Mutea Ibraheim and Omar Mukhtar, from the militant cinema collective: the Palestine Film Unit, 1976, Beirut. Courtesy of WAFA agency.
A review of four fictional Palestinian films that people can watch as an act of solidarity and resistance with the Palestinian people.
Films are a reflection of identity. By purchasing and watching Palestinian films we are not only affirming the Palestinian identity, but also their right to narrative and self-representation despite the attempt of Zionist colonization to deprive them of these. Hence, watching and promoting Palestinian films becomes an act of resistance. This act is more powerful given the historic struggle of Palestinian cinema itself-- from the destruction of all Palestinian films produced between 1935 and 1948 when the Haganah bombed the Arab Film Company production studio in Jaffa in 1948, to the formation of the Palestine Film Unit (a militant cinema collective based in Lebanon functioning in the spirit of Third Cinema), to the death of Hani Jawharieh "the first militant cinema martyr," to the "mysterious" disappearance of the Palestine Film Unit's archive during the Israeli invasion of Beirut.
The following films are all made post-1982 as most films made before then either disappeared or were destroyed. Selected from a rich Palestinian filmography characterized by realist works, each film captures one aspect or theme (highlighted in the subtitles) of the Palestinian struggle. They were also chosen for their accessibility, being fictional works and for being made by Palestinian filmmakers. Films made by non-Palestinians in or about Palestine are not included.
Colonization in Culture and Tradition: Wedding in Galilee (1987)
Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee (1987) is a story about Mukhtar (Mohamad El-Akili), a Palestinian patriarch who wants to organize an extravagant wedding for his son. The problem is that the village is home to resistance fighters and the Israeli military governor (Makram Khoury) has imposed a curfew. The film opens with Mukhtar asking the governor to lift the curfew for one day and one night so the wedding can take place. The governor agrees but only on the condition that he be the guest of honor.
In the film, Palestinian director Michel Khleifi shows how Zionist violence and the occupation of Palestine permeate Palestinian daily life, culture and tradition. The wedding, one of the most quintessential celebrations in Arab culture becomes the background for a contention that arises between the father’s effort to impose tradition, Israel’s occupation, and the attempt of the younger generation to overthrow both the oppressive aspects of Arab tradition and the occupation. Khleifi portrays this through a series of occurrences that take place in back rooms and in the olive groves outside of the celebration, only briefly cutting back to the festivities. The tension between the celebration and resistance is palpable as the father attempts to stop several youth from making molotov cocktails and plotting to murder the military governor at the wedding. Meanwhile, the groom is unable to consummate the wedding. Everyone expects him to emerge from the bridal room with a bloodied sheet proving the bride’s virginity, but the groom is unable to perform as his dignity has been taken away by the fact that the Israeli military governor is the guest of honor at his wedding.
A winner of the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987, this film is a must watch of Palestinian cinema. You can purchase it here or stream it on Amazon Instant Video here.
Palestinians of 48 and the Erosion of Identity: Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996)
Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) is described by writer, director and producer Elia Suleiman as a “search for what it means to be Palestinian” and as “part documentary, part psychodrama, part absurd comedy” by Village Voice’s James Hoberman. An experimental film that foregoes narrative structure, it is almost entirely composed of still-camera vignettes. Each one offers a glimpse into the life of Palestinians living under Israeli rule: a man in a souvenir shop filling up bottles with tap water to sell to Japanese tourists as holy water, a father trying to beat his son but is too old to actually hurt him, an Israeli police van screeching to a stop as armed policemen file out to urinate on a wall, an old Palestinian couple snoring as their television set plays the Israeli national anthem to images of waving Israeli flags. The immobility of the camera makes every shot a tableau of its own. It also gives the film an objective feel, we only feel the presence of the camera during the handful of shots where the camera moves. The still camera also highlights the stagnation felt by Palestinians living within the 1948 borders.
The film is divided into two parts: Nazareth Personal Diary (Part One) and Jerusalem Political Diary (Part Two). As the subtitles suggest, part one only hints at Israeli colonization (a brief mention of Israel on the radio or a Jewish settler talking in Russian over the phone at a café). The second part on the other hand is far more explicit in its political criticisms of the Zionist state: omnipresence of armed Israeli police who are too eager to respond to anything; racism against a Palestinian actress trying to rent an apartment in West Jerusalem; or a woman who finds a police radio and uses it to tell the entire Israeli police force in Jerusalem to leave the city and that it will never be "unified." The second part is also characterized by a slightly looser, more mobile camera and the appearance of Elia Suleiman as himself-- an observer that inevitably gets affected by the situations his film is about.
The first Palestinian film to be released in American theaters and a winner at the 1997 Venice Film Festival and 1996 Seattle International Film Festival, Chronicle of a Disappearance is a masterpiece by one of the most prolific Palestinian directors. You can purchase it here.
Violence, A Human Reaction to Oppression: Paradise Now (2006)
Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2006) is a film about two men from Nablus, Khaled (Ali Suliman) and Said (Kais Nashif) who plan to perform a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. The film begins with a brief look into their life as mechanics living under Israeli occupation. Later that day, they are called upon by Jamal (Amer Hlehel) a member of a violent resistance organization, to finally become martyrs as they had wished for a long time. They spend a last night with their family before they begin to prepare in a scene infused with religious references. They record a final video message to be seen by their compatriots, bathe to a voice-over of prayers and eat a dinner reminiscent of the last supper. When they finally reach the fence where they plan to cross into Israel, an Israeli military vehicle shows up and the two best friends flee and end up losing each other. Said finds himself alone in the olive grove by the fence and must find his way back while strapped to a belt of explosives...
In his film, Hany Abu-Assad humanizes those who use violence to resist Israeli occupation. He puts violent resistance in context of colonization and oppression, undermining the racist notion touted by Israeli propagandists that Palestinians are inherently prone to violence and must therefore be controlled. For Said and Khaled, “under the occupation [they're] already dead.” The occupation has taken everything from them but their bodies. But without dignity, their bodies (as the above statement by Said highlights) are devoid of life and must be used to restore dignity (and therefore, life) in their compatriots.
Paradise Now also illustrates the multiplicity of opinion in Palestinian society, in contrast to the monolithic portrayal by Western press and films. Even between Said and his lover Suha there is a difference in opinion, “there are always other ways to keep the cause alive” exclaims Suha, to which Said responds “that’s not for us to decide, the occupation defines the resistance.”
With 14 awards and 13 nominations including the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, Berlin International Film Festival and the European Film Awards-- Paradise Now is one of the most critically acclaimed films in Palestinian cinema. You can purchase it here, rent it from Netflix or stream it through Amazon Instant Video.
The Right of Return: Salt of this Sea (2008)
The first Palestinian feature film directed by a woman, Annemarie Jacir's Salt of this Sea (2008) is an intriguing “crime-drama” about Soraya (Suheir Hammad) a Palestinian-American born to refugees in Brooklyn. After Soraya’s father passes away, she decides to visit Palestine for the first time and retrieve the money left by her grandfather in a bank when he fled from Jaffa to Lebanon during the Nakba. However, upon her arrival the expansive and wealthy bank informs her that after Zionist militias ethnically cleansed Jaffa-- all the money in her grandfather’s bank account was seized (along with their home). Unable to obtain a Palestinian passport in order to stay in Ramallah and work, Soraya decides to rob the avaricious bank along with her new boyfriend Emad (Salah Bakri) and his friend Marwan (Riyad Ideis), escaping to 1948 Palestine (Israel) where they embark on a trip to “see [their] country.”
Salt of this Sea, between poetry and thrills, illustrates what it means to be an uprooted people. Opening with documentary footage of the Nakba, it is a film about the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their land and their aspirations for the right of return. Yet, in Soraya’s case the right of return is not just an aspiration. She is not willing to wait for Israel to give her a right she knows she should have, she simply takes it. That is why she first attempts to obtain a Palestinian passport. When a Palestinian bureaucrat explains to her that the Palestinian Authority has signed an agreement with Israel that does not permit them to issue passports to Palestinians in exile, she replies: “so you agreed that they decide if I’m Palestinian or not?” Angry, she decides that she will not allow her right of return to be limited: she overstays her Israeli visa, robs the bank of the exact amount left by her grandfather, tries to throw out the woman occupying her grandfather’s stolen home in Jaffa and, along with Emad-- tries to live in the ruins of an ethnically cleansed Palestinian village.
Jacir effectively undermines the notion held by many Zionists that Palestine was a barren desert that was brought to life with the creation of Israel. She uses oranges, more specifically Jaffa oranges, as a motif to remind the viewer of the fertility of Palestine-- they become a symbol of Palestinian presence and connection to the land. The importance of the land to Palestinians is also highlighted by several long shots of the landscape. We can also see this in one particular scene of the three friends at the beach where the cinematography is dominated by the sun, the water and the wind. These elements are visibly cherished by the characters in a way that the Israeli beach-goers around them are unable to understand-- gawking at them as if they were insane.
Nominated for the 2008 Cannes Film Festival’s “Un Certain Regard” and “Golden Camera” categories, and a winner of the Carthage Film Festival’s “Randa Chahal Prize” Salt of this Sea is another highlight in Palestinian cinema. You can stream it on Netflix or purchase it here.