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Cinema of the Dispossessed

October 28th, 2006 (12:35 am)
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© 2006 D. Gordon

I've mentioned Palestinian cinema before, discussing Paradise Now, Elia Suleiman, Yousry Nasrallah, and Hany Abu-Assad. There are a growing number of films - very good films - from Palestinians and others about the place and its people, telling stories from a different viewpoint. Now there's scholarship to match this cinematic growth.

The recently published Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema (ed. Hamid Dabashi) is a heavily academic and political book of essays about the current state of Palestinian film. If you're looking for a politically correct, diplomatic book, look elsewhere - because this isn't it. This work is by and about unapologetically Palestinian filmmakers, people without an official country, and how that state of being affects their works. It covers some history, gender issues, and generational issues, as well as simple things like the logistics of raising funding (which creates a multinational 'accented' cinema) and filming in the middle of a conflict. It also discusses a few (but not enough!) of the pioneers and leading lights, such as Michel Khleifi (Wedding in Galilee) and Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention). All of this work is overshadowed by the 800 lb gorilla in the room: as pointed out by Dabashi in one essay, the Palestinian narrative, which can never be told conventionally because circumstances require a different, new method of recounting it.[1]

Some of the most enjoyable parts are the essays about the work of Elia Suleiman, perhaps the best-known Palestinian filmmaker today. There's also an ironically quirky piece by Nizar Hassan, almost in the style of Suleiman, about his "transformation" into an Afghan Arab – without his lifting a finger. Asked to apply for a film conference, he submitted an application indicating his work was a Palestinian production. It was accepted under "The Rest of the World", then changed to "Israel" (which Hassan vetoed right away, demanding to be dropped from the conference). Within a few weeks, it was back to "The Rest of the World"; but the information posted on the organization's website was moved to – "Afghanistan" (and not because of a typo). The Afghans weren't interested in sponsoring a non-Afghan, and the Palestinian Authority wasn't about to fund an "Afghan," especially given that the Afghan Arab = Al Qaeda equation was already well established.[2] Hassan once again threatened to pull his movie. After all this, he was allowed to become... a Palestinian. On the surface, it's a humorous (although frustrating) story; but, much like Suleiman's work, it shows the absurdity of being of citizen of a state that is / isn't.

The one problem with this book is that it's uneven. The academic tone demands some attention to detail, although its coverage of the evolution of a film industry forced through a political situation is fascinating. There are surprises in that some of the films mentioned I've actually seen (long ago); the book fills in background details I didn't have at the time. But along with the information was some surprisingly sloppy editing in parts: improper punctuation, a wrong URL for the Dreams of a Nation project website (wrong every single time it's mentioned). Doubly unfortunate is that this sloppiness occurs towards the beginning of the book, increasing the chance that the reader will give up on it, and making the project look less than professional. Definitely a shame, considering what comes later.

There could be more history and information, but the book is a good first step in discussing the entity that is Palestinian cinema. It goes far in laying out a different type of filmmaking, and how filmmaking in general can never be completely divorced from real life. (Brings up thoughts about violence and sex in popular movies, and what kind of responsibility might lie with filmmakers...) For me, it gives the Palestinian films I have seen a stronger thematic tie to one another; and the list of Palestinian movies on the Arab Film Distribution website, now actually mean something, promising some interesting viewing. The book also goes some distance in formulating ideas about cinematic philosophy for any group. All in all, an informative read.

* * * * * * * * * *

[1] This comes as part of a discussion of Elia Suleiman's Arab Dream (1998), and the motivating forces behind the "frivolity" of his work (p. 155).

[2] Although there are Afghans of Arab descent, the term "Afghan Arab" often has been used to mean the Al Qaeda members who reside(d) in Afghanistan. Hassan uses it in that sense on purpose - implying that identifying as Palestinian means being identified as a terrorist.

Comments

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: October 28th, 2006 02:44 pm (UTC)
the corrected version is coming out in november--

the book has been recalled due to the errors you mention and the correct version is coming out in november...the book was immediatly recalled in september and it's unfortunate that you got the early uncorrected version. look out for it in november...

Posted by: lady_wakasa (lady_wakasa)
Posted at: October 28th, 2006 05:45 pm (UTC)
Re: the corrected version is coming out in november--

Great news! It would have been a shame for the book to get dismissed out of hand because of the typos.

I actually got this through my local library, and notified them that a replacement version is on its way. They won't take this version out of circulation, but they have promised to look into getting the November version.

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