Friday, August 14, 2009

Palestinian Cinema: A Critical Look thru the Lens of "Cineaste": "America's Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema"

Cineaste is a thoughtful American journal on "the art and politics of cinema."
It's last issue featured two articles on Palestinian cinema as well as an editorial, "Cinema on the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict."
I responded (below), but unfortunately, the editors voted to pass on the piece, which did not conform to their format or content requirement for articles. Plus, their copy deadline had long-passed--so it would have been a stretch.
--In the interest of giving this piece an audience, I've posted on my blog. I've tried to offer a balanced look at the subject, expressing my enthusiasm for Palestinian cinema, while at the same time challenging misrepresentations of Israeli society, culture, politics & history.
david brumer

Cineaste's last issue featuring Palestinian cinema both heartened and disappointed. It heartened because film is a powerful tool in a nascent people's national expression; it disappointed because a lack of scrutiny of film’s capacity to stage, distort, and lie.

Nana Asfour's "Reclaiming Palestine, One Film at a Time" is a thoughtful and mostly objective history of Palestinian cinema. Ms. Asfour allows for the self-critical voices of Palestinian filmmakers like Hany Abu-Assad and Michel Khleifi, who wants “cinema to reflect the complexities of Palestinian life." Khleiffi notes that "our weakness ....derives from Arab society's archaic structure: tribalism, patriarchy, religion and community life." He is willing to illustrate "Palestinian society's own oppressiveness" in films like "Wedding in Galilee" and even in earlier works like "Canticle of the Stones," where he "employed a female character, whose attempts at emancipation are smothered by family and community, to highlight the dysfunctional aspects of Palestinian society."
"Paradise Now" by Mr. Abu-Assad shows that Palestinian film has come a long way towards demonstrating a mature willingness to confront one’s own demons, instead of blaming all ills on the "occupation".

Less heartening was Cineaste's editorial, and Rebecca Romani's fatally biased piece, "The Hazards of Occupation." Cineaste’s editorial falls prey to misplaced presumptions, prejudices and in some instances, falsifications of the historical record. The section on the "New Historians" of Israel is a prime example. At least two of the five historians listed, Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe are considered by many to be disgruntled ex-patriots, whose credibility, not to mention scholarship, is seriously questioned. A third, Benny Morris, the supposed father of the "new historians," has had a major sea-change in his world view since the eruption of what he would now refer to not as the Second Intifada, but as the Palestinian Terror War unleashed upon Israel's civilian population. He has written extensively about the conflict over the past decade, and his newest book, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict, shows just how much his perspective has shifted. Morris makes it clear that the conflict is not over borders: “Put simply, the Palestinian Arab nationalist movement, from inception, and ever since, has consistently regarded Palestine as innately, completely, inalienably, and legitimately ‘Arab’ and Muslim and has aspired to establish in it a sovereign state under its rule covering all of the country’s territory.” (In case this be misconstrued, “Palestine” means all the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, including Israel). Morris gloomily concludes that the current prospects for a two-state solution are bleak “because the Palestinians, in the deepest fibers of their being, oppose such an outcome.” Perhaps this should be dubbed the "post" post-Zionist mentality alluded to in your editorial.

Along with the chastened Benny Morris, a cursory look at such historians like Michael Oren or Efraim Karsh would paint a very different, and I would aver, much more realistic picture of the conflict. And the same would apply to the choice of documentaries. For every "Checkpoint" and "Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land" there is another perspective, one that allows for the contextualization of the conflict, giving added dimensions and a fleshed out humanity to the Israelis caught in a dysfunctional dance with a co-dependant partner who just can't quite let go. Films like "Decryptage" (France, 2004; Jacques Tarnero and Philippe Bensoussan), "To Die in Jerusalem" (Israel/US; 2007, Hilla Medalia), or Under Fire: Personal Stories from the Scorched Summer of 2006 (Israel, 2009; Avi Naiman) allow audiences to see a more nuanced look, from different sides of the divide.

Rebecca Romani gives her bias away in the first column of the first page of her diatribe against Israel and Israelis, citing the supposed "confessions" of Israeli soldiers to the murder of Palestinian civilians during last winter's Gaza war, which Romani refers to only as an "invasion" as if 8 years of unrelenting Kassam rocket attacks (over six thousand) into Israeli civilian population centers were of no consequence. Of course, these "confessions of murder" were nothing of the kind; rather, they were private conversations, the conscientious deliberations of veterans who had to shoot to kill as part of an unwanted war. They were not confessing murder but rather heartsickness. The reports were prematurely seized upon by a media (including Israel's) only too eager to find Israel guilty of war crimes in "Operation Cast Lead."

Romani then refers to notorious Israel-bashers of the first order to make her case. Tanya Reinhart, a serial distorter of the record is her first witness, followed in short order by shamelessly biased journalists Robert Fisk and Alisa Solomon, topped by the grand-daddy of Israel demonizers, Noam Chomsky. Romani's thesis is by now a tired trope, trotted out with great fanfare by Walt & Mearsheimer, who claim in The Israel Lobby and U.S Foreign Policy that Americans remain largely ignorant of what their government is doing in their name on behalf of “evil” Israel, because of a muzzled press. Right. A press so muzzled that Walt & Mearsheimer, Jimmy Carter, and legions of other Israel bashers can't get from one studio to the next quickly enough to promote their latest bestseller on the subject. Romani apparently can’t be bothered by the thorough drubbing the bashers’ arguments have taken.
That Israel is a self-reflective and thoughtful democracy struggling with its own identity is evident from its cinema. The last two years alone produced two Oscar nominations for best foreign film. Both Israeli entries dealt with the 1st Lebanon War, "Beaufort" and "Waltz with Bashir." Israel is far from perfect, but the romanticized version of Palestinians who can do no wrong and Israelis who can do no right is a disservice to those on both sides who work indefatigably towards reconciliation and honest self-examination.

Cinema can be a powerful tool to help Palestinians find meaningful expressions of their national longings and aspirations. It should not be co-opted for propaganda purposes, and thoughtful journals like Cineaste should be promoting nuanced coverage, not one-dimensional pieces like Romani’s with its simplistic rendering of a complex human drama.

David Brumer
David is co-chair of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival
He is also a geriatric social worker and psychotherapist


George Jochnowitz said...

We take it for granted than an Israeli film will in some way be critical of Israel. It was heartening to learn that a Palestinian film-maker can view Palestinian society objectively. But will there ever--ever--be a leftist intellectual who will view the Palestinians critically?

Uzi Silber said...


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Anonymous said...

George, it's somewhat bizarre to ask of a people living under a brutal occupation and apartheid with mosty of their people rotting in refugee camps exile to self-reflect. this is like faulting jews in concentration camps for not being self-critical while being herded to their deaths.

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