Song on a Narrow Path: Stories from Jerusalem

January 24-27, 2003, NYC
http://www.dreamsofanation.org

In New York City, a town largely defined by the presence of so many ethnic and national identities, the Palestinian Film Festival that took place at Columbia University in January may have seemed to many people like just another blip on their cultural radar, one in an endless train of festivals showcasing a particular national cinema. But to anyone taking a closer look, it was clear that this was by definition something more significant and momentous. Organizationally and technically more than a little messy, and naturally hit and miss (as most festivals are), this event was nevertheless, by its very existence, an exciting and important achievement. Tellingly titled “Dreams of a Nation” by its organizers – primarily Professor Hamid Dabashi and chief curator Annemarie Jacir – the Festival was not simply a celebration of a national culture, but a far more political assertion of a national identity. As a result, the quality of the individual films, and the smoothness of the Festival’s functioning, hardly mattered – this was a Festival with much more at stake than most.

The Palestinian people are virtually unique in the world today as a people regularly denied not only their land but their very existence. Fighting a profoundly uphill battle, the Palestinians have historically had to concentrate a great deal of effort, energy badly needed to achieve material gains, on simply reasserting before the eyes of the world this simple fact – that they are a people, with a history and a cultural identity. Speaking to Salman Rushdie in 1986, the Palestinian-American scholar and writer Edward Said put it this way: “The interesting thing is that there seems to be nothing in the world which sustains the story; unless you go on telling it, it will just drop and disappear.” (1) Dispossessed, scattered, demonized, and faced with the opposition of two infinitely greater powers, Israel and the United States, it is as if they are caught in a kind of political quicksand, having to struggle mightily simply to maintain their position, to keep from being swallowed up into nothingness.

It was this feeling of contributing to the uphill battle, of playing a part in preventing this slide into oblivion, that gave the Palestinian Film Festival its remarkable atmosphere of purposefulness and importance. The films themselves, many of which were excellent, were a small part of that contribution – the Festival included a series of opening night addresses, from Prof. Dabashi and Edward Said, followed by a performance by the Palestinian musician, Simon Shaheen, as well as a conference the next morning. And even the Festival as a whole was part of a larger, more ambitious project, the components of which Prof. Dabashi laid out in detail in his address. The first is the establishment of what is hoped to be the largest archive in existence of Palestinian cinema and of written material pertaining to that cinema; secondly, the Festival’s website will be expanded into a broader resource on Palestinian filmmaking; next, the Festival itself will travel to cities all over the world; and finally, the papers presented at the conference are to be collected and edited into a single volume, conceived as a textbook for courses on Palestinian cinema.

The Festival itself was really just one facet of a hugely ambitious plan to create, almost in one fell swoop, a Palestinian cinema studies program – to show a selection of the films themselves, to preserve them permanently, to establish a resource for information, and to give academic legitimacy (under the banner of Columbia University) to scholarly interest in the subject. The whole Festival had to be seen in the context not only of the larger political struggle, but of this concrete, multi-fronted plan of (cultural) action.

But of course, it all starts with the movies, of which the Festival showed a generous selection – more than 30 films, most of them features, both documentary and fiction, and all of them directed by Palestinians, either from within the territories or from abroad. The general level of quality was quite high – there were disappointments of course, but most were at the very least perceptive and valuable, strong in content if not cinematically, and several were excellent in every respect. The technical difficulties were not always minor – the daytime screenings were held in a theater (a classroom, really) with un-curtained frosted windows, making it easy to take notes, but not so much to watch the films; and several of the feature films were shown on VHS video copies rather than 35 or 16mm (one of them, The Milky Way, with only French subtitles). Worse, a couple films ended up being pulled, including one of the most important, Fertile Memory (1980) by Michel Khleifi, the first successful Palestinian filmmaker, and a film that Said alluded to in his keynote address. Unable to screen the 16mm print, which is apparently too fragile, the Festival obtained a video copy of such poor quality that the subtitles were unreadable – after showing about ten minutes of it, Prof. Dabashi shut it off and replaced it with another film. In conventional terms, the Festival was a bit of a comedy of errors. But even these serious problems seemed strangely appropriate for a film festival devoted to a people as besieged and under-privileged as the Palestinians.

The Palestinians are, after all, a people almost entirely without resources – the roughness and disorganization of the Festival closely reflected the feel of the films themselves, so many of which were clearly made under difficult circumstances. In fact, the films of least interest were those, mostly fiction, that aspired to the polished production values and familiar techniques of conventional commercial filmmaking – in Khleifi’s Tale of Three Jewels (1995) (shown as the opening night film) and Ali Nassar’s The Milky Way (1997) in particular, Palestinian experience came filtered through many layers of these conventions, finally stripped of nearly all its urgency, specificity, and complexity. Creating a fictional account of a situation as messy and immediate as the Palestinians’ is profoundly difficult – reality is too bottomless and unknowable for any but the most poetic, intuitive intelligence to reproduce without reducing it to something simpler and more comprehensible, and therefore false. The only way is to create characters, scenes, and images that suggest questions and ideas, that open out onto the world rather then close in on themselves. A movie like Tale of Three Jewels, contrived and generic, stands between the viewer and reality, rather than connecting the two.

The documentaries, though technically crude (by necessity), were far more valuable for their glimpse of a world usually hidden from view, and even more for their clear-eyed engagement with Palestinian experience, their refusal to sugarcoat the hopelessness, despair, and deadlock that characterize life in Israel and the Territories. There’s no place in a movie as artful and contrived as Tale of Three Jewels for what Hazim Bitar captures in Jerusalem’s High Cost of Living (2001), when he visits a hospital during the first days of the Second Intifada. When the father of Osama Jaddeh, a young man hospitalized with what appeared to be minor wounds, learns that his son has died, he’s incapable of breaking the news to his wife. As time passes and rumors circulate that Osama is gone, his father refuses to begin mourning, insisting on shielding his wife from the truth. Finally, she finds out, her suffering even more excruciating for having been deceived by her husband. This is pain and misery undiluted by any sense of catharsis or nobility, unmediated by an artist’s shaping and composing.

Tale of Three Jewels

In the context of the situation in the Middle East, the falsity and simplification of a movie like Tale of Three Jewels becomes truly objectionable. The worst thing about Khleifi’s film is its implication that the darkness in its characters’ lives is entirely external. Khleifi portrays the violence and hatred his characters live with, but they themselves are almost without exception kind, loving, generous people – from the look of things, if it weren’t for the Israeli presence, life would be idyllic, all sunshine and roses. Without taking away from the Palestinians’ rightful indignation and righteousness, this shows a complete lack of understanding of human nature. This kind of simplistic, black-and-white vision contributes nothing to a true understanding of what’s going on.

Although it wasn’t in the Palestinian Film Festival because its director, Ram Levi, is Israeli, the most vivid, honest, and despairing snapshot I’ve seen recently of how things stand at the individual human level, comes from two separate scenes in Close, Closed, Closure (2002), a mid-length documentary shot both before and after the outbreak of the Second Intifada. The first involves a Palestinian family – a father, mother, and young son whose legs were amputated after he was denied permission to enter Jerusalem for treatment following an accident. Having interviewed and befriended them before the first intifada, the mother in particular proves to be a highly articulate and clearly profoundly decent person, treating Levi with kindness and respect. When he returns soon after the violence has broken out, the contrast is heartbreaking. Although she treats him with her customary hospitality, she refuses to speak to him, and when he finally persuades her to be interviewed, her anger and sense of betrayal are almost unbearable to behold. When this woman who we’ve come to know as generous and unbigoted, who had naturally seen Levi as a human, not as an Israeli, says to him, “We no longer believe in peace,” it’s a devastating pronouncement. We’ve seen the precise point at which a situation can transform a fellow human being into an enemy, a symbol of national aggression.

Balancing this scene is another in a Jewish settlement which has recently seen the killing of two children by Palestinian gunmen. While most of the film has portrayed the suffering and injustice inflicted on Palestinians by Israel, especially in the form of these illegal, cancerous settlements, here we see a form of resistance doomed to accomplish nothing but create more hatred. In the clearest possible illustration of the seemingly hopeless, irreconcilable stalemate between these two peoples, the father of one of the children says to Levi, “Now that my daughter’s blood has soaked into the ground, I will never leave this settlement.”

The challenge for any filmmaker (for any one, for that matter), especially since the outbreak in 2000 of this latest wave of violence, is to search for a solution, to grasp onto any shred of hope, to resist total despair, without denying the reality of the situation, which is that the stalemate is profound, that hatred is rampant and self-perpetuating, and that Israel, vastly more powerful than the Palestinian people, continues its oppressive and illegal treatment of them.

Perhaps the strongest documentary I saw in the Festival, Akram Safadi’s Song on a Narrow Path: Stories from Jerusalem (2001), achieves this balance by focusing on three particular individuals with a sensitivity not only to their experiences but to their thoughts and feelings, showing what it means to live under an occupation but never defining its subjects by their situation. Simply by portraying these individuals as individuals, not as symbols of the suffering of a people, a certain hopefulness emerges – a hopefulness fully aware of the difficulty of life in the region (Ali, an African-Palestinian man, testifies, “Even the way I make love to my wife is deformed by the occupation”), but real nonetheless. At the very least these are people grasping onto their identities, in the face of overwhelming pressures, determined to answer oppression with creativity and constructiveness – one of the most moving moments comes when Reem, a singer, pointedly declares, “There’s nothing destructive in what I do.”

Film after film expresses above all the urge to bear witness, first of all to violence and injustice (perhaps the most damning moment in the whole Festival is Osama’s mother’s cry, in Jerusalem’s High Cost of Living: “My god, they are fighting rocks with rockets”), but perhaps more importantly to the peculiar, even unique, experience of being Palestinian. Edward Said, in his book After the Last Sky, testifies, “While all of us live among ‘normal’ people, people with complete lives, they seem to us hopelessly out of reach, with their countries, their familial continuity, their societies intact” (2). Though he’s speaking of those in exile from Palestine, his words describe also the even more peculiar experience of those living in exile within Palestine, living as foreigners, as second-class citizens, in their own homeland. Said writes again and again about the status of Palestinians within Israel as simply “non-Jews” (for instance, the article “An Ideology of Difference” (3)), while Hazim Bitar begins Jerusalem’s High Cost of Living by noting that he is allowed no more than a three month visa to enter his ancestral city, defiantly declaring, “No matter what the passport says, this is my home.”

It’s an experience no outsider can hope to fully understand. But when a man in Omar Al-Qattan’s Going Home (1996) speaks of keeping the key to his house in Jaffa for 35 years before finally throwing it away, the concept of dispossession takes on a concrete human meaning. Apparently this seemingly irrational gesture is common – Said tells of a dying old man who counsels his children, “Hold on to the keys and the deed,” and goes on to describe these “intimate mementos of a past irrevocably lost” as “strands in the web of affiliations we Palestinians use to tie ourselves to our identity and to each other”. (4) And what clearer statement could there be of the deep loss felt by those forcibly exiled from their homes than that of the man in Bitar’s film who declares, “If God gives me a choice between going to heaven and returning to my homeland, I would go to Jaffa.”

It’s the distinctiveness of Palestinian existence that makes films as narratively and psychologically conventional as The Milky Way or Tale of Three Jewels ring so false. Any movie that unthinkingly adopts the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling is doomed to ride the surface of the flow of reality, and therefore to slide right out of our minds. A truly challenging, tough-minded film drops anchor, immersing us in that flow and letting us experience its distinctive texture, its temperature. Especially for a filmmaker struggling to express something as urgent and significant as life in Palestine, it’s crucial to find a distinctive cinematic language, to jolt us out of our accustomed responses and force us to engage with reality. And the question of form is all the more important given the discontinuity that defines Palestinian experience. Speaking of Palestinian literature, Said observes that, “Most literary critics in Israel and the West focus on what is said…who is described, what the plot and contents deliver, their sociological and political meaning. But it is form that should be looked at”, and he later amplifies: “Our characteristic mode, then, is not a narrative, in which scenes take place seriatim, but rather broken narratives, fragmentary compositions, and self-consciously staged testimonials, in which the narrative voice keeps stumbling over itself, its obligations, its limitations” (5).

Chronicle of a Disappearance

It’s hard to imagine a more accurate description of the work of Elia Suleiman, whose two internationally successful films, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) and Divine Intervention (2002), both screened in the Festival (along with Introduction to the End of an Argument [1990], an interesting earlier video, co-directed with Jayce Salloum – a mostly found-footage critique of Western stereotypes of Arabs). The two films, for the most part very similar to each other, have no story per se – they’re collections of seemingly self-contained incidents, interactions, and fantasies, unified not by a cast of characters or a plot line but by Suleiman’s comic vision. Late in Chronicle of a Disappearance, for instance, an Israeli police van screeches to a halt and pours out a stream of heavily armed soldiers who run up to a wall, line up, and start peeing. This sort of patient, detached, deadpan joke is typical of Suleiman – each scene has its comic payoff, but cumulatively the jokes speak to the absurdity and violence of Palestinian existence, a life governed by apparent randomness but also stubbornly repetitive. Several times during the course of Chronicle of a Disappearance a car stops short in front of a quiet café, the driver and passenger jumping out and attacking each other, briefly and inexplicably, before just as abruptly jumping back in and driving off – an incident that’s repeated several times with different participants. In the final repetition, the driver and passenger, striding towards each other with what by now seems like an inevitably violent intent, keep moving, in fact simply switching places in the car. Suleiman has that rarest of gifts – the ability to express, in a single image or scene, a perception of great sensitivity and complexity, in this case the random violence that suffuses the Palestinian landscape and the way in which, as a result, the most banal, harmless activities come to seem threatening and dangerous.

The only character connecting all the strands in both Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention is Suleiman himself, appearing within the film as a sort of on-screen observer. Whether looking at slides of images from earlier scenes in Chronicle, or, in Divine Intervention, taping index cards representing each scene to the wall, his presence foregrounds the creation of the film. The most striking thing about his on-screen persona, though, is that he is entirely mute. The funniest scene in either movie teases us with this – introduced before an eager audience as “film director Elia Suleiman, back from his voluntary exile in New York to discuss his film about the peace,” he attempts to speak but is stymied again and again by feedback from the microphone. As usual though, the comedy expresses something very serious – it’s not hard to connect his literal voicelessness to a more generally Palestinian lack of political power.

Nowhere is Suleiman’s gift more apparent than in the final image of Chronicle, probably the most eloquent, resonant moment in the whole Festival. An old couple falls asleep while watching TV, and the last thing we see is the two of them unconscious before a televised Israeli flag waving before a blue sky, accompanied by the national anthem. It’s a charged, potent image, suggesting that for the Palestinians, there is no space, not even home, not even sleep, that’s free from the presence of the Israelis, that’s still entirely theirs.

The most pleasant surprise in the Festival, Hany Abu-Assad’s Ford Transit (2002), owes a lot to the work of Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, whose work generally falls into a hybrid genre combining elements of documentary and fiction filmmaking. Ford Transit is ostensibly a documentary on the Ford vans which serve as taxis in the Territories, and more specifically a portrait of a particular driver. Its strength is its concentration on the details of daily life, its strategy of letting the big picture emerge naturally and understatedly from an accumulation of precise observation. There’s no footage of rock-throwing, Israeli bulldozing, or anything like that – most of the movie consists either of the passengers discussing current events, various figures addressing the camera directly from the back of the van (including Hanan Ashrawi, the subject of another film in the Festival), or the driver expounding on his choice of vocation and his strategies for avoiding the various roadblocks he encounters. Its approach allows it to cast its net widely, encompassing portraiture, serious discussion (one passenger wisely observes, “An American president with a low IQ is the real terror”), and sociological observation (in one hilarious scene the male passengers’ animated discussion stops short the moment a young woman enters the van, followed by a period of awkward silence until she gets out, at which point the discussion begins again as if uninterrupted).

Like the Suleiman films, though, Ford Transit is craftiest in its ability to smuggle moments of great seriousness into a film that is often very funny and apparently low-key. When an Israeli policeman who has stopped the driver asks him his age and he responds sarcastically, “100”, the policeman, with no warning or ceremony, hits him (“Are you mocking me because of the camera?”). Because nothing else in the film has prepared us for such a random act of violence, it’s a truly shocking moment. Doubly so because it’s so difficult to determine exactly the nature of the film’s balance between documentary and fiction. Surely no one in the film is an actor; but as the film goes on and the relationship between the driver and the film crew becomes more and more complicated, it dawns on us that Abu-Assad is playing increasingly sophisticated games with the audience. Ford Transit comes to resemble, above all, Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror (1997), in which the story of a little girl trying to find her way home from school changes into something similar but different when the little girl refuses to keep acting – a chronicle of a little girl trying to get home from a film shoot, with the crew following her and attempting to convince her to continue. Near the end of Ford Transit, the driver, announcing, “I’ve had enough of this film, honestly”, tears off his microphone and leaves the taxi. From the cameraperson’s position in the van, we see a crewmember (Abu-Assad?) chase after him and talk him into continuing. In The Mirror, the little girl’s rebellion against the film crew could be seen as standing in for a rebellion against the constraints of Iranian society. In Ford Transit, the driver’s rebellion seems equally suggestive. Explaining early in the film why he has chosen to drive a taxi, he says, “I hate routine,” and one of the high points of the film is the sequence in which he demonstrates his ability to navigate around a long traffic jam at a roadblock. His discomfort in his role as movie subject seems like a logical extension of his basic restlessness, both of which speak to his identity as a Palestinian, denied both freedom and identity.

As well as a cultural and political assertion of identity, the Palestinian Film Festival functioned as a sort of laboratory for thinking about how to represent an existence as difficult and singular as the Palestinians’. Between the extremes of conventional narrative filmmaking and straightforward reportage, the Festival offered several alternative approaches, ways of bearing witness while also imaginatively shaping and analyzing – either through the impressionistic portraiture of Song on a Narrow Path, the fragmented, repetitive structure and serious comedy of Suleiman’s films, or the blurring of documentary and fiction in Ford Transit. The Festival, in this sense, was a step towards defining a Palestinian national cinema, just as on another level it was a step in the process of preserving, documenting, disseminating, and discussing that cinema, one that bears a much heavier and more urgent burden than most – the responsibility of upholding, first for the Palestinians themselves and then for the world at large, the existence of a Palestinian cultural identity, in the face of overwhelmingly hostile pressures. Whether the Festival is able to maintain its momentum remains to be seen; but this first step was such a bold, assertive one, it seems destined to accomplish a great deal.

Endnotes

  1. Edward W. Said, The Politics of Dispossession, Vintage, London, 1995, p. 118
  2. Edward W. Said, After the Last Sky, Pantheon Books, New York, 1986, p. 23
  3. Edward W. Said, The Politics of Dispossession, Vintage, London, 1995, pp. 78-100
  4. Edward W. Said, After the Last Sky, Pantheon Books, New York, 1986, pg. 14
  5. Ibid, p. 38