From the late sixties up until the early eighties Palestinians formed a resistance movement to liberate their homeland and ensure the return of their refugees. A vital part of this shared goal was the establishment of institutions from Amman to Beirut; one of these was the Palestinian cinema institution.
It is the work produced by its members which Professor Nadia Yaqub charts in Palestinian Cinema in the Days of the Revolution, which has been shortlisted for this year’s MEMO Palestine Book Awards.
From Black September to the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli bombing of a refugee camp, filmmakers recorded the revolution as it unfolded. Their work sustained and transmitted memories, writes Yaqub, long after they were screened in refugee camps, villages and military bases.
But not only this. As alternative Arab cinema, the films also targeted the mass media, which didn’t necessarily have much knowledge of the Palestinian cause. They were made by Palestinians or people serving their cause.
“We can see the whole struggle – it’s not a struggle of liberation, it’s not a civil rights struggle, it’s a struggle of visibility. How to be again, how can you see yourself again, whether in the media or in front of yourself.”
Yaqub quotes the filmmaker Mohaned Yaqubi, who is referring here to how his film Off Frame breaks the historical narrative of seventies imagery, which has largely been dominated by the Palestinian Authority, and invites viewers to see films as the original makers and revolutionaries would have seen them.
The issue of representation in film is relevant today in many productions, more often than not rolled out for a Western audience, which depict Arabs negatively, usually as terrorists. We know the damage that stereotypes in popular culture and the media can cause; for example, Britain’s Tell MAMA project, which records anti-Muslim incidents, revealed recently that after Boris Johnson compared some Muslim women to letter boxes and bank robbers in a Telegraph column, Islamophobic attacks went up by 375 per cent.
Palestinian Cinema… also highlights how films made by the subjects themselves challenge the way that Arab dictators want their countries to be portrayed, though this is no doubt challenging. Yaqub recounts the story of Egyptian director Tewfiq Saleh and Syrian playwright Sa’d Allah Wannus, whose script resulted in Saleh being deported from Syria and Wannus being fired from his job on the recommendation of Syrian military intelligence.
Filmmakers face the same issues today. Despite the hope that once-banned films would be screened in Egypt after the 2011 Arab Spring, censorship in the country has actually become tighter, particularly with films that explore military and political issues. The Oscar-nominated production 18 days, which charts the revolution, was banned there.
With this in mind, Yaqub’s book is not only an important testimony to the wealth of Palestinian cinema that exists, but also to the importance of productions about Palestine which engage with the audience based on terms set by Palestinian filmmakers themselves.