After watching Wedding in Galilee (Khleifi, 1988) last week, I decided to watch another film which uses the traditions of a wedding to explore Palestinian issues: Rana’s Wedding (Abu-Assad, 2002).
A significant theme of Rana’s Wedding seems to be memory and how it’s associated with tradition. The film’s opening credits are interspersed with photographs of Rana growing up, from a child to a young adult. We also hear a conversation between a young girl (which we assume is Rana) and her mother as the child learns to play the piano. And as the opening titles fade Abu-Assad uses these same photos over the first images that we see of an adult Rana, but he creates an effect where they appear to be flipped round facing the same way as the audience (we see the “back” of each photograph). The effect is one of history, memory and tradition watching over Rana, whether she wants it or not. Continue reading
In An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Naficy, 2001) Hamid Naficy explains the background against which modern Palestine cinema is set:
Contemporary historical and political factors other than exile have made the issues of land and territory important. In the Middle East, for example, territorial ownership is the key issue in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, which has been kept in the forefront of both sides’ consciousness by various wars and mutual atrocities. These have resulted n the displacement of nearly half of the 5.2 million Palestinians as refugees, exiles, guest workers, and emigres, often to inhospitable lands near and far. Lebanon has been home to some 350,000 refugees who live in some fifteen camps. These camps are often bounded places designed to “contain, manage and re-invent the identities of refugees”. At the same time, they are important sires of refugee resistance. The shared suffering experienced there promoted solidarity among refugees from diverse places. (Naficy, 2001 p.166)
Divine Intervention (Suleiman, 2002) is a strange film, “a deadpan comedy of sorts, almost silent, with touches of Tati and Keaton – and certainly quite unlike anything you’ll see about this region on the news” (Bradshaw, 2003). It such a perfect exemplar of the Palestinian desire to blend realism with surrealism that at times it feels like two completely unrelated films have been spliced together in some projection booth error.
Most of the film is shot in an observational, documentary style, using natural light, static cameras and long lenses which don’t intrude upon the subject. But this realism is intercut with sequences which are so surreal as to be jarring. Static cameras are replaced by smooth, swirling crane shots; the editing is switches from detached long takes to fast, emotive cutting; and non-diegetic music exaggerates this altered reality.
In creating his film in this way Suleiman invites his audience to consider why he chooses to underscore certain sequences with this heightened unreality; what about them makes them surreal for him? Delving into them, we find that these fantastical sequences always represent moments when Palestine is strong or successful, for example when a Palestinian woman struts through an Israeli checkpoint leaving devastated guards in her wake, or when a red balloon painted with Yasser Arafat’s face similarly causes chaos by slipping through the same checkpoint and roaming free over Jerusalem, or in the final sequence in which a Palestinian woman single handedly destroys a squadron of Israeli soldiers in a stylised display of martial arts.
The fantastical nature of these scenes, and the presence of the same actress playing both woman, suggests that these scenes are not necessarily meant to be “real”, but instead are a representation of ES’ dreams; is the woman really his lover, or is she a figment of his imagination, a representation of the Palestine that he loves?
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. Continue reading
Paradise Now (Abu-Assad, 2005) is a very different film to Chronicle of a Disappearance (Suleiman, 1996). It’s follows a much more traditional, and linear, narrative structure. And it’s very clearly not a documentary; both it’s narrative and visual style root it firmly in the fictional.
But there are some similarities. Just as Elia Suleiman refuses to directly engage with the political arguments between Israel and Palestine, instead sticking rigidly to personal vignettes fixed in the present, so too Abu-Assad sticks to a very personal story (albeit one of suicide bombers). His two leads don’t seem particularly religiously devout or politically motivated (despite their willingness to die). But Abu-Assad’s decision to focus on such a personal story is yet another example of shading round these fundamental issues and revealing the cracks that they create. The wider political divisions are explored through the small story that Abu-Assad tells: “The personal is made the political in the most emphatic manner (Jaafar, 2006)”.
Whilst researching Chronicle of a Disappearance (Suleiman, 1996) I came across and article titled Palestinian anti-narratives in the films of Elia Suleiman (Abu-Remaileh, 2008). In it, Refqa Abu-Remaileh discusses how Suleiman focuses on cinematic negative space to represent the situation that Palestine has found itself in since the creation of Israel in 1948. She writes that “[The] idea of overt and psychological occupation inform [Suleiman’s] film style and structure (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. In her analysis of Chronicle of a Disappearance she finds that “Suleiman chooses to represent the cracks in the story – the negative space – rather than the story itself. He uses visual puns to challenge the absurd idea of the “present-absentees” and “a land without a people”(Abu-Remaileh, 2008)” and she suggests that this viewers of Suleiman’s work “need to fill the gap between the image, the content of what is recounted, and shuffle through possible meanings”.
Abu-Remaileh is a scholar of “modern Arabic literature and film (EUME, 2014)” and she writes that “as the youngest of the art forms to treat the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, the medium of film raises a number of questions on art and politics (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. Analysing Suleiman’s work, she finds that they “defy telling the linear, chronological story of Palestine. [They highlight] a unique aspect of film – the possibility of representing the non-verbal story (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. She goes on to identify three devices that Suleiman uses to explore the displaced nature of the Palestinian people: a fusion of documentary and fantasy; a non-linear narrative structure; and a focus on cinematic negative space to highlight that which isn’t actively represented.
Chronicle of a Disappearance (Suleiman, 1996) is one of the most unusual films that I’ve ever watched. Normally I leave even the most abstract films with some sense of what happened, but when this one finished, I had no idea what I’d just watched.
I chose this film, because it relates to my research into national identity in national cinema by “[taking] a witty and ironic, yet heartfelt, look at how Israel’s Arab population has lost its national identity (Young, 1996)”. It also connects to the thread of the merging of documentary and fiction in middle eastern cinema by “blurring the line between documentary and fiction, the theater of repressed violence and the gentle comedy of everyday life (Young, 1996)”. Continue reading