Palestinian filmmaking against the odds

Mike Phipps reviews Struggling to be seen: The travails of Palestinian cinema, by Anandi Ramamurthy and Paul Kelemen, published by Daraja Press

A book on Palestinian cinema may seem a bit niche, but the context is important. In the narrative of the Israeli Occupation, which dismisses Palestinians as Arabs, to assert, even at a cultural level, a Palestinian identity becomes a radical act.

As the authors say in the Introduction: “Constructing a cinematic culture has been an integral part of the Palestinian national movement. The Palestinian filmmaker’s impulse to narrate their people’s experience has mobilised art to challenge the erasure of Palestinian existence and history and give expression to the daily life of communities living under occupation, exile and siege.“

To quote Amilcar Cabral: “If imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.” So mobilising cultural resources to construct a national identity is a significant feature of any anti-imperialist struggle.

The erasure of Palestinian identity is a unique case. Few other seizures of a national homeland were presented as taking over “a land without a people for a people without a land”. But this was a central tenet of Zionist settler ideology, which sought to conceal the ethnic cleansing that underpinned the foundation and expansion of the Israeli state.

The initiative to develop a national cinema came from the organisations that formed the Palestine Liberation Organization. It was influenced by Cuban filmmaker Julio Garcia Espinosa who argued that inexpensive films, produced under imperfect conditions, could mobilise people, by their urgency and revolutionary spirit, in a way that high big studio films could not.

From the early 1970s on, filmmakers sought to mobilise the masses for the revolution and acquaint the world with the Palestinian struggle, work conducted in highly challenging circumstances. Films in the 1980s were produced largely by exiled Palestinians or those living in pre-1948 Palestine: filmmakers in Gaza or the West Bank rarely had the financial or technical resources to produce work.

The 1993 Oslo Accords created some of the external trappings of a Palestinian state, which included a Ministry of Culture, which served as local partner to some internationally funded projects. But it was not until 2005, after the second Intifada, that the first NGO to focus exclusively on cinema was established, working particularly to develop the capacity of young women filmmakers. Yet it remains the case that Palestinian films are screened mainly to audiences abroad.

A key obstacle for filmmakers is the lack of accessible archives with which to visualise the Palestinian past. Since the founding of the Israeli state, vast collections of documents, photographs, books and films from Palestinians in private and public collections have been looted. Material that challenges the Israeli narrative is often destroyed.

The Israeli state’s effort to suppress Palestinian cultural expression has a grim history. Recent research shows that Israel plundered and destroyed tens of thousands of Palestinian books soon after the state was established.  Concerns have also been raised about the ‘Judaising’ of Palestinian culture and the archaeological theft and the violation of Palestinian heritage sites. Cultural centres have also been targeted in recent attacks. In August 2018, an important cultural centre was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza.  And in July this year, Israeli police stormed two Palestinian cultural centres in occupied East Jerusalem, an act which the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Culture condemned as an attack on “Palestinian national culture and cultural heritage”.

Another impediment to creative participation is the separation of Palestinians in different geographical regions, unable to communicate easily with each other. “The structures demand endless applications for permits. Film crews are routinely refused permits for shoots, stopped at checkpoints and are at risk of having their film rushes confiscated. Some disruptions are common.”

Getting finished work shown is another hurdle for Palestinian filmmakers. Only 2.3% of films released in the UK in 2017 were from outside the US and Europe – and of this 2.3%, more than half were from India. Many films from the Global South are marginalised, therefore – but Palestinian ones face an additional obstacle: cinema directors are wary of provoking the charge of antisemitism or being drawn into a time-consuming controversy.

“In the West,” note the authors, “even as Palestinian Cinema has come to command a degree of attention among audiences, there has been a pushback to delegitimise it… The ‘permission to narrate’, to which the late Edward Said pointed to, is still too often withheld from Palestinian filmmakers.”

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