Palestinian Movies

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Palestine Film

The starting point for the Palestinian cinema was a short 20 minute-long film about the visit of Prince Saud to Jerusalem and Jaffa (Gers & Khleifi, 2008). The history of Palestinian cinema can be roughly divided into four periods. The first period was between the year of 1935 and 1948. The period preceded the events which came to be known as Naqba (disaster) (Gers & Khleifi, 2008). It is little known about this period because all relevant information is available only from recollections of participants in the Palestinian movie industry, notices in contemporary newspapers, and registration documents of production organizations (Gers & Khleifi, 2008). The second period took place between 1948 and 1967. This period is referred as to the Epoch of Silence, because almost no Palestinian movies were produced (Gers & Khleifi, 2008). As well as in the case of the first period, very little is known about the second period. The third period was the one between the year of 1968 and 1982. During these years, the fate of the Palestinian cinema was intrinsically tight to historical events. In 1967, the Gaza strip and the West Bank were occupied by Israeli forces (Gers & Khleifi, 2008). Under the pressure of the occupation, some Palestinian institutions such as the Palestine Liberation Organization became stronger. In this period, most Palestinian movies were produced in exile. This paper is an attempt to examine whether Palestinian movies of this period accurately portray the experience of Palestinians under the occupation and the experience of Palestinian refugees and expatriates.

Historical Context

Prior to exploring how movies depict a particular historical event or epoch, first it is necessary to explore the event or period itself. Therefore, one should look at the history of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

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The Israeli Palestinian conflict has its long and complicated history. Its beginning can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth / beginning of the twentieth century. Prior to World War I, lands which are known as Israel and Palestine were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. However, the situation changed after the war. One of the outcomes of the war was the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The Arab provinces of the Empire were occupied by Britain and France (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). In Anatolia, the new state an independent Turkish Republic emerged (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). During the Ottoman era, the Palestinian territory did not represent a distinctive administrative area. It was regarded a part of southern Syria and was divided between the provinces of Damascus, Beirut, and the special administrative unit of Jerusalem (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). In December 1917, in the course of the war, Britain occupied Jerusalem and detached the Palestinian territory from the Ottoman rule (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). Palestine, further, was put under British military occupation between 1917 and 1920 (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010).

At the same time, the growing popularity of Zionism was fixed in Britain. Zionists view Palestine as a historically Jewish land (Papp?, 2007). Zionists sought to establish their own national state (Papp?, 2007). They believed that this state should be established in their land as they thought of Palestine (Papp?, 2007). Jews have begun to settle in Palestine since 1882 (Papp?, 2007). Gradually, they purchased land and assets in Palestine. The number of Jews steadily increased. According to Papp? (2007) by the end of British Mandate Jewish owned 5.8 % of land in Palestine. However, they still remained in the minority: Palestinians constituted up to two-third of the population (Papp?, 2007). Zionism became very popular in Britain and gained the support of the top politicians. In other words, British politicians recognized the right of the Jewish people to establish their own national state. The famous Balfour Declaration is the reflection of that support. In this declaration the UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour gave assurances of support of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people by British government to Lord Rothschild (Balfour Declaration, 1917). The Secretary added that the British government would make every effort to facilitate the achievement of this goal (Balfour Declaration, 1917). At the same time, according to the Balfour Declaration Britain took the commitment to respect civil and religious rights of non-Jewish population in Palestine.

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During the military occupation years Britain attempted to reconcile conflicting aspirations of Zionists and Arabs. In particular, the British government maintained discussions between Weizmann, one of the leaders of the essay exampleZionist movement, and one of the Arab leaders at that time Prince Faysal of Syria (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). Weizmann promised that the Jewish community would cooperate with the Arabs, as far as economic development of Palestine was concerned (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). In return, Prince Faysal would recognize the Balfour Declaration under the condition that the rights of Palestinian Arabs were protected and the demands for independent Greater Syria were accepted (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). Cleveland & Bunt (2010) argue that Faysal did not agree to the creation of the Jewish state as some have argued. The authors specify that the Faysal-Weizmann agreement was rendered void because its provisions were violated by the French occupation of Syria (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010).

In 1920, Britain was awarded a mandate to rule the Palestinian territory. The mandate was formally sanctioned by the League of Nations two years later. The terms of the mandate, as it was sanctioned by the League of Nations, incorporated provisions of the Balfour Declaration and recognized Hebrew as an official language in Palestine (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). Naturally, the mandate provisions encouraged Zionists and brought uneasiness to the Arab inhabitants of Palestine (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). Britain found itself in a difficult position to meet its dual obligations to the Zionists and the Arab population of Palestine. At the same time, discontent among the Arab population grew. Subsequently, in 1937 the discontent was transformed into the revolt against the British mandate and the Jewish. Britain sent its troop to suppress the revolt but managed to restore the order only in 1939. The revolt brought grievances to all parties: more than 3,000 Arabs, 2,000 Jews and 600 British were killed (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). The economy of Palestine was drowned in chaos (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010).

The World War II and the Holocaust, during which millions of Jews were killed, made it clear to the international community that the Jewish people needed their own state. The public opinion in the West was that the settlement of the surviving Jews in Palestine could atone for the horrors that Western civilization had inflicted upon them (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). This position was especially popular in the United States (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). After lengthy and complicated negotiations, the UN adopted the so-called Partition Plan, according to which the end of the British Mandate should have resulted in establishment of independent Arab and Jewish States. The plan foresaw that the Palestinian territory was to be divided among Jews and Arabs. Jerusalem was meant to hold an international status. Naturally, such plan was strongly opposed by Arab states and the Palestinian population. For Palestinian Arabs, the UN settlement came as striking injustice. On the day the United Nations passed a resolution on the Partition Plan, there was an outbreak of the civil war in Palestine: Palestinian Arabs clashed with Jews. Britain intervened only in special occasions. During the civil war many Palestinians were expelled from their lands. The expulsion of Palestinians during 1947-1948 is often referred to as Naqba. The Naqba is a term used to describe the years of horror and hardships for Palestinians.

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Subsequently, Zionists, relying on the UN Partition Plan, proclaimed the independent state of Israel. The new state was then immediately recognized by the Soviet Union and the United States (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). The declaration of independence of Israel almost immediately resulted in the outbreak of the first Arab-Israeli War in May 1948 (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). During the war, the Palestinians started to leave the territory massively. It is estimated that over 700, 000 people became refugees (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). There were also incidents of forced expulsion of Palestinians from the territory (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010).

In 1949, the Arab states and Israel concluded the armistice agreement (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). By that time, only 160, 000 of Arabs remained in Palestine (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010). In general, one may say that the 1948 war ended up with the defeat of the Arab forces (Cleveland & Bunt, 2010).

Through the following years, the Arab-Israeli conflict escalated on many occasions. Thus, there were additional wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 (Bar-Tal & Salomon, 2006). The armed conflicts took various forms: air raids, military engagements, terrorist attacks, infiltration of hostile forces, bombardments, and so on (Bar-Tal & Salomon, 2006). The Palestinians who remained in the occupied territories launched an Intifada (uprising) for several times: between 1987 and 1991, and in 2000 (Bar-Tal & Salomon, 2006). There were ups and downs in attempts to resolve the conflict. The Oslo accords were perceived as an achievement. However, with the death of Yasser Arafat and the emergence of the Hamas leadership among the Arab population in Palestine the situation became tenser. Recently, Israel conducted the Operation Pillar of Defense with the purpose to defeat Hamas.

To sum up, the Arab-Israeli conflict escalates from time to time. It involves many complicated issues such as contested history (Jews view Palestine as their historical land, while the Palestinian Arabs perceive Jews as invaders). It is unclear how the conflict will develop in the future. What is clear is that the conflicts bring grievances to both sides. In the following part of the paper, the author will explore how the conflict was depicted in the Palestinian movies.

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Depiction of the Conflict in the Palestinian Movies

Clearly, in conditions of the armed conflict, there was no room for sustainable development of the Palestinian cinema. However, some enthusiastic industry professionals managed to produce a few movies. Also, the Palestinian movie industry had an advantage: many people involved in the industry were well-educated professionals. For instance, a Palestinian director Michel Khlefi studied television and theatre craft in Belgium (Gers & Khleifi, 2008). Furthermore, May Masri was a student of the Film Department at University of San Francisco (Gers & Khleifi, 2008). Azza al-Hassan studied documentary cinema in Scotland (Gers & Khleifi, 2008). There were many more instances of foreign education of the Palestinian filmmakers and directors. Perhaps, because of education and professionalism of the Palestinian directors and producers, the Palestinian cinema was able to become meaningful and sophisticated. Naturally, political and humanitarian turmoil was, in one way or another, reflected in the Palestinian movies.

During the first half of the Palestine-Israel conflict, the major themes in movies were Palestinian nationalism, martyrdom, and cultural heritage (Shafik, 2007). However, a veteran of the Palestinian cinema industry Michel Khleifi started a new tradition (Shafik, 2007). One of the most well-known movies created by Khleifi is Fertile Memory (1980). The main character is a woman Farah Hatoum, who lives with her children and grandchildren in Nazareth (Dabashi, 2012). The events of the movie take place shortly after the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. Farah was reluctant to leave Palestine despite all the destruction and hardships this land went through (Dabashi, 2012). Her children insist that she should sell their already expropriated land and leave. Despite logical arguments and the fact that she no longer actually possesses the land Farah refuses to get any financial benefit and leave (Dabashi, 2012).

It seems that through this position Khleifi wanted to show Farahs patriotism and love to her land even if she cannot benefit economically from this land anymore. Also, Farahs position sheds a light on the question why the Palestinians are so hostile to Jews and view them only as invaders. In the movie Farah tells: We were here first, then the Jews came, and others will come after them (Dabashi, 2012). This phrase reveals the very essence of the conflict which is a contested history. The Jewish believe that Palestine is their historical land, while the Palestinian Arabs believe that they were first on this land.

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However, it is not the conflict itself which is the main theme of the movie. The conflict is only a background to the experience of women in times of hardships. The movie depicts the experience of the Palestinian women under the occupation of 1948 quite accurately. At that same time, the role of women in the Palestinian society was reshaped. While men were focused on fighting with Israeli forces, women had to take care of everything else. Naturally, new duties gave a rise to emancipation. Farah, who is portrayed in Fertile Memory, as well as many other Palestinian women, had to deal with upcoming everyday problems.

In the new era, Palestinian movies offer a different, more meaningful insight of struggle against Israel. Thus, the Palestinian filmmaker Hani Abu Assaad created a film Paradise Now. It tells how ordinary Palestinians found themselves trapped in terrorist groups. Paradise Now is a movie about two young Palestinians who were caught by an extremist group and trained to become suicide bombers (Shafik, 2007). For one of the young men the motivation to become a suicide bomber was cleaning up the reputation of his family: his father allegedly cooperated with Israel (Shafik, 2007). Thus, one may observe that such a motivation challenges the concept of martyrdom. The point is that a popular view among terrorists and their followers is that suicide bombers become martyrs because of their sacrifice in the name of Allah. However, Paradise Now shows that sometimes the sacrifice is made for purely personal reasons.

Another movie that challenges the concept of martyrdom is Elia Suleimans Divine Intervention. Shafik (2007) notes that the movie presents the image of the martyr which is impersonated in a female Palestinian resistance fighter wrapped in the typical kufyiah which amazingly transforms into a virtual figure that lifts itself high up into the air, equipped with extraordinary weaponry and supernatural powers. One may observe that, indeed, such image of the martyr is a significant departure from a traditional view.

As far as portrayal of the martyrdom concept is concerned, one may observe that Palestinian movies quite accurately depict suicide bombers. To recall, in Paradise Now the prospect suicide bombers were youngsters. It is found that two-thirds of all Palestinian suicide attackers were young people aged between 17 and 23 (Ferrante, 2012). Moreover, the vast majority of young bombers were single (Ferrante, 2012). It suggests that the suicide bombers were quite detached from the society. In Paradise Now the main characters also seem to be quite detached. At the same time, the motives of suicide bombings are not exactly the same as it is in Paradise Now. The research suggests that in many cases the suicide bombers are motivated by aspiration of revenge. For instance, one of suicide bombers explains:

I want to avenge the blood of the Palestinians, especially the blood of the women, of the elderly and of the children, and in particular the blood of the baby girl Iman Hejjo, whose death shook me to the core. (Ferrante, 2012)

However, the fact that suicide bombing in Paradise Now was motivated by the aspiration to restore the reputation of the young mans family does not necessarily indicate that the movie inaccurately describes the problem. It only means that the movie does not reflect the motivation held by the majority of suicide bombers.

In recent decades, there is a tendency to address the rights of the Palestinian people in movies. The first two films that immediately come to mind are Ford Transit and Ranas Wedding shot by Abu-Assaad. Both films address the problem of roadblocks. The movies demonstrate how over-supervised Palestinians are. For Abu-Assaad, roadblocks are symbols of occupation. However, it is not only the occupation but also the suppression of civil rights. For the director, these issues are personal. Abu-Assaad describes his experience on roads in Israel as follows: when I arrive in Israel, I need to stand in line for 3 or 4 hours in the sun just to arrive to my destination. You turn into a dog. Even a dog has more rights (Gers & Khleifi, 2008).

The Assaad movies are a very realistic reflection of how Palestinians are treated in Israel. It is more striking to think about that if to consider that Palestinians believe that it is their territory. Therefore, they perceive that they are treated like dogs on their own territory. Seeing the road blocks from this angle, allows understanding the feelings of the Palestinians and the reason why at some point these feelings transform into violence.


The Palestinian cinema has a relatively short history. Moreover, only little is known about the Palestinian movies in the period between 1935 and 1967. The more or less visible development of the movie industry emerged in 1967. Naturally, one of the major themes of the Palestinian movies is a long-lasting and devastating Palestine-Israel conflict. The conflict is complicated and involves many dimensions: historical, national and cultural. The roots of the conflict can be found in contested historical concepts. The Jews believe that Palestine is their historical land. At the same time, Palestinians claim that they were first in this land. This difference accompanied by a range of unwise political decisions gradually grew into a large-scale conflict that took so many lives. From time to time the conflict escalates and at these points many tragic events take place. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, their main tragedy is that many of them are forced to leave their lands. This explains that fact why many Palestinian movies were created in exile. Naturally, the Palestinian cinema could not escape from the reflection of the national tragedy. In the early years of the conflict, the Palestinian movies were permeated by nationalism, martyrdom, and cultural heritage themes. However, in recent decades there was a shift from the traditional approach to these themes. For instance, the Palestinian directors offered their new vision of the martyrdom concept: it is not always martyrdom per se, but rather a sacrifice motivated by personal reasons. Although this view contradicts with the fact that the majority of suicide bombers, or martyrs, how they believe themselves to be, commit terrorist attacks as a revenge for grievances suffered, this view still has a right to existence. Indeed, this view may be a reflection of very specific not well-publicized cases. To cut the long story short, the fact that a movie does not present a common picture does not mean that it is historically inaccurate or manipulative. It may simply mean that it portrays one of the cases which are exceptional. Another new theme in modern Palestinian movies is the emphasis on the right of the Palestinian people. Perhaps, such trend reflects that the new generation of Palestinians realizes that they have not only their national rights as the Palestinian people but also some basic civil rights that every human is entitled to.

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