The Evolution of Palestinian Cinema in Five Decades
August 21 2022

Palestinian cinema has long managed to put forward the liberation cause to audiences unfamiliar with the Occupation. Yet, Palestinian cinematography has undergone many changes, both thematic and institutional, since the aftermath of the 1967 Naksa.

The first glimpses of Palestinian Cinema, now referred to as first period Palestinian Cinema, can be traced back to before the 1948 Nakba. Unfortunately, no records remain of these films, with historians instead relying on secondary pieces of evidence, such as advertisements in newspapers, to construct a narrative of this cinematographic epoch. The second period of Palestinian Cinema, known as the “Epoch of Silence”, ran from 1948 to 1967, and is labelled thus due to the dearth of films produced. Palestinian Third Period Cinema, which began in the aftermath of the Naksa, marks the first period wherein records of the films produced remain accessible.

The 1967 Arab defeat marked the end of a period which witnessed the wedding of the Palestinian cause with the ideology of pan-Arabism, as championed by the charismatic figure of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. As a result of this coalescence, Palestinians came to be popularly regarded as victims who had to be liberated by other Arab nations.  The Arab defeat represented a death blow to this ideology: Palestinians realized that the road to liberation lay through their actions alone, including armed resistance. It is within this context that Palestinian Third Period Cinema began.

 The first film unit of this period was founded in Jordan by Mustafa Abu Ali, Hani Jawhariyya, and Sulafa Jadallah between 1967 and 1968, and was closely tied to Palestinian liberation groups and institutions. Commenting on the purpose of Palestinian cinema at the time in an interview conducted for the fourth volume of Les Cinémas des Pays Arabes, Mustafa Abu Ali stated that “the Palestinian resistance believes that action through cinema is a natural extension of armed action.”

The institutionalization of Palestinian cinema as an “extension of armed action” led to a filmography which thematically sought to advance collective notions of Palestinian resistance and Palestinian identity, specifically centered around Palestinian militant resistance. Drawing upon a cinematic style associated with global Third Period cinema, it was characterised by its documentary style, which primarily focused on capturing and bearing witness to atrocities committed against Palestinian populations in exile. Films such as They Do Not Exist (1974), Tall El Zaatar (1977), and Because Roots Don’t Die (1977) document the Israeli bombardment of the Nabatiyeh refugee camp in Lebanon, as well as the siege and massacre of the Palestinian refugee camp of Tall El Za’atar by Lebanese right-wing forces.

 These documentary films also relied upon a shared film archive, stored in Beirut at Studio Sakhrah and in the PCI (Palestinian Cinema Institute) archive, from which specific montages were often reused. For example, They Do Not Exist and Tall El Zaatar use identical scenes of Palestinian life in refugee camps. Moreover, the cinematographic process itself was collaborative – there existed a direct dialogue between filmmaker and audience. Following the screening of films in various refugee camps, discussions would be held with the audience regarding the film and how it could be improved.

Palestinian Third Period Cinema came to an end in 1982, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the loss of the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) cinematic archive, which had been built up since the late-1960s. As a result of this, as well as the PLO’s destabilized position following its flight to Tunisia, resulted in filmmaking post-1982 being radically altered. Turning away from the production of Palestinian-sponsored documentary films, which focused upon the exilic condition, Palestinians in the interior (‘48 lands) – many of whom had studied film in the West – began to produce movies which sought to explore Palestinian experiences vis-à-vis Occupation. Such films include Michel Khleifi’s Fertile Memories (1980) and Wedding in the Galilee (1987).

Institutionally, the films of this period are separated from Palestinian Third Period Cinema due to their independence from Palestinian organizations. Rather than being funded by the PLO or the PFLP, funding for these independent films was generally supplied by European television networks or foreign organizations or, in rare instances, by Israeli funds. This financial divorce from Palestinian organizations resulted in the creation of independent films, which were internationally celebrated both for their focus upon the Palestinian cause as well as their artistic merit. Khleifi’s Fertile Memories, for example, won prizes at the Carthage Festival and was two votes away from winning the Golden Camera prize at the 1981 Cannes Festival. As such, however, the target audience of these films began to shift toward non-Palestinian audiences, both commercial and at film festivals.

The shift toward individualism was additionally felt on the thematic front. As Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi argue, in their book Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma, and Memory, a key focus of Fourth Period Cinema – especially in the works of Khleifi – is the everyday Palestinian life within historic Palestine, such that “everyday life subverts … national-political narratives”. Additionally, following the outbreak of the First Intifada, many of the films of this period sought to repudiate the ideology of armed resistance, which characterized the Palestinian revolutionary period. Instead, these films choose to highlight and advocate for strategies of sumud and non-violent resistance, calling upon spectators and international organizations to aid them. Thus, Palestinians came to be re-characterized as victims of Israeli colonial violence and ethnic cleansing, in a manner harkening back to the pre-Naksa period of Palestinian history.

The post-Oslo period, which has witnessed the entrenchment of Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid, has given rise to films which not only critique the Occupation, but also critique the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and its co-optation by the Israeli regime.  Sandra Madi’s Perforated Memories (2008) explores the institutional failures of Palestinian organizations by interviewing individuals who have come to ask for support from the PLO’s Department of the Affairs of the Occupied Territories in Amman. Throughout, the heroic sacrifices of these individuals are contrasted with their abandonment by the PLO.

Palestinian filmography of the past decade has continued to develop the individualist trends associated with Fourth Period Cinema. These films have continued to depict and analyse Palestinian individual identity, examining themes such as: love and everyday life under Occupation (The Present, 2020); the Palestinian exilic condition and the ever-present memory of the Nakba, what Rosemary Sayigh terms “the continuing Nakba” (It Must Be Heaven, 2019, and Farha, 2021); as well as the complex relationship between Palestinians and the Israeli security state (Omar, 2013, and Huda’s Salon, 2021). Whether this individualist streak continues in the aftermath of the Unity Intifada, which drew on a collectivist Palestinian spirit and bypassed formal institutions, remains to be seen.

The seeds for such a cinematographic approach may have already been planted in Mai Masri’s 3000 Nights (2015), which details the story of Layla, a pregnant woman, taking part in a nonviolent prison rebellion. Crucially, it is Layla’s commitment to collective action – as opposed to her relationship with the character Sana’, a PLO fighter – which leads her toward participating in the rebellion. Nevertheless, film will undoubtedly continue to remain prominent within Palestinian culture.

About The Author: 

Luqman Abu El Foul is a graduate student at the University of Oxford pursuing an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies. His research interests focus primarily on Palestinian culture and its intersection with Palestinian identity and nationalism.

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