Palestinian Revolution Cinema
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 13.01.2008:
By Khadija Habshneh
“Through the still and animated picture we can convey and disseminate the concepts of revolution to the public and keep them alive.” With this concept in mind, the Department of Photography was established early in 1968 and later came to be known as the Palestine Films Unit. In the 1970s, the unit was transformed into the Palestinian Cinema Institute.
In the second half of 1967, following the June War, three Palestinians who were the first among the graduates in the field of cinematography – Sulafa Jadallah, who graduated from the Higher Cinema School in Cairo and was the first photographer in the Arab world, photographer Hani Johariyyeh, and Mustafa Abu Ali, who graduated from the London School of Film Technique – met together to discuss the possibility of launching cinematic arts with the revolution. The national struggle introduced by the Fateh movement in 1965, known as the Palestinian Revolution and fedayeen, had already appealed to thousands of Palestinian and Arab youth, especially in the aftermath of the drastic discomfiture of the Arab armies during the June 1967 War.
In one of his articles, Hani Johariyyeh reminisces, “We started work even before we managed to find a place and equipment. At the beginning, we documented the pictures of martyrs and revolution-related activities, but following the al-Karamah* (Dignity) Battle in March 1968, in which Palestinian fedayeen fought bravely against the Israeli forces for more than 19 hours, the Palestinian Revolution became the target of fierce international media reports and thus there was an increasing need for photos. Our first workplace was a kitchen in one of the houses that accommodated all the equipment of the revolution. The kitchen became a spot for shooting and developing films. We worked with simple cameras and a primitive drying machine that worked with a kerosene heater.”1
Johariyyeh continued, “The photography department supplied the media revolution information office with the Palestinian events and fedayeen activities and, as a result, the pictures of Palestinian fedayeen spread throughout the world, especially those pictures that portrayed the al-Karamah (Dignity) Battle of March 1967. A group of young, high-spirited nationalists toiled round the clock to print, develop, and magnify posters of the fedayeen. Posters were hung in big tents in al-Wihdat Refugee Camp in Jordan. That was the first exhibit in which the Palestinian people saw themselves in pictures that spoke of their national cause and revolution. For the first time they could see Palestinian youth fighting against the Israeli Army. In addition, several Arab artists contributed paintings that depicted the Palestinian revolution. The exhibit achieved great success and took place in various parts of the Arab world. The exhibit was a springboard that paved the way for the development of the photography department. New equipment was purchased and many revolutionaries joined. Indeed photography had become a new weapon in the Palestinian Revolution.”
At that time, Johariyyeh added, limited cinema work began with leasing a 16mm camera to record Palestinian revolutionary operations, conferences, demonstrations, etc. According to Johariyyeh, there was no particular plan “for our work but we felt the acute need to document the acts of the revolution in order to create public awareness about it.” At the end of 1969, the cinema department managed to obtain fully equipped advanced cameras, a recorder, and other equipment that was crucial to the production of quality works in the most difficult circumstances. Johariyyeh continued, “We started to plan for a production that would serve the Revolution and, in response to the Rogers Plan in 1969, we produced the first film titled No to the Peaceful Solution. The first screening of the film took place in an underground shelter full of sand and rocks and was attended by the leadership of the revolution and revolutionaries. Due to the short time in which the film was made, it was lacking in many artistic aspects; however, the film marked the beginning of the Palestine Films Unit that derived from the Photography Department.
During September 1970, the Unit recorded the events of the brutal battle that confronted the revolution (Black September). After the Battle of Jerash in 1971, however, the revolution was forced to transfer its military forces to south Lebanon. The Unit’s equipment and documents were transported with the convoy of the revolution fighters.
On the other hand, the founders of the Palestine Films Unit, which was the first cinematic unit that worked with a Palestinian revolutionary organisation, were dispersed. Its main founder, Sulafa Jadallah, required intensive medical treatment due to a serious head injury; Hani Johariyyeh was denied travel and, as a result, failed to join the revolution forces before the end of 1975; Mustafa Abu Ali was the only one who managed to join the revolution in Lebanon in 1970, where he produced a documentary about the September events, Blood and Soul. In addition, he rebuilt the cinema and photography department, which later developed into two branches, one for photography and another for film production, which embraced a large number of personnel who had experience in such spheres of cinema as sound engineering, photography, direction, etc. The film production unit had all necessary equipment for filmmaking, and it later came to be known as the Palestine Cinema Institute.
Until the exodus of the Palestinian Liberation Organization forces from Lebanon in 1982, the Palestine Cinema Institute managed to produce more than thirty documentaries. Moreover, it co-produced several documentaries with a number of cinema groups from various countries such as Italy, Britain, France, Germany, and Argentina, among others.
Since its inception, the Palestine Cinema Institute gave special attention to the screening of documentaries that talked about the life of refugees in camps and the military bases of fighters. For the first time, Palestinians watched films that addressed their suffering, concerns, and hopes. Later, Palestinian documentaries were screened in schools, universities, and cultural centres; in addition, Palestinian film became the companion of political delegations to conferences, and copies of films were distributed to PLO offices throughout the world.
The documentary Blood and Soul was screened in 1971 at the Damascus Youth Cinema Festival as the first Palestinian film to participate in an international film festival. It was granted the silver award. The film offered an alternative to the traditional Arab cinema. In a short time, Palestinian film became the star of international film festivals in Leipzig, Moscow, Oberhausen, Carthage, Berlin, Cannes, etc. Furthermore, Palestinian film gained precedence over Israeli film in international festivals.
Driven by the success achieved by Palestinian film, several Palestinian organisations set up cinema departments in their cultural and media sections, such as the PLFP Central Media Committee in 1971, the PLO Cultural Media Department in 1972, the PDFLP Central Media in 1973, Palestine Cinema Group/Palestine Research Center in 1973, and Samed for Cinema Production in 1976. Approximately twenty-five films were produced.
The Palestine Cinema Institute documented all events related to the Palestinian people and their revolution thus accumulating a rich archive of photographs of Palestinian political and military activities as well as popular activities in refugee camps. In 1976 the institute set up the Archive and Cinematheque Department, which contained more than one hundred films that dealt with the Palestinian cause and the liberation movements in many parts of the word such as Cuba, Vietnam, China, the former Soviet Union, and other countries. In addition, the institute had its own screening hall, and it organized training sessions and published five issues of Sound and Picture, a journal that addressed various cinema issues. Furthermore, the institute had the support of several countries that supplied it with cinema equipment, scholarships, and training in Berlin, Moscow, Baghdad, and Cuba. All this contributed to the development of the Palestine Cinema Institute, and many Arab and Palestinian new graduates in filmmaking joined its ranks.
Revolution Cinema: Cinema of the People
Since the inception of the Films Production Unit in 1968, the three pioneers of the Palestinian cinema believed that they were embarking on an endeavour that was totally different from traditional cinema. Mustafa Abu Ali recounted: “We asked ourselves, ‘Are the artistic and aesthetic values that we studied at the university appropriate for our people? Should we address the Arab and Palestinian people with the same approaches that we studied in London and Cairo? Could we express the experience of the Revolution in the traditional manner that was detached from the experience of the Revolution? Should we emulate the traditions that are created and employed by colonial cinema? Or should we develop new methods and a special language that are related to us and to our experience and to the particularities of the Palestinian Revolution?’”2 These questions determined the work and trend of Palestine Film Unit.
Abu Ali added, “We stood before a long and winding road, and we realized that we had to develop a cinema that would reflect the war of the people. The documentary Blood and Soul was the right indicator of the work and style of the films production unit.”
After the September incidents and the exodus of Palestinian revolutionaries from Jordan, a new idea about producing a film was crystallized. There was an intense debate between the people and politicians about what happened in September 1970 and, after long discussions, it became necessary to present full political coverage of what had happened. As a result, political analysis became the focal point of the film. In other words, the revolutionary film took preference over the traditional documentary, and political analysis replaced traditional scenario. A good number of the revolution cadres assisted in writing the analysis, and the artistic team built the film on the basis of the analysis. Photographic and other cinematic material shot during the September incidents was employed to reflect various political and military events. During the montage period there were constructive discussions and consultations between the revolution cadres and filmmakers that lasted for more than four months. Tempo and symbolic style were put aside.
Reviewing Palestinian cinematic literature3 and the experience involved in making Blood and Soul, one could notice that the cinema of the revolution sought its own beauty – in simple and clear language that portrayed the real life of the people and addressed them realistically and objectively. Its objective was to help people understand and find solutions to their problems and continue to fight against their enemy. Thus it was necessary for filmmakers to get closer to the people in order to understand their needs and expose the colonial, military, and cultural policies of the occupying powers.
Palestinian cinema was far from “Hollywoodian.” It resorted to methods inspired by the revolution and popular culture; it was based on the sense of true belonging to the Palestinian people and their cause. Filmmakers worked as a team and opted to use only the name of the Palestine Films Unit in their early films. The film team worked in risky circumstances and, in fact, four photographers were killed while shooting during battles. To pay tribute to them, I believe that I should not end this article without mentioning their names in order to keep their memory alive in the minds of the Palestinian people: Sulafa Jadallah, Hani Johariyyeh, Muti Omar, and Abdel Hafez al-Asmar.
The filmmakers of the Palestinian revolution produced films that were committed to the revolution. Since the revolution emerged for the sake of the people, it was necessary that cinema be for the people.
Khadijeh Habashneh is a researcher and consultant in women’s issues. She worked until 1982 as a film director and head of the archive and cinematheaque at the Palestine Cinema Institute in Beirut.
*Alkaramah is a small village beside the Jordan River that was used as a base by the fedayeen between 1967 and 1970.
1- Hani Johariyyeh, “The Early Beginnings of the Palestine Cinema Institution.” Johariyyeh is a photographer and a founder of the Revolution Cinema. His article was published in Palestine in Cinema, edited by the Lebanese film critic Waleed Shamit.
2- “The Beginning and Trends of Palestinian Cinema,” an article co-authored by Mustafa Abu Ali, one of the founders of the Palestinian cinema, and Hassan Abu Ghanimeh, a Jordanian film critic. The article appeared in Palestine in Cinema.
3- Interview with Mustafa Abu Ali and Hassan Abu Ghanimeh about the role of the revolution cinema. The interview was conducted by the French film critic Guy Hannibal and the Tunisian film critic al-Taher Shariah, 1972. The whole interview appeared in Palestine in Cinema.
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