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Emily Jacir, filmmaker

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 13.01.2008:

Emily Jacir’s Material for a Film: Ongoing homage and artistic revenge for Wa’el Zuaiter

By Najwan Darwish

For the first time in its history, the Venetian Golden Lion Award has been granted to a Palestinian artist. Emily Jacir, who is not yet forty years old, believes that the award is not merely an international prize awarded to her in appreciation of artistic excellence. For her the winning of the Golden Lion has national significance, especially as it coincides with the 35th commemoration of the assassination of the Palestinian man of letters and spokesman for the Palestinian cause, Wa’el Zuaiter – who was killed by the Israeli Mossad in Rome on October 17, 1972.

Jacir’s winning documentary, Material for a Film, focuses on the assassination of Zuaiter and One Thousand and One Nights, which he was translating into Italian. One bleak day the Israeli Mossad shot him in front of his house in Rome as he was returning to his modest apartment carrying books and bread. His death marked the beginning of an assassination cycle perpetrated by Israel against Palestinian intellectuals and writers.

Material for a Film is an ongoing installation – mixed-media art project – that Jacir launched in 2005. It is an investigation of fate, like the work of a novelist who follows the destinies of the characters to shed light on the lost and obscure parts of their lives. Jacir’s installation combines photography, cinema, acoustics, and archive material, making it an artistic “vendetta” work for Zuaiter, whose assassination invoked feelings of acute sorrow that still rage on thirty-five years after his death. The Golden Lion was received with a double dose of happiness: it is both an acknowledgment of the prestigious rank that Palestinian and Arab art has attained and an act of homage to the spirit of Zuaiter and his thoughts, as well as a tribute to the Palestinian cause.

Jacir looked for Zuaiter almost everywhere. She met with his friends in Italy more than thirty years after his death. She sought out the copy of One Thousand and One Nights that Zuaiter had with him at the moment of his death. She photographed the book and designed one thousand embodiments of it – each embodiment has a hole in it similar to that made on Zuaiter’s copy by the Mossad’s revolvers.

In addition, Jacir met with Zuaiter’s sister Naela who is living in Nablus. She studied the house where Zuaiter spent his childhood. In Rome, Jacir spent long hours in his apartment on the seventh floor of Buiding Number 20 that seemed to touch the clouds above Annibaliano Square. She took pictures of the details that had influenced Zuaiter, who was dubbed by his contemporaries “the pure revolutionary.” In short, Jacir re-lived Zuaiter’s life in the same way as authors do when they seek to impersonate their characters and accompany them to the very end.

Jacir’s documentary reminds spectators of a heinous crime that was committed against the innocent who possess nothing in life except love and words. Steven Spielberg’s Munich depicts the scene of Zuaiter’s murder and at the same time sheds light on an exceptional, almost charismatic, intellectual who managed to weave friendship with the Italian left as well as with well-known Italian writers and intellectuals. Perhaps we may wonder about the relation between Jacir’s documentary and Spielberg, whose film was – from the Palestinian perspective – lacking in many details. It is this lack of detail that spurred Jacir to present a Palestinian viewpoint of Zuaiter’s life and assassination through employing the allegory of One Thousand and One Nights.

According to Jacir, her work on the documentary was inspired by a book written by Zuaiter’s friend, a woman called Janet Venn Brown. Published in 1979, the book was titled For a Palestinian: In Memory of Wael Zuaiter. One chapter in the book, titled “Material for a Film,” by Elio Petri and Ugo Pirro, consisted of a series of dialogues and interviews with people who knew Zuaiter in Rome, including Janet herself. The chapter talks about the attempt of Petri and Pirro to produce a documentary about Zuaiter’s life, but the premature death of Pirro brought the whole project to an end. This was the starting point of Jacir’s documentary project. In 2005, Jacir made up her mind to finish the work of the Italian producers. Her documentary on Zuaiter is an allegory of Palestinian life in general.

Emily Jacir was born in Bethlehem in 1970. She was brought up in Saudi Arabia but went to school in Rome. Later she travelled to Texas and Tennessee in the United States where she did her graduate studies. Currently, Jacir lives in New York but travels occasionally to Ramallah, where one may spot her in a café or at the opening of an exhibition – Ramallah, the “un-hampered” child of Oslo, has a place in Jacir’s artwork, especially the violent drama that surrounds and besieges it.

Jacir has become a specialist in recording the daily suffering of the Palestinian people. Her play on video, Crossing Surda (2002), records Jacir’s own experience of going through the Surda checkpoint, which has turned the life of thirty nearby villages into misery. In 2003, Jacir produced Where Do We Come From? The question is posed by Palestinians who cannot move freely in their own country. Since Jacir carries a US passport and can go anywhere she desires, she wonders what she can do on their behalf in order to relieve them. She receives numerous requests and responds to all of them. Each time she receives a request, she films herself as she carries out the requested task: picking an orange from an orchard; watering a tree in an evacuated village; going to Haifa and playing football with the first Palestinian child she sees in the street.

Jacir appears in a series of photos that shows her playing football with a child called Kamel from Haifa. Perhaps it is only this that remains from a nation that is gradually dwindling as each day passes …

Najwan Darwish is a poet, critic, editor, and producer. He is a chief editor of ROA’A (the Palestinian monthly journal on arts and culture) and the correspondent of Al-Akhbar Lebanese newspaper in Jerusalem. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

January 2008

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