The Search for Stolen Palestinian Films
August 23 2022

During the siege of Beirut in 1982, Israeli forces looted the archive of the notable Palestinian Film Unit of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Decades of footage that documented the Palestinian experience from the late 1960s vanished.

Thirty-five-years later, an Israeli director revealed that the archive has been collecting dust in the custody of the Israeli army. Prior to that, the search for images of Palestinian militancy had exhausted filmmakers, historians, and journalists concerned with the Palestinian struggle for liberation. Those who embarked on a quest to find the films aimed to make them accessible to a wide audience, through film festivals or by uploading them online for free viewing.

Azza El Hassan, a Palestinian filmmaker, released Kings & Extras in 2004. The movie documented her search for the missing films in the streets of Beirut

“I knew that the archive was most likely with the Israelis, nevertheless, I continued the search because the truth is, I wasn’t looking for the archive as much as I wanted to document [its] loss,” El Hassan told this author in a 2021 interview. “The Palestinian narrative is full of loss; the loss of loved ones, the loss of the homeland, and the loss of the archive.” 

El Hassan referred to the years that followed the 1948 Nakba as the years of loss. In 2018, she founded the Void Project, an initiative to restore and distribute some of the found films of the era. El Hassan said that she had always suspected the archive was stolen.

“People had lost everything, including their image of themselves. This image returned to us in the 1960s with the national liberation movement. Now, I believe that we have lost our image again, so my search is for that image, and it is a search in the present not in the past.” 

The few found films, and fragments of films, come from the attics of the filmmakers' families and trusted friends. These films had been stored in less-than-ideal conditions for several years and must undergo a restoration process for which the technology is lacking in the region.

“[I work through] an exhaustive frame-by-frame process, while making sure not to over-restore them, in order to preserve authenticity and archival value,” El Hassan explained how she edits the color, clarity, and sound of these films in England where she currently resides. 

Militant filmmakers Khadijeh Habashneh and Mustafa Abu Ali (who was one of the founders of the Palestinian Film Unit) shared in an interview in Kings and Extras that they felt “it was [their] duty as filmmakers,” to record what Palestinians endured following their violent exodus. “Sadly this is all gone,” Abu Ali lamented.

“People who had felt helpless and powerless as refugees got a sense of power and identity,” Habashneh highlighted the impact of the films before they were stolen.

El Hassan also interviewed a man named Omar who claimed that he hid the film archive in 1982 because like others at the Palestinian Film Unit, he suspected that Israeli soldiers would bomb the building they were kept in. Omar refused to give more details about the archive on camera. He stayed in Beirut during the siege to look after the archive. He was captured and beaten by the Israeli Occupation forces. Once released, Omar realized that the films had disappeared from their hiding place.

“They felt that the loss was their fault, which is not true,” El Hassan reflected.

The release of ‘Looted and Hidden’ by Israeli director Rona Sela in 2017 ended suspicions surrounding the whereabouts of the disappeared films.

Sela, in representing the settler-colonial gaze, stole the films a second time, keeping them out of Palestinians’ reach, and stripping them of their revolutionary spirit. In her documentary, she screened snippets of societal suffering: poverty, helplessness, and death.

 “[Sela] was showing the Israelis’ [perception] of us, and erasing our own,” El Hassan said. “Her access to our films hurt and infuriated me.”

As reported by Electronic Intifada, Sela gained access to 38,000 stolen films (many since 1948) which are kept in the custody of Israeli authorities, away from  Palestinian and international audiences.

Sela also published an academic article where she condemned, and attempted to distance herself from, the colonial nature of the theft of the archive.  A participant in settler-colonialism with a savior complex, Sela created a flawed narrative of a loss that was not hers, with stolen Palestinian footage. 

Those who have experienced the loss, however, continue to preserve and distribute fragments of the archive found in Beirut and beyond. Some of these initiatives and organizations include The Void Project, Nadi Lekol Nas, and the Palestine Film Institute.

Nadi Lekol Nas, established in 1998 in Beirut, is also working on finding and restoring Palestinian films from this period of Palestinian militancy. 

Naja Al Ashkar, the organization’s founder, said that they have restored and distributed over 70 films from several eras, mostly by Palestinian and Lebanese filmmakers including Christian Ghazi, Mai Masri, Joe Chamoun, and Rafiq Hajar. 

“Christian Ghazi’s militant films were the most difficult to find, as they had been burned in the 80’s, and he did not know where copies of his films were kept. So far, we managed to find two of them, by gaining the trust of his former cameraman through Facebook,” Al Ashkar revealed to this author in an interview last year. “He eventually gave us access to films that he had kept safe, by Christian Ghazi, Mustafa Abu Ali, and Rafiq Hajar. He sent us the films in 2019. We plan to distribute them to film festivals as soon as the restoration process is complete.”

He added that one of Christian Ghazi’s found films was in English to inform the international community of the suppressed narratives of the Palestinian people. This film reportedly includes an unseen talk by renowned Palestinian writer and revolutionary Ghassan Kanafani.

Al Ashkar also shared his plans to open a “film library,” in Beirut. Films that cannot be accessed online and cannot be legally distributed, including some found Palestinian films, would be availableopen for viewing in the library through a booking system.

Maha Kobeissy, co-director of Dar El Nimer, a Palestinian-founded cultural center in Beirut, told this author last year that she would contact Palestinian filmmakers to ask permission to screen their films. Some of them had films in the stolen archive. They would often attend the screenings and have discussions with the audience. 

The Palestine Film Institute’s initiative to upload a Palestinian film for free viewing every week also helps preserve Palestinian history through film.

El Hassan highlighted the value of preserving the Palestinian national identity by reclaiming and returning the films.  

“[It gives us]a sense of justice. Our films have been stolen!” El Hassan said. “Imagine your personal photo album being stolen by a stranger who flicks through it at their leisure! You cannot move forward without getting a sense of justice. After returning them, it is up to us what to do with them, we can throw them out on the streets if we want to, they are ours.”

About The Author: 

Hala Al Shami is a Palestinian student of media and communications, writer, and editor-in-chief of an independent student publication. Hala is currently based in Beirut and had lived in Qatar prior. Her research interests are anti-imperialist and feminist interpretations of media.

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