses Divine Intervention (Suleiman, 2002), and The Time That Remains (Suleiman, 2009).

Writing about “spatial constriction (Hedges, 2011)” Hedges analyses Laila’s Birthday (Mashawari, 2008). And she discusses the suggested genre of checkpoint films, specifying Divine Intervention, Rana’s Wedding (Abu-Assad, 2002) and This is Not Living (Arasoughly, 2001) as example of films which might fit this theme. Hedges notes that:

Films made by non-Palestinians also often focus on the checkpoints, which constitute one of the most disruptive and destructive aspects of life for Palestinians under occupation, separating the population from their families, from access to health care and schools, and fragmenting attempts at cultural expression. (Hedges, 2011)

Hedges then goes on to discuss the concept of sumud, that is “the determination to remain on the land despite everything (Hedges, 2011)”, analysing the films The Color of Olives (Rivas, 2006) and This is Not Living.

Hedges notes that Palestinian cultural expression since the Nakba has achieved a remarkable coherence (Hedges, 2011)”. She quotes Edward Saïd’s statement that the characteristic mode of Palestinian fiction is “broken narration, fragmentary composition, and self-consciously staged testimonials, in which the narrative voice keeps stumbling over itself” (Saïd, 1986 p38).

She then goes on to discuss “the house as metaphor (Hedges, 2011)” using the films Return to Haifa (Hawal, 1982) and Wedding in Galilee as case studies. She quotes George Khleifi as stating that Palestinian cinema shows “fragmented and blocked geography in which the home is cut off from the land and both are diminished and divided by borders and barricades (Gertz and Khleifi, 2008 p173).”

And she also highlights the comments of philosopher Gaston Bachelard on the deep psychological associations of house and home:

The house if one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind […] Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being’s first world […] And always, in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle. (Bachelard, 1994 p6-7)

She analyses the Palestinian representation of the house using the films The Roof (Aljafari, 2006) and Port of Memory (Aljafari, 2010).

Finally, Hedges notes the work of Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi:

[Ashrawi] described two apparently contradictory strategies embraced by the emergent Palestinian culture as a result of external challenges. On the one hand, there has been an emphasis on the particularity of the Palestinian experience and a revival of its folk traditions, its symbols, and those qualities that make it unique. On the other hand there is a move toward the universal, toward modernism as an escape from too narrow a definition of Palestinian identity (Ashrawi, 1990 p77-8). (Hedges, 2011)

She suggests that what links both of these artistic strategies is “a culture in the active process of becoming Hedges, 2011)”. She also quotes Stuart Hall, suggesting that (national) identity is “a ‘production,’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation (Hall, 1998 p222)”.


Abu-Assad , H., (2002), Rana’s Wedding, Augustus Film

Aljafari, K., (2006), The Roof, [film]

Aljafari, K., (2010), Port of Memory, [film]

Arasoughly, A., (2001), This is Not Living, [film]

Ashrawi, H. (1990), The Politics of Cultural Revival in Michael C. Hudson, ed. The Palestinians: New Directions, Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies

Bachelard, G., (1994), The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press

Bhabha, H., (1990), Nation and Narration, London: Routledge

Dabayashi, H., (2006), Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, London: Verso

Gertz, N., and Khleifi, G., (2008), Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma, Memory, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Hall, S., (1998), Cultural Identity and Diaspora in J. Rutherford, Ed. Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, London: Lawrence & Wishart

Hawal, K., (1982), Return to Haifa, [film]

Hedges, I., (2011), The Nakba and the construction of identity in Palestinian film, Jump Cut, Summer 2011 (53)

Irwin-Zarecka, I., (1994), Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamics of Collective Memory, New Brunswick: Transaction Press

Khleifi, M., (1980), Fertile Memory, [film]

Khleifi, M., (1985), Ma’loul Celebrates its Destruction, [film]  

Khleifi, M., (1988), Wedding in Galilee, Marisa Films

Khleifi, M., (2004), Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel, Momento!

Masharawi, R., (2008), Laila’s Birthday, Cinema Production Center

Ricoeur, P., (2000), La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, Paris: Editions du Seuil

Rivas, C., (2006), The Color of Olives, Primavera Kin, [film]

Saïd, E., (1986), After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, London: Faber and Faber

Saïd, E., (1992), The Question of Palestine, New York: Vintage

Suleiman, E., (1996), Chronicle of a Disappearance, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC)

Suleiman, E., (2002), Divine Intervention, Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen

Suleiman, E., (2009), The Time That Remains, France 3 Cinéma


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