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Palestinian Cinema – An Example for the Region?

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 24.01.2008:

By Omar Al-Qattan

The Artist and the World

In trying to reconcile their imagination and their desires with the world around them, artists often find themselves trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. Yet a work of art can momentarily lift us out of that trap, briefly allowing us to understand our past and present and also glimpse what could potentially happen in the future.

But what if the reference points are fading, if the fundamental objective realities and moral certainties we took for granted are no longer valid? What if the physical world itself has been changed beyond recognition? This paradigm of disorientation applies to several Arab nations, but for Palestinians there are none of the illusions and complacency of demarcated borders nor the comforts of a state with an army and police force to protect us. Only a battered, brittle sense of being and a fierce desire to survive.

Perhaps this is why we have produced artworks which, in their rebellious and innovative energy, proved revolutionary and avant-garde in contemporary Arab culture: the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the fiction of Emil Habibi and Ghassan Kanafani, the historiography of Hanna Batatu, the criticism of Edward Said, among others. But, with the exception of Said’s work, no other artistic medium has reached a universal audience as widely and effectively as cinema has. Palestinian films have increasingly transcended Middle Eastern geographical and cultural borders. International audiences, often in solidarity, have been generous not only towards outstanding work but also towards the mediocre, the grand and the quirky, the banal and the profoundly moving.

With the inevitable disenchantment and dismay caused by the apparent collapse of our national liberation project, will this public acceptance last? A perceptive audience – one must always assume that audiences are perceptive – may wonder how such a creative and brave people can produce a society and leadership so retrograde, so lacking in ideas and imagination, as to slip into civil war. Can artists be forgiven their impotence in such situations? What can we expect of them – of ourselves – when the geography of our homeland continues to shrink daily and our people descend into despair? Can our artists reveal the mechanisms of injustice that have gripped us and, at the same time, persuade us that change is still possible? Only, I believe, if we continue to defend our right to create independent, uncensored, and rigorous work, not least since (lest we forget) colonial projects such as Zionism, short of committing outright genocide, can only succeed if they manage to culturally eradicate the colonised society.

One strategic element that has always been crucial for the survival of the Palestinian struggle is the powerful bond between those “inside” historical Palestine (whether the West Bank, Gaza Strip, or the State of Israel) and those in exile. In the past, when that bond became tenuous, the economic and political price has been onerous, leading to deep anxiety about our culture’s survival. Key moments of cultural transformation in our cultural landscape have often happened when a significant event strengthened this bond: the publication of the anthology Diwan el-watan al-muhtal in the 1960s, which introduced the work of Palestinian poets living in the State of Israel to their exiled brethren and paved the way for Mahmoud Darwish’s voluntary exile from Israel to Beirut; or the showing in 1981 throughout the Arab world of Michel Khleifi’s film Fertile Memories, the first film made after 1948 by a Palestinian inside the occupied homeland.

Economics

But, symbolic moments aside, let us not forget that culture is dependent upon an economy – in fact, it simply cannot exist outside the laws of that economy (to which it is also an important contributor).

National liberation means trying to rebuild a national economy by democratically re-appropriating its most basic components. The Occupation has systematically decimated the Palestinian economy, making it entirely dependent on that of Israel. But until Oslo and the Second Intifada, it was a functional, if dependent, economy. Then came the strategic Israeli decision in 2000 to physically separate the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza from the citizens of Israel without allowing the possibility of alternative outlets for the Palestinian workforce and trade and imprisoning the inhabitants of the West Bank (and until 2005, the Gaza Strip) in non-contiguous areas between which movement is always difficult and often impossible. The result has been slow societal and cultural death and an alarming rate of emigration among the educated.

As after 1948, exile Palestinian economies continue to make significant contributions to the prosperity of Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gulf countries. How can these relatively vibrant economies serve the struggling economy at home? The answer is not through profit-driven speculation but through long-term, employment-generating and capacity-building investment.

If I want to make a film in Palestine, what will I find there? The stories, for sure; the enormous wealth of human situations that are deeply and universally moving, interesting, and often funny. But I would also find few qualified technicians and actors, not to mention experienced directors and producers, or properly equipped cinemas, reliable hire companies, or significant public or private finance. Virtually all contemporary films seen internationally were made with foreign finance, foreign crews and, sometimes, even foreign points of view! Some have been made with Israeli finance and crews. So if the primary concern of artists is to be in full control of their means and tools of expression, it is essential to create the know-how and the means of production that can allow for this autonomy.

How to address this situation? The answer lies in education, training, and culture. The transfer of technology is inadequate on its own. Anyone lacking in self-confidence after centuries of colonial humiliation may be trained to operate a foreign-made machine, but how is s/he to believe that s/he can appropriate it to the point of making it her or his own?

The Palestinian Audio-visual Project

It was with these challenges in mind that we launched the Palestinian Audio-visual Project in 2004, co-funded by the A.M. Qattan Foundation and the EU. The project has three areas of intervention. First and most significant is a major training programme in the arts of filmmaking designed and headed by the Palestinian director Michel Khleifi. The programme began in summer 2005 with a five-week foundation course for twenty-nine students from all over historical Palestine and Jordan. A few months later, nineteen students were invited back for a further three weeks. Over the following months, they participated in a scriptwriting competition and workshop resulting in three feature films and one documentary film project which will be completed by the end of 2007. Some have begun careers in production, sound recording, and as cameramen and camerawomen, others in writing and directing. Three of them have also worked on Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of this Sea, and two on Rashid Masharawi’s film A Normal Day, two of the few full-length feature films to be shot in the country in recent years.

Our aim was not only to create competent technicians but, more importantly, to offer students a rigorous work method enabling them to translate their ideas and projects into reality and to instil a sense of the importance of understanding film and audio-visual history and aesthetics. To quote Khleifi, the programme also aimed “to encourage them to build their artistic projects based on a continuous reflection upon the nature of the relationship between their subjective universe and the external, objective world.” We also wanted to offer a sense of possibility – in other words, that they too can do complex and challenging work in spite of the Occupation. This educational/cultural dimension, so vital to any creative industry, informed the second aspect of the project, namely the School Film Education Programme. Screening facilities and film clubs were established in 46 separate schools in historical Palestine (including Israel), Arabic-subtitled DVD copies of more than thirty classic international films were distributed, additional cinema masterpieces subtitled, and teachers in those schools trained to use film as a pedagogical tool. This is not simply a general initiative aimed at widening the film culture of a new generation. We believe it imperative that, in the absence of cinemas and viewing facilities (apart from commercial and state-controlled television), school children should have the democratic right to see films that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. We hope that the next phase of the project, if it happens, will involve school children making films as well.

The democratic principle also informed the third aspect of the project, which has provided distribution and DVD publishing grants for more than twenty-five films with a Palestinian theme to be distributed through the Project’s 46 school clubs and Shabaka, the Network of Arab Cinéclubs that we set up and that has a growing number of entirely voluntary members among community centres in Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. In this way, Palestinian films are now to be seen among the communities that they directly concern. This, it is hoped, will lay the modest foundations of a grass-roots film audience and, perhaps, a film economy.

Why is this so important? Without a grassroots and democratic film culture and a local market, there can never be an autonomous industry, whether in Palestine or anywhere else in the Arab world. Only that “natural” market, which speaks Arabic and is concerned with all things Arab, will make it possible for Arab and Palestinian films to be truly independent and persuade public and private finance that they are worthy of investment. Otherwise, our films will be for export only, exiled and severed from their home cultures.

One way forward is the establishment of a privately or publicly funded, independently managed investment fund, catering to outstanding Arab audio-visual projects on condition that they also create capacity, encourage innovation, and are properly distributed in the region. This fund could also be involved in founding a first-class, multi-disciplinary pan-Arab audio-visual academy. If these ambitious ideas do come to fruition, even if in exile, then who knows, perhaps Palestine may once again set a pioneering precedent for the Arab world.

Omar Al-Qattan is a filmmaker and the director of the Palestinian Audio-visual Project. He is also a trustee of the A.M. Qattan Foundation. For more information, see www.qattanfoundation.org/pav. This article was originally published by Vertigo magazine, London, Autumn/Winter 2007.

This Week in Palestine

January 2008

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