Edward Said, one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century, wrote insightfully about music, literature, philosophy, politics and history. His death from leukemia in 2003, while perhaps not thoroughly devastating to the political left, was certainly a blow that we fellow travelers felt deeply. In America, the left has been on the ropes for decades, so when an individual of Said’s intelligence and influence is lost, the continent of thought is significantly eroded. Thus, if for no other reason than it will stir memories of a man whose life was dedicated to the pursuit of humanitarian causes, Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said, a documentary by Japan’s Sato Makoto, is a welcome arrival on the scene.
The author of such seminal works as Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, and The Question of Palestine, Said thrust himself onto the international political spotlight by being among the first, in the world of the post-1967 Six Day War, to offer a passionate and intellectually rigorous attack on the mainstream western media’s depiction of Arab culture as monolithic, fanatical, and intolerant. Said’s assertion of the social and political sophistication of Middle Eastern Arab culture was timely and remarkably influential; his work was published worldwide in dozens of languages. Further, Said’s left-leaning examination of the inequitable power relationship of conqueror and conquered found a ready audience, and, building on these ideas, Said also became one of the first writers to put the boot to the notions that Palestinian nationalism was another form of anti-Semitism and that allowing the movement to flourish could possibly open the door to another Holocaust. With arguments based on equal parts history and humanitarianism, Said was one of the west’s first intellectuals to bring Arab Palestinians’ quest to be reunited with their homeland back into mainstream political process.
In Out of Place, one of Said’s colleagues suggests that Said’s work was driven by his search for identity, which took shape in his study of the importance of place. Said was the product of a nomadic childhood, born a Christian Palestinian in Jerusalem, but leaving in 1947, never to return. Raised in Cairo and Beirut, Said was given the benefits of an upper-middle class rearing, with an education that concluded in America at Princeton and Harvard, where he received his doctorate in comparative literature. When the film takes us all the way back to Said’s childhood and into his memories of his youth, we gain a better understanding of how his feelings of cultural displacement helped formulate some of his ideas about how to resolve the increasingly complex problems of Israel/Palestine today. Said’s vagabond history, combined with a keen intellect and deep sensitivity, made him uniquely suited not just to comprehend the Palestinians own identity (challenging the trauma of a displaced people), but also to empathize with the Jewish people’s own long history of persecution and homelessness.
It is one of history’s grim jokes that the Jews—for centuries the victims of horrendous oppression and genocidal mania, shuffled around Europe like an unwelcome house guest—should themselves turn into one of the regions many oppressors and displacers of people. Add to this the west’s determination to repeat history’s mistake and demonize the victims of oppression, and we have an irony so cruel and complete as to be a postmodernist’s delight. There is little doubt that the Israelis have a right to feel vulnerable in the face of Arab hostility in the region, but the problem here is that of their response to this hostility, which can appear out of proportion to the dangers presented, particularly by the Palestinians. Said found the Zionists’ shift from victim to violator a hard one to reconcile with his appreciation of Jewish history. As a result, his defense of the Palestinian independence movement, which was often accompanied by American-supported Israel’s attacks against these same Palestinians, was enough to earn him the enmity of pro-Israeli elements.
Further, Said contended that no real and lasting peace could be made when one side held all the power. As long as the Israelis had American backing, Said argued, they had little incentive to bargain in good faith with the Palestinians, instead offering a series of “truces” that veer closer to surrender than towards a settlement between equals. And while initially taken with the intelligence and commitment of Yasir Arafat, the two men would later suffer an acrimonious split. If, as the old adage goes, you’re not doing something right unless somebody’s pissed off at you, Said must have been doing just about everything right, because by the end of his life he had managed to offend both the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership. After Said was repeatedly threatened by people enraged by his coziness with a movement that has been harshly portrayed in the western press, Said’s home was installed with a “panic button” that linked him directly to the police.
Out of Place keeps these ideas in the film’s background, in soft focus throughout, with the documentary’s lens being more sharply aimed at the people and places of Said’s heritage. While the documentary does resort to footage of a talking (egg)head or six, which admittedly might be unavoidable in any documentary about a respected and academically connected thinker, such moments are never held too long, and they rarely distract us from the humanity at the heart of the matter. To counter these moments, director Sato crafts a collage of testimonials from a large group of Palestinians, male and female, old and young, intellectuals and people down in the metaphorical trenches, which provides a portrait of a people that is heartfelt and embracing. Still, considering the richness and depth of Said’s thoughts on politics, history, literature and music, it seems a shame to give the man’s ideas such short shrift. As a primer on Said the man, Out of Place is fine, but as an examination of his complex ideas, it is something of a disappointment.
Yet Said’s emotional and physical presence remains felt throughout—no small feat considering that he’s represented mainly by ancient 8mm home movie footage. In Out of Place’s most emblematic moments, the filmmakers take us to Said’s old stomping grounds in Lebanon and Israel, and show us the wide range of Palestinians in exile, many of whom have no idea who Edward Said was, or what he meant to their quest for a return to their homeland. Yet, while Said never picked up a gun (or, more appropriately, a rock) in aid of the cause, these same Palestinians were happy to champion Said as a fellow traveler whose contributions with a pen, made thousands of miles from the conflict itself, were as crucial as any of those operating at ground zero.
It is through this portrait of the rich array of humanity—whether Palestinian or Israeli, Lebanese or American—that the film offers its greatest rewards. Sato cuts quite a swath through this world and, while he does not often reach too deeply, his slice is nonetheless broad and rewarding. I suspect that Said would have steered a more studious and exacting course through such material—that he would have been less concerned with offending people and more willing to challenge mainstream sensibilities. At times I wished that the film had been placed in firmer hands, ones capable of shaping the material into something more pointed. There are moments where the opportunity arises, but the documentary doesn’t take advantage of the chance to butt up against something, choosing instead to sit quietly, waiting to be admired.
Still, I think Said would have approved of the documentary’s overwhelming sense of generosity and inclusiveness. Both Sato and Said are compassionate humanists, and it is telling of Said’s own passion for music, which he had hoped might provide one of the bridges between the Israeli and Palestinian people, that Sato chooses to end his film with a man playing the piano. It is significant that this documentary so elegantly proves one of Said’s greatest contributions to our better understanding of the situation in Israel, which was to show the world that Palestinians are not the possessors of a monolithic culture of maniacal Arab terrorists, but rather a mosaic of peoples, with a great range of values and beliefs. On that count alone, I cannot imagine a more fitting tribute to one of the century’s most public-spirited and large-hearted intellectuals than Out of Place.
Dan Jardine is a contributor to The House Next Door, the publisher of Cinemania, and a contributor to Cinemarati. Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said will receive its U.S. theatrical premiere on October 11th, 2006 at Anthology Film Archives in New York, at 32 Second Avenue at Second Street. See here and here for further details.