Resilience and Injustice
London’s Palestine Film Festival
From 20 April through 3 May, the Palestine Film Festival brings a wide range of films addressing Palestinian realities to London. The program is provocative and challenging, and one of its strengths is it diversity and the overall quality of the films it screens and their daring and willingness to take on difficult and sometimes taboo topics. There are screenings at the Festival running until 3 May, including the closing night event entitled The Spring of Young Palestinian Women Filmmakers.
This year’s festival is a particularly rich and diverse one, and demonstrates the increasing range and scope of the festival and its capacity to bring films that would perhaps otherwise go unviewed to London.
Importantly, the festival depicts Palestinian life not through a narrow prism of conflict—as is so often its primary and problematic manifestation in the media—but rather through the full complexity and diversity of a people and a culture living, loving, creating, struggling, and being.
Despite depicting the immensely challenging circumstances of occupation and physical and cultural displacement, many of the films offer portraits of resilience, humor, and a thriving cultural and human spirit – both individual and collective – which illuminate and inspire.
Showing at the festival is Susan Sontag’s film Promised Lands, which offers a critical perspective on Israeli society with (often implied) criticism specifically aimed at political and military actions that have violated the rights of Palestinians and Arabs. Interestingly, however, it includes a range of voices and perspectives, which allows a voice—rarely heard in the festival’s other films—for Jewish and Israeli attachment to the territory and its religious, cultural, and historical centrality to Jewish identity.
The film highlights the problems with efforts to ignore or downplay the Jewish experience which often accompany films oriented towards illuminating the injustices faced by Palestinians in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Promied Lands is unafraid to tackle issues of Arab anti-Semitism that predate Zionism, and thus avoids a facile reductions of the Arab-Israeli conflict to a political disagreement that fails to acknowledge the complex religious, historical, and social background in which it operates.
It also turns its unblinking gaze to the horrors of war. It shows disturbing images of dead soldiers, their burnt remains haunting the viewer. It does not matter if they are Arab or Israeli: the image perfectly conveys the destructiveness of war. The film depicts this extreme pain and then invites the empathy of the viewer. One particularly emblematic scene shows Israeli parents wailing over the gravestones of their young children—victims of war.
Promised Lands is an unusual film: revelatory, acute, and sensitive in the way it seeks to capture how Israeli society understands itself, imagines/idealizes itself, and represents this to others. It is also a pastiche of images from Israeli street life. While this does not yield a film with a classic documentary style and easily understandable plot order—the film is sometimes frustrating, tedious and somewhat obscure in its insinuations and implicit observations—it is still a powerful, multi-dimensional portrait of Israel.
It also captures a historically significant time: the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was caught by surprise and faced massive losses, along with the danger of losing the war and potentially its very existence as a state. This is in contrast to the optimism and triumphalism that accompanied the 1967 Six Day War. The period of introspection and existential angst the War prompted changed Israeli society irrevocably, heightening its sense of vulnerability and increasing its capacity for self-reflection about the country’s wars and political stances and policies and whether they were viable, necessary, ethical, and sustainable.
The film was made in 1974—but to view it in 2012 shows how dated it is. One of the main Israelis interviewed offers what was—for that time—a radical proposition outside of the social and political mainstream: some kind of solution (not expressly delineated in the film) that allows Palestinians freedom, independence and self-determination while preserving the same for Jews in an independent state of Israel. It is essentially the two-state solution as endorsed by the United Nations. Despite the failures of the peace process, this view is shared of the majority of Israelis today according to sociological polls and has become mainstream, almost conventional wisdom.
As scholar Ella Shohat rightly points out, however, the film does not give voice to either Palestinians or women. Other minorities, such as Jewish Israelis from Arab lands, are also largely absent. This is unfortunate because they are a sector of Israeli society which has an intimate link to Arab culture and the Arab world. Most came to Israel as refugees from Arab lands. Many were expelled, persecuted, and stripped of their citizenship and civil and political rights. Despite these experiences, their understanding of Arab culture—which was an integral part of their own culture and identity and to which many still have attachments—is not acknowledged in the film.
But Sontag’s aim in making this film was not necessarily to offer a comprehensive view of Israeli society as much as a series of vignettes and perspectives. She was without an aim or claim to have ‘captured’ the whole picture. To her credit, what Sontag does not offer is the answers, definitive conclusions, or trite evaluations that seem to characterize much of contemporary commentary on the Arab-Israeli conflict. She clearly is skeptical about any narrative that monopolizes a sense of righteousness. Her film avoids depicting matters of justice and injustice, power and powerlessness, in closed reified boxes associated with only one party to the conflict. In this way there is a salutary effect to her film, and it merits attention precisely because discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict so easily becomes numb to shades of gray, nuance, and the humanity of the other.