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Of The People, For the People: Militant Palestinian Cinema (1968-1982)

Monday 13 May 2024, by Asma Ibrahim

The screening programme Of The People, For the People: Militant Palestinian Cinema (1968-1982) was held as part of Doc City Festival. It was curated by filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky.

Before attending Of The People, For the People, my main exposure to early Palestinian cinema was via R21 AKA Restoring Solidarity which I saw at the Institute of Contemporary Arts some months ago. This was a very different experience. After a strong opening statement by Saeed Taji Farouky, we were guided through his curated selection of five films made in the 1970s:

Scenes from the Occupation of Gaza (Mustafa Abu Ali, 1973)
The Visit (Qais Al-Zubaidi, 1970)
Palestinian Women (Jocelyne Saab, 1973)
Our Small Houses (Kassem Hawal, 1974)
They Do Not Exist (Mustafa Abu Ali, 1974)

The first film, Scenes from the Occupation of Gaza, was familiar to my eyes. Made by Mustafa Abu Ali, one of the founders of the Palestine Film Unit, it is a fantastic example of how a completely different tale can be told with the same content. Mustafa Abu Ali repurposed footage meant for a French documentary on Palestine, instead weaving a tale about Palestinian resilience in the face of occupation. It is a timely film, confronting the audience with an occupied Gaza of decades past. We hear about Khan Younis and Rafah , names that are now as familiar as our local neighbourhoods. The film repeatedly uses the word ‘fedayeen’, which means resistance fighter in Arabic. Strangely enough, I find myself thinking of Dune Part Two - which I had watched two days prior. Frank Herbert’s heavy lifting from Arabic included fedayeen (in Dune ‘fedaykin’) to refer to the Fremen, who used similar guerilla tactics against their enemies - the Harkonnens.

Scenes from the Occupation of Gaza is followed by The Visit by Qais Al-Zubaidi, an experimental nine-minute short film. The Visit is a collage-style film featuring poetry from prominent Palestinian poets like Mahmoud Darweish, Samih al-Qasim and Tawfiq Ziad. In the darkness of a cinema, the eerie scenes and poetry readings are particularly impressive.

One of my favourite films from the selection was Palestinian Women (Jocelyne Saab, 1973). Initially commissioned by Antenne 2, a French TV channel, it was then stuck in the editing process and never aired. The opening scene is set in a kindergarten classroom, we are told that the women accompanying the children aren’t ordinary women but guerrilla fighters. Soon we are watching interviews with female Palestinian students in Beirut. I was particularly struck by one interviewee who talked about female emancipation as being part of their struggle for liberation. Her goal was not to return to what was but to create a better future for her people in every way possible. I also suspected the following line may be why the film was shelved: “It is not just Israel who is at war with us, but also the United States and France, and all the other countries… The coward ones fight with their aviation. The brave ones fight, setting foot to free their land.” This statement is articulated by a fierce woman seated on the ground, a gun at her side.

The fourth film, Our Small Houses is less well-known but an interesting work of cinema. It is a PFLP creation by Iraqi director Kassem Hewel. It is a black-and-white montage film that ends with dramatic extended first person POV shots of a rifle, these emphasise the notion of the camera as a weapon, but also invite the viewer to join the movement and ‘shoot’.

We finish with They Do Not Exist, another Mustafa Abu Ali short film. The story of the film itself is remarkable. Salvaged from a wrecked Beirut in 1982, it was restored, smuggled in and finally screened in Jerusalem, Palestine in 2003. Seeing his film for the first time in around twenty years, Mustafa Abu Ali said “We used to say ‘art for the struggle’, but now it’s ‘struggle for the art’.” The title is a reference to Golda Meir’s remark that Palestinians do not exist. It is a powerful film that merits a rewatch. I was particularly touched by the sincerity of Aida, a ten year-old girl in the Nabatieh refugee camp, who narrates a letter she writes to revolutionary fighters. She laments that the best gift she can offer is a towel, but expresses her admiration for the fighters and praises their courage.

The Q&A that follows features Professor Lina Khatib from the SOAS Middle East Institute, and Dr Nadia Yaqub from the University of North Carolina. One of the most memorable points was on the creation and destruction of archives. While the Israeli occupation has regularly engaged in cultural and historical erasure, through the destruction of institutions, libraries and other formal archives, Dr Nadia Yaqub emphasised that we should not only frame this situation in such a way that Palestinians are passive victims. Instead, it is important to remember that Palestinians actively respond to these acts of erasure by reconstructing archives and making entirely new ones. After all, the point behind historical and cultural erasure is for the Israeli regime to destroy any sense of peoplehood amongst the indigenous Palestinians. To be truly acknowledged as a people would be to acknowledge their claim to the land.

The selected films are diverse in style, content and direction but all portray Palestinians as active revolutionaries resisting imperialism, rather than helpless victims. These films mark a determination by Palestinians to control their own image and narrative. Screened across film festivals across the globe, they indicate not just the breadth of cinema on Palestine, but also how international the Palestinian cause truly is. Of The People, For the People is a fitting tribute to Palestinian filmmaking of the past and a strong reminder that while the camera can be a ‘weapon for imperialism’, it is also a weapon for resistance.

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