Nadia Yaqub, Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nadia Yaqub (NY): I actually did not intend to write a book about Palestinian cinema from this period. I was researching the ways that Palestinian filmmakers have addressed the problem of the violent and victimizing image. I began to research the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) cinema in order to gain a historical perspective on the question. As I learned more about it, however, I realized that there was a story about this early work that needed to be told. It was evident that there was tremendous interest in this early cinema and other cultural work of the PLO from filmmakers and scholars, but the information that was available was scattered and incomplete.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NY: The book begins with a chapter focusing on the decades immediately preceding the PLO period, tracing representations of Palestinians between 1948, when more than eighty percent of the Palestinian population of what became the state of Israel were expelled from their homes, and the late 1960s, when a consensus emerged among Palestinians in support of a movement for national liberation through armed struggle. I describe the representational context in which PLO filmmaking first emerged. On the one hand, film and photography about Palestinians, primarily in the hands of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and other relief organizations, represented the image of Palestinian abjection that the PLO in general and filmmakers in particular sought to undo. On the other hand, Palestinian representations emerging in art and literature during the 1950s and 1960s informed the agential perspective with which filmmakers began their work. Later filmmakers engaged directly with both types of representations from this earlier period.
I then examine the filmmaking of the PLO period through three different lenses. The chapter entitled “Towards a Palestinian Third Cinema” discusses the founding and early development of the Palestine Film Unit as an example of third cinema theory put into practice. These early films evince both the ideology of national liberation that underpinned the Fatah’s operations at that time, but also expressed personal engagements with violence and loss. Palestinian filmmaking was shaped by contradiction, contingency, precarity, and compromise from the start, but also succeeded in producing some innovative and highly expressive texts that worked valiantly to process the traumatic events that Palestinians experienced throughout this period.
In “Palestine and the Rise of Alternative Arab Cinema,” I focus on the filmmaking in Syria during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Palestine was a major theme in Syrian public sector cinema during this period. In fact, the most innovative feature-length works about Palestine during this time were made with Syrian support. “From Third to Third World Cinema: Film Circuits and the Institutionalization of Palestinian Cinema” examines the filmmaking of the Palestinian organizations from the mid-1970s to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. During this period, a growing circuit of film festivals and distribution networks in Eastern Europe as well as co-production arrangements and the creation of a film infrastructure on the ground in Lebanon contributed to higher production values, but also greater ideological and formal constraints. Filmmaking from this period was shaped by both Third Worldism and the culture of the Cold War.
From its inception, an important strand of PLO cinema practice consisted of the archiving of its films along with footage, photographs, and other materials as a basis for Palestinian filmmaking of the future. The archive disappeared during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but beginning in the early 2000s, artists, filmmakers, and curators have begun to locate and restore scattered copies of films, footage, and documentation from this period. While the process of recovery is ongoing, the material gathered so far has sparked creative engagement from a number of young Palestinian filmmakers and played an important role in the processing and passing on of traumatic memories. The final sections of the book focus on these afterlives of the material of the PLO period. “Steadfast Images: The Afterlives of Film and Photographs of Tall al-Za`tar” examines the role that the films and photographs about the 1976 siege and fall of Tal al-Za`tar refugee camp in Beirut have played on social media for communities of Palestinians in Lebanon and Europe. “Cinematic Legacies: The Palestinian Revolution in Twenty-First Century Cinema” focuses on the engagement of a new generation of Palestinian filmmakers with the PLO material and its themes during the past decade. More information about the book and a link to the Introduction are available at Film Quarterly.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NY: I have been writing about Palestinian cinema for more than ten years now, but this is my first foray into film history. This is also the first research project in which I engage extensively with the material conditions of filmmaking.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NY: Like most authors, I hope that the book will attract a wide audience. It is an academic work, with the scholarly apparatus that that implies. However, I strove to write it in accessible prose. I hope that filmmakers, programmers, and activists interested in Palestine, in addition to students and researchers, will read the book. This year organizations and institutions around the world are marking the fiftieth anniversary of the momentous events of 1968. Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. These landmarks remind us to look back at the cultural and political legacies of these historical moments and to plumb them for insights into our what is happening today. Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution offers all scholars working on this period a glimpse into one such legacy from the Arab world.
Finally, as I note in the introduction of the book, The Palestinian films of the 1970s are important as an archive of a particular Palestinian experience that derives significance not only from its content, but also from the fact that these, and other Palestinian archives are continually being erased. Resisting that erasure has always been a key component of Palestinian activism. This book is, to some extent, a contribution to that work.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NY: I am beginning a new research project on alternative Arab cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. While this period has been covered in various studies of various national cinemas in the Arab world, no one has examined filmmaking from this period from a regional perspective. My study will focus on the interrelationships between different sectors of filmmaking and how some filmmakers moved between them. I hope to illuminate the complexity of these filmmakers’ engagements, how they incorporated politics into personal works, and personal visions for filmmaking into their nationalist and militant projects.
J: What struck you in revisiting films of the Palestinian revolution today, against the backdrop of recent developments in the Middle East?
NY: Definitely the most striking quality of the earlier material is its optimism. One still encounters expressions of hope in relation to Palestinian activism—a belief in the ultimate triumph of justice, for instance—but there is no organized political project today like the Palestinian revolution of the 1970s. Individuals and groups are conducting important work for Palestinian rights, but there exists no unifying vision for how to arrive at a better future or what that future should constitute—whether the goal is an amelioration of conditions on the ground, an end to occupation, one, two, or no states, and so forth. Already in the 1970s Arab states were using the Palestinian cause for their own political ends that had little or nothing to do with the Palestinians and their needs. Today, Palestinians must contend with the residue of five decades of that instrumentalization and the cynicism it has engendered. The Palestinian cause has also been affected in complex ways by various Islamic political movements in recent decades.
Contemporary Palestinian activism has been shaped by neoliberalism and its effects on concepts of selfhood and one’s relationship to community. All of this is reflected in one way or another in the films Palestinians are making today, and in particular in the various ways in which they engage with the Palestinian revolution, with nostalgia, anger, and resignation. However, my book should not be read as an elegy. This is a bleak time politically and economically not just for Palestinians but for the Arab world as a whole, and it is difficult to imagine how conditions in the region might improve anytime soon. Nonetheless, there is a tremendous degree of cultural and political dynamism in the Arab world. People are very active at the local level, and a wealth of innovative art, film, literature, and music is emerging from the region. We must not lose sight of that work and the promise it contains.
Excerpt from the Book:
Kassem Hawal made several attempts to direct a fictional film. His first proposals were not successful, but in 1981, he succeeded in getting funding and the green light to adapt Ghassan Kanafani’s Return to Haifa to the screen. Hawal’s film was destined to be the first and last fictional feature film made under the auspices of the PLO in Lebanon.
Hawal was eager to render Return to Haifa not just a success as the first Palestinian fictional feature film, but also as a model for alternative cinema in the Arab world. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he chose not to address limited resources and expertise through small films, but rather to create something of a film epic by mobilizing a commitment to the Palestinian cause via enthusiastic volunteerism. The film includes a variety of indoor and outdoor scenes ranging from Poland in the 1940s and Haifa during the 1948 war to Ramallah in the late 1960s and a fida’i training camp in Jordan. Most significantly, Hawal recreated the Palestinian exodus from Haifa in April 1948 in an epic crowd scene shot at the harbor in Tripoli. The scene included thousands of extras, dozens of boats, and aerial shots of the action. A lush score, composed by Ziad Rahbani; action scenes, including a desperate driving scene, battle scenes from the 1948 war, and a successful fida’i operation at an Israeli checkpoint; and the use of color film all contribute to the film’s (relatively) spectacular aesthetics.
Hawal spent six months writing the script and planning the production. With the help of PFLP offices in northern Lebanon where the film was shot, he recruited thousands of volunteers from among residents of Tripoli, the Nahr al-Barid and Badawi refugee camps, and the villages of Ihdin and Zgharta. PFLP members went door to door, explaining the importance of the project and recruiting volunteers. Hanan al-Hajj, the Lebanese stage actress who plays Safiyah in the film, the lead female role, held information sessions with women in the camps. Hawal at one point addressed an audience at one of the local mosques after Friday prayers. He recalled the experience in a 1984 interview:
It was a difficult and unique experience. We had to make do with very modest material and artistic resources, and when we began filming the first scene in August 1981, conditions around us were difficult, amid the battles taking place in North Lebanon. We relied on the capabilities of our people and enlisted them with the help of the Palestinian resistance. We chose as the site of our work the refugee camps of al-Nahr al-Barid and Badawi in North Lebanon. We undertook what resembled a giant sewing workshop in Badawi camp in which young women of the camp took over sewing clothes for the film. We set up a storehouse for clothes and weapons in the camp. We needed about 4000 men, women and children to film the mass exodus from Haifa in period costumes, and Palestinians in the camp provided them. Lebanese fisherman also contributed their boats and divers for the exodus scene with the help of the Association of Fisherman of Tripoli and the Lebanese National Movement who also provided us with a helicopter for filming. Also, the people of Ihdin and Zgharta in North Lebanon offered us old cars. We filmed some scenes there.
Almost everyone, including Hawal himself, donated their labor.
According to the PFLP’s own news reports, participating in the film was a meaningful experience for the Palestinians and Lebanese of North Lebanon. A number reported feeling a sense of accomplishment at the opportunity to contribute directly to a Palestinian national initiative, and for many, the experience of re-enacting the exodus from Haifa (a lived experience for some of the older participants) strengthened ties to the Palestinian narrative by offering an embodied experience with recreating the Nakba. One volunteer named Umm Mazin reported that “during shooting I was really sick, but I ran. I ran with all the strength that I had. I took my small grandchildren with me so that we could run together. We were all shaking with emotion, remembering our homeland and dreaming of returning to it.” Some reported feeling so lost in the moment that they imagined the houses of Ihdin or Tripoli were their own lost homes in Palestine.
The film follows the major outline of Kanafani’s novel. Sa`id and Safiyah have been living in Ramallah since leaving Haifa in 1948. In the wake of the 1967 war, they take advantage of the newly opened border to return to Haifa to see their old home. In Haifa, they meet Mariam, a Polish woman who has been living in the house they were forced to leave, and her adopted son, Dov. The child the Palestinian couple was forced to leave behind in 1948, Dov has been raised as an Israeli Jew and now serves in the Israeli army reserves. The novel is constructed around the protagonists’ conversation as they drive from Ramallah to Haifa, and the lengthy conversation Sa`id has with Mariam and Dov.
Hawal fleshes out the story with scenes that contextualize the Palestinian narrative internationally. He includes footage of fascist rallies, the ransacking of Mariam’s home in Poland and the murder of her child by the Nazis, as well as the murder in Palestine of a Jewish immigrant who questions the motives of those organizing the transportation of Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine. This attention to Jewish persecution in Europe is significant, perhaps representing the first time this subject is treated in Arab cinema. Hawal also highlights the efficacy of the fida’iyin by including a scene, not found in the novel, in which they successfully blow up an Israeli checkpoint and ending the film in a fida’i camp where Safiyah and Sa`id’s son Khalid participates in military training. Kanafani’s novel is already didactic, including meditations on the meaning of political commitment, peoplehood, and the homeland; on truth, ethics, and political convenience, and on the reasons for armed struggle. Hawal added dialog that renders the film more pointedly so. The result is a work that consciously instrumentalizes the pleasures of spectacle and narrative for ideological education.
Return to Haifa is a significant text not just because it is the first feature-length Palestinian fictional film, but also because it is the first extended visual representation of the Palestinian experience of leaving Palestine in 1948. `Azzam’s and Kanafani’s fiction had offered a few early narratives, and Shammout’s early paintings had focused on the feelings of loss in the immediate aftermath of the war. In The Dupes, Saleh depicts a 1948 battlefield followed by scenes of newly displaced Palestinians in a refugee camp. But no film had as yet narrated the exodus itself–the effects of the violence and chaos of the war on ordinary Palestinians and their desperate responses to those effects. At the climax of his film, Hawal inserted a flashback that extends more than eight and one-half minutes in which both Safiyah and Sa`id’s experiences in the chaos of fighting and the forced exodus from Haifa are depicted. Their personal stories from the past are then connected to their psychological state in the present as they confront the occupation of their home and the loss of their first-born child to Israel. The exodus is also contextualized within contemporary Palestinian politics.
Hawal was unfortunate, however, in the timing of the film’s release. Its screening was postponed by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the film was largely marginalized by subsequent violent events, including the Sabra and Shatila massacre in late 1982, renewed fighting in the Tripoli area, and the fratricidal camps war in southern Beirut that occupied Palestinians in Lebanon for much of the mid-1980s. Return to Haifa premiered in Damascus, subsequently screened at the Carthage and Moscow film festivals, and aired on Algerian and Libyan television in late 1982. In the early 1980s, it also screened once at a British university, but Hawal was not able to show it to the Palestinians and Lebanese in northern Lebanon who had worked to create it. Moreover, in the drastically altered circumstances in which Palestinians found themselves after 1982, the work did not enjoy the attention one would expect from the first Palestinian feature film. `Adnan Madanat recalls that in the wake of the invasion and massacre, Arab audiences were in no mood for a film centered on a conversation between Palestinian refugees and an Israeli who had settled in their home. It was one thing to read the polemical conversation among Sa`id, Dov, and Mariam on the pages of Kanafani’s novel, but quite another to see rounded Israeli characters engage in such a conversation with a Palestinian refugee on screen. The film languished until Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir selected it for the Dreams of a Nation Film Festival in Jerusalem in 2003.