The best Israeli films I've seen in recent years--and my viewing has been by no means exhaustive--have avoided explicit engagement with the Palestinian question in favor of explorations of surrogate forms of forbidden relationships. Films such as Late Marriage, Yossi and Jagger and The Holy Land all concerned illicit relationships and the battles of young Israelis to accommodate their modern secular sexual desires with the demands of traditional morality (respectively, a Georgian Jew defies his family by keeping company with an older divorcee, two male soldiers find love and death in a remote military outpost and a horny yeshiva student falls for a Russian whore).
So, with honorable exceptions such as the work of the well-meaning but dramatically inexact Amos Gitai, it falls largely to Palestinian filmmakers to make films about the elephant in the room: the ongoing oppression and dispossession of nearly four million Palestinians in their own land, a state of affairs deplored by most of the civilized world save for the United States, which supplies approximately $3 billion a year to strengthen the Zionist mission.
Perhaps the greatest and most famous of Palestinian dramatic films is Michel Khleifi's 1987 landmark Wedding in Galilee. More recently, Elias Sulieman's Divine Interventions and Hany Abu Assad's Rana's Wedding have brought Palestinian life under occupation to art houses around the world (both films played in Triangle theaters in 2003 and 2004 and should be available in local video stores).
Still, it's ironic that the best film in an upcoming series of Palestinian films is actually an Israeli television production. This film, The Inner Tour, is a devastating travelogue accompanying Palestinian tourists in Israel/Palestine, and it's no less powerful for being shot just before the tragic revival of the intifada in 2000. "It's not, strictly speaking, a Palestinian film," says UNC's Nadia Yaqub, assistant professor of Arabic in the Asian Studies department and the lead organizer of the series. "But we felt like including it, because it does have that connection to Palestinian [issues]. We didn't need to be rigid [in our definitions]," she continues. "Including The Inner Tour complicates the definition of what is a Palestinian film. But of course, the fate of Palestine is intertwined with that of Israel."
Presented by Duke's Screen Society, Through Palestinian Eyes: An Exploration into Palestinian Representations of Self is an inter-departmental showcase jointly sponsored by Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. Last October, Duke became the center of international controversy when it hosted the Fourth Annual Palestinian Solidarity Conference. Despite the condemnation that rained down from all corners of the globe, the forum went off as planned, but not without the conference's critics arranging for the installation of the bomb-struck Egged bus 19, a traveling artifact of Palestinian terror tactics, in front of Duke Chapel. (A Palestinian counter-exhibit of Israeli fighter jets, tanks and bulldozers presumably would be too expensive and cumbersome to mount.)
Thus far, Yaqub hasn't encountered resistance or controversy, although she acknowledges the inevitable political associations with such a film series. "It's framed as a cultural series but of course it's [unavoidably] political," she says. Ultimately, "we wanted to show that there is more to Palestine than the conflict, even though the conflict is pervasive."
Indeed, that conflict is present everywhere in the films. What's striking and tragic about the reality shown is the degree to which all men, women and children--Israeli and Palestinian alike--are mobilized and swept up in this ancient religious, ethnic and political feud. Whether it's refugee children being educated--or indoctrinated--in their people's historic grievances, wives with dead or imprisoned husbands proudly brandishing their loneliness, or old men rediscovering the land they fled in 1948, the reality of that region is one long, bloodsoaked tragedy, and makes America's notorious indifference to history seem like a good thing (although Native Americans shivering on a North Dakota reservation would naturally disagree).
Like Twenty Impossibles (Annemarie Jacir, 2003)--A 17-minute faux-documentary that played widely on the international festival circuit, Jacir's film purports to show an expatriate film crew running into difficulties while attempting to make a film in the West Bank. Their quest eventually ends with a humiliating and frightening episode with two Israeli soldiers. The film is bracingly shot and acted and not without humor, but it's also a little troublesome. One wonders how this film can claim greater moral weight than a fake Israeli documentary purporting to show wicked Palestinian bombers rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of killing Jewish babies.
Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (Mai Masri, 2001)--Masri, a veteran documentary producer in Britain, here presents two Palestinian girls: Mona, a resident of a refugee camp in Lebanon, and Manar, a camp resident in Bethlehem. Through their eyes we witness the lives of Palestinian children under occupation. While it's heartening to see them engaged in social activities and corresponding with each other, we're also acutely aware of the bequeathing of grievances that occupation breeds. Manar visits her grandfather's lost home and laments the Israelis' planting of trees: "trees planted to cover up their crimes." What optimism this film contains, however, is diminished by the revival of the intifada near the end of filming. Masri's film will be shown on a program with 3 cm less (Azza El-Hassan, 2003), a baffling, tedious and frequently irritating "video diary" in which El-Hassan interjects herself aggressively into the troubled lives of two middle-class Palestinian families. The title refers to the projected loss of height for future Palestinian generations, a theme that the film never revisits. Still, the film is worth waiting out for a radio report at the end, announcing Steven Spielberg's intention to give the Palestinian plight his best Schindler treatment. "Steven Spielberg will liberate Palestine," someone cries scornfully. This was a hoax, as we're subsequently reminded, or rather, "an obvious vicious hoax," as Spielberg's spokesman termed it.
These films will be shown Monday, Jan. 24 in a program entitled "Films by Palestinian Women" starting at 5 p.m. in the Richard White Auditorium on Duke Campus. Jacir, who teaches at Columbia University, will be on hand for the screening of her film and will give a talk afterward.
Edward Said on Orientalism (Sut Jhally, 1998) and Selves and Others: A Portrait of Edward Said (Emmanuel Hamon, 2003)--The great Palestinian-American intellectual died in September 2003, and we're already missing him. Although he spent his life writing for both Western and Levantine audiences about the Palestinian cause, his intellectual celebrity rests on the 1978 publication of Orientalism, perhaps the most influential work of literary and cultural theory of the last few decades and one that, we learn in Jhally's film, has been translated into nearly 30 languages. That film, an extended interview with the professor, will be shown in conjunction with Hamon's Selves and Others, which wasn't available for review.
Wednesday, Feb. 16, White Auditorium, 8 p.m.
Ford Transit (Hany Abu Assad, 2002)-- Abu Assad's follow-up to his excellent Rana's Wedding is comparatively a slight disappointment. Where Rana's Wedding had a conventional story that kept running into checkpoints and traffic jams, Ford Transit is a film about checkpoints and traffic jams. Borrowing from the recent style of Kiarostami, Abu Assad's crew follows Rajai, a handsome and cocky driver of a so-called Ford Transit, which is the Palestinians' informal system of public transportation in minibuses. Intended as something of a hybrid fiction-documentary, we do witness the erosion of Rajai's self-confidence ("You can't survive here if you're afraid," he proclaims more than once) under the pressure of performing for the camera. His days are filled with difficult, quarrelsome passengers, petty smuggling and constant evasions of surprise checkpoints. His passengers offer opinions on George W. Bush (bad) and Arafat ("He needs to stand down," one woman says, "but Bush and Sharon are against him so we go on defiantly supporting him"). Before wearying of the entire film project, Rajai himself offers his own resigned assessment: "The conflict between Bush and Europe is battled out here. The election battle between Netanyahu and Sharon is fought over us. Even the Arab countries fight over us. We're the mop of the world."
Tuesday, Feb. 22, UNC campus.
The Olive Harvest (Hanna Elias, 2003)--The most jarring image in this competent and moving family melodrama appears in the very first frames: an image of the blue and white flag of Israel, seen through a fence. Seconds later, we learn that the flag is flying over an Israeli prison, from which a no-longer-young Palestinian man emerges. Mazen, the ex-con, returns with his younger brother Taher to their village in the Occupied Territories near Ramallah where he resumes work in the olive grove owned jointly by his family and another, a family with two attractive and very different daughters. On many surfaces, The Olive Harvest is written, shot and acted as if it's an olive-skinned soap opera: Independent and sophisticated daughter Arren suffers under the disapproval of her tradition-minded father (who ends up in the hospital with cancer) while naive and beautiful Raeda finds herself torn between the poetic and sexy ex-political prisoner Mazen and the earnest Taher, who works for a Palestinian organization that monitors and resists the encroaching Jewish settlers. But the fly in the ointment of this would-be conventional television romance is those Jewish settlers, threatening the timeless, pastoral livelihood of the two families. Omnipresent and rarely seen, the settlers move closer and closer to the verdant olive grove with their condominiums and their bulldozers.
Tuesday, March 22, UNC's Student Union, 7 p.m.
The Inner Tour (Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, 2001)--In this exceptional film, Israeli journalist Alexandrowicz accompanies a group of Palestinian tourists on a tour of their own land, or as one young man says while flirting with an Italian woman at a picturesque spot above the Mediterranean, "I'm Palestinian and I came to see Palestine." The introduction seems to abash the Italian, who realizes that it's far easier for her to tour Israel than it is for those who have actual land claims dating from before 1948. There are many reasons to be sorrowful during The Inner Tour, not least when one aging tourist hails a taxi in Tel Aviv and tells the driver to take him to Rabin Square, the site of the Nobel Peace Prize winner's assassination in 1995. The memorial, as the tourist discovers, is a dingy, unloved and apparently unvisited concrete plaza. Still, the memorial's graffiti holds its greatest contempt for Arafat: "Murderer."
Sunday, March 27, White Auditorium, 8 p.m.
The Milky Way (Ali Nassar, 1997)--A fairly conventional but well-made drama set in 1964, Nassar's film is largely concerned with the complex political and family dynamics within a Palestinian village, and fatal complications that arise from romantic jealousy and document forgery. Unlike much of the program, Israelis are a distant presence in this story. "Like Olive Harvest," Yaqub says, "this film concerns internal issues in the Palestinian community, issues that they're consumed by. It's important to show that."
Monday, April 18, White Auditorium, 8 p.m.
The Palestinian films will play throughout the spring semester on both the Duke and UNC campuses. Information about the films and screenings can be found at www.duke.edu/web/film/screensociety/Palestinian.html.