The documentary Homeland starts reasonably enough: Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer (The Vanishing) travels to Palestine to visit a few families he’s been filming since 1974. As the film continues, however, Sluizer’s anti-Zionism swallows the characters. By the time Sluizer tells an Ariel Sharon photo that he’d have liked Sharon to die in Auschwitz, you’ve figured out where the movie stands. You’re tempted to think that you’re listening to a crazy person, until you consider how many people sound crazy when they discuss Palestine.
What we talk about when we talk about Palestine often isn’t the landmass, but the feelings of rage, anguish, and displacement (literal and figurative) that its political condition excites. The excited people are frequently not Palestinian, but those in the Western media, whose voices cry out much more loudly than those of Palestinians do. Yet whenever I watch government officials decry either side, I can’t help but think of the moment in Godard’s Film Socialisme where the word “Palestine” appears with a big red slash through it. Access to Palestinian narratives is blocked by settlement walls. (It says something about marketing’s search for familiar images that the best known Palestinian film in America, Paradise Now, is about suicide bombers.) I feel deprived of a large and very important number of stories about Palestine, which are the stories Palestinians are telling about themselves.
I’ve seen a number of films at the festival about the Israel-Palestine conflict. The three documentaries explicitly focusing on it—Children of the Stones—Children of the Wall, Tears of Gaza, and Homeland—were made by Europeans. This doesn’t devalue the films, two of which are extremely good. But the scarcity of Palestinian films (two shorts and two repertory selections), even at a Middle Eastern film festival, is striking. I refuse to believe that there’s no room for a Palestinian industry; Elia Suleiman alone is evidence that the place can produce strong cinema. But filmmakers need to be free to work, just as their fellow countrymen need to be free.
I write as a Jew, with family in Israel, but also as a liberal who sees Israel as an imperial power. I’m not alone. Many Jews have found themselves in this position, which is why many were grateful when Waltz with Bashir came out two years ago. Ari Folman, an Israeli Jew, made a film in which he overcomes amnesia to accept his role as a soldier in 1982’s Lebanon War. The Middle East is small enough that armed conflicts frequently cause civilian casualties. Knowing this, Folman ended his film not with images of battle, but with mothers screaming for dead children. The film’s plot concerned Lebanon in the past, but Folman was also acknowledging Israel’s treatment of Palestine in the present.
The Lebanon War, which wreaked destruction in the name of self-protection, seems a precursor to the Gaza bombings. Like making a film about Korea to analyze Vietnam, filmmakers have been smuggling Palestine commentary into Lebanon stories. This includes festival entry We Were Communists, an intelligent, cogent film which consists mainly of several Lebanese intellectuals discussing their postwar choice to join the Communist Party. (In Palestine, communists have long been subsumed by the PLO.) Yet the film, which will be showing in America in the Museum of Modern Art’s upcoming pan-Arab cinema retrospective, addresses the Middle East as a whole. We hear voices overlapping on the soundtrack early on, suggesting cultures speaking in unison. Diverting from Lebanon, an interview subject says, “I cannot see the resistance in Palestine far from the context of the resistance in Iraq. They are all part of the same issue.”
That issue is Israel’s willingness to use military force, along with the willingness of stronger world powers (first England, now the United States) to support it. Not that Israel’s 1948 creation was a bad idea: Jews needed to feel like they had a safe place post-WWII, especially considering most of the world’s refusal to help them during the Holocaust. But the irony of the idea of Israel as a safe haven is that the country’s been under attack since its founding, partly because the area’s nearby former European colonies (Jordan, Syria, Libya, etc.) have viewed it as a continuing Western imposition.
Zionism is first and foremost a political movement, though Israel’s place as the Jewish homeland has often simultaneously made it a religious one. The debate over Palestine, now essentially an Israeli territory, has been clouded by both Israel supporters and detractors equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. A reason it seems like war in the Middle East will never cease is that parties won’t dispense with their inflammatory rhetoric. One craves more films from more perspectives as a tonic, though the variety of films about the Middle East that I’ve seen at the festival already suggests that there’s no easy way to fix the system. Meanwhile, the title of a festival film about Lebanon War survivors sums up the continual fighting well: Once Again.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.