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Michel Khleifi – Palestine’s Film Poet

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 09.01.2008:

Michel Khleifi was born in Nazareth in 1950 into a working-class family, the youngest of five children. He grew up in the popular streets of the old city, acquiring an irreverent mix of tales, song, religious myth, and ingenious swear words that shaped his imagination and nurtured his love of stories. Despite a happy childhood, the 1950s and 60s were overshadowed by the inescapable harshness of the occupation, economic hardship, and the very recent decimation and forced exile of most of Palestinian society. Work was scarce and poverty rampant. His father, an ardent communist who had served in the British Police, was often unemployed. But Palestinian society in Israel was full of hope in the early, heady days of Nasserism. Many joined the Communist Party or other nationalist organizations. Much of that hope was channelled through education, new ideas, and political engagement. One of Michel’s older brothers, George, a keen reader and gifted storyteller with a passion for Arabic literature, introduced new books into the household, which the young boy devoured.

In 1964, at the age of 14, following an argument with his mother about the uselessness of education and the need for him to earn a living, Michel left school to work first in a garage in Nazareth and later in Haifa. In due course, he became a mechanic and dreamt of travelling to Germany to train with Volkswagen and then return to open his own garage. But he had other, more pressing dreams too – the dream to break free from Israel and its oppressiveness, but also from his own restrictive society. He became increasingly interested in theatre, which he eventually decided to study abroad. In 1970 he left Israel for the first time with his $200 worth of savings to join a cousin who had settled in Belgium, en route to his final destination in Germany.

He never made it. While in Belgium, he was encouraged to stay and learn French, then apply to study theatre at the Institut national supérieur des arts du spectacle (INSAS). Thus, for several long and lonely winter months spent in the provincial city of Mons, he worked hard at learning enough French to apply.

From 1971 to 1975, Khleifi studied theatre and television. His quick, probing intelligence and prodigious memory helped him readily understand the challenges of a foreign society and negotiate his first steps in a difficult but exciting field.

In 1975 he left INSAS having written a graduation thesis that was to inform his whole career’s work. The thesis studied existing forms of cultural expression in Palestine and proposed ways of promoting and developing it. At its core was an idea that continues to inform Khleifi’s work to this day – the pre-eminent importance of intellectual and cultural freedom as a prerequisite for social enfranchisement.

Nowhere was this idea to be more resonant than in the Arab context, and specifically Palestine. The 1967 war and the occupation of the rest of historical Palestine, the Lebanese civil war, the neutralization of Egypt through the Sadat initiative, and the rise in the influence of the conservative petrodollar states revealed a society in deep crisis and lurching towards greater conservatism. Why was all this happening? Where were the factors so severely restraining our emancipation? It seemed to the young graduate that not enough attention was being invested in the human being and too much of it afforded to the empty, often militaristic and phallocratic slogans of Arab political culture.

Khleifi began his professional career working with the experienced Belgian television producer André Dartevelle. With him, he made a number of documentary films in Palestine that taught Khleifi both the potential and limitations of television language and allowed him to develop effective interview techniques. In between films, he began to enrich his knowledge of cinema, despite having to frequently return to the garage to make ends meet. In 1975, he met Perrine Humblet, who was to become his companion and with whom he had a son, Nael, in 1979.

In 1980, Khleifi wrote his first long-format project, a documentary film in which he portrays his elderly aunt – a working-class woman employed in an Israeli clothes factory who had been widowed in 1948 and had brought up her children single-handedly – and, in parallel, Sahar Khalifeh, then a rising literary star and divorced middle-class feminist activist. The film, entitled Fertile Memory, combined a lush, lyrical intimacy with a rich documentary style that, for the first time since 1948, was to reveal Palestine to Arab audiences from the viewpoint of one of its own sons. The struggle for Palestine takes on the form of the old aunt’s obstinate tenacity in refusing to sell the land she inherited from her husband to the local kibbutz, as well as the novelist’s brave decision to confront her disapproving conservative community by seeking a divorce from an unhappy marriage and supporting herself and her children alone. In an eerie interview that resonates to this day, she refers to society’s restrictions on women’s freedom and asks: “When half a society is enchained, how can it hope to liberate itself?” Fertile was the first Palestinian film to be selected at the Cannes Film Festival and won the First Film prize at the Carthage Festival.

Khleifi’s keen awareness of the oppressive hierarchies that dominate Arab and Palestinian society made him provocative and deeply controversial. His espousal of women’s rights and his insistence on opposing oppression, whatever form it takes, also made him difficult to marshal by the ideologies of both the left and the right. His next film, Maloul Celebrates Its Destruction (1985), is a powerful short work that pioneered films made about the return of refugees to the ruins of their destroyed villages. It also marked an original treatment of documentary mise-en-scène that merged direct observation with dramatic use of montage – in effect combining techniques of cinéma vérité and fiction in a style best described as poetic.

It was an approach that served him well in writing and filming Wedding in Galilee (1987), his first feature film, which tells the story of a traditional village mukhtar who insists on giving his son a wedding party despite the fact that the village is under curfew. The Military Governor first refuses, then accepts if he and his officers are invited. The mukhtar yields to the condition, but the officers must stay until the very end. This provokes the anger and anxiety of the whole village. The film is a dramatic and opulent evocation of the beauty and fragility of Palestine and its people, and it ends with a scene that uncannily foretells the first Intifada, where the villagers expel the army by throwing at it what seem like gifts, as if to say: “Take what you like but go.” Wedding was selected at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the International Critics’ Prize. It also won the Golden Shell at San Sebastian.

A lifelong believer in the revolutionary power of ideas and an opponent of political violence, Khleifi made his next and most controversial film, Canticle of the Stones (1990), in the midst of the first Intifada. Inspired in part by Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, it is a love story that openly mixes documentary and fiction and is a passionate defence of the Palestinian right to life and freedom. But its refusal to condone the “children of the Intifada,” whom he saw as victims and not heroes, and his resistance to revolutionary clichés, made him an unsuitable candidate for official manipulation. Increasingly, he began to feel marginalized and misunderstood in Palestinian and Arab circles where he found little support.

In 1992, he created a screen adaptation of a Belgian novel on the debilitating effect of bureaucracy on human beings, L’ordre du jour – his most aesthetically ambitious work. The film is baroque in its scale and vision, but deeply pessimistic in tone. It was also a commercial flop.

In 1993, therefore, Khleifi returned to Palestine – “the main reason I ever started making films,” as he often repeats – with an elegiac film that he wrote in two weeks in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Teaming up with two of his habitual actors, Makram Khouri and Bushra Qaraman, as well as his brother George – himself a filmmaker – his erstwhile student and now producer, Omar Al-Qattan, and a small crew of European and Palestinian technicians, including Remon Fromont, his cameraman from Canticle, he spent four long, cold months in the early parts of 1994 shooting Tale of the Three Jewels, a children’s love story set in the uprising and starring two boys from Gaza and a girl from the Galilee. As with all his work, Khleifi once again testifies to the extraordinary beauty of Palestine – the orange and palm groves, the sea, the wild flora and fauna – which have all but disappeared over the past thirteen years, devastated by the Israeli Army and by irresponsible Palestinian building. Above all, the film is a passionate cry in defence of a childhood that seemed lost to so many children who grew up during the uprising.

Despite appearing in the Cannes Film Festival and receiving a number of international awards, the film had a disappointing career. It came out in 1995, when the euphoria of Oslo was beginning and the political atmosphere changing. A documentary on mixed marriages between Arabs and Jews in Palestine followed, as well as a number of screenplays, none of which went into production. In the late 1990s, Khleifi returned to teaching at his alma mater, the INSAS, where he continues to be an influential voice. He also wrote and directed La fuite au paradis, a powerful work for the theatre in defence of illegal immigration. But eruption of the second uprising, with its uncontrollable violence and social and cultural trauma, as well as Israel’s vicious response, led Khleifi to work on his most politically direct work, Route 181 (2003), which he co-directed with the Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan. The film is a four-and-a-half-hour cinematic journey along the (mostly invisible) line that UN Resolution 181 decreed to divide Palestine in 1947. More testimony than film, it is a powerful indictment of the folly of partition and of the profound devastation which it caused and continues to cause the peoples of Palestine.

Always a committed artist, Khleifi has persistently tried to use his films as training or teaching tools to facilitate the transfer of know-how and technology from north to south. Between 2005 and 2007, while continuing to teach at INSAS, he thus led the training programme of the Palestinian Audio-visual Project. He is currently planning two new feature films.

Courtesy of Sindibad Films.

Based in the United Kingdom, Sindibad Films is a small production company dedicated to making artistically innovative and progressive films on the Arab and Muslim worlds.


This Week in Palestine

January 2007

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