48 mm: Film Festival From Nakba to Return
Film festival of Zochrot (an Israeli NGO, working to promote accountability for the injustices of the Nakba) at Tel Aviv Cinemateque: probably the best films in the line-up were “Born in Deir Yassin” and “Jerusalem We Are Here” (I’ve written about both of them for Tikkun, in the forthcoming issue). Another important film is “Looted and Hidden,” a new documentary by Israeli curator and art historian Rona Sela. It’s super-dense with images and stories, but basically, it’s about several Palestinian photo and film archives, that were stolen by Israelis in 1948, in 1967, and in 1982, from PLO research center and from a Cinema Center in Beirut. The good thing is that the audience gets to see tons of these documents–family photos, studio portraits, battle snapshots, pictures of atrocities, etc, along with snippets of narrative films, army reports, news footage, and even an excerpt from a Soviet anti-Zionist documentary. This plenitude is both a blessing and a curse–a curse because in 45 minutes, it’s impossible to contextualize all these still and moving images, tell what’s behind them, AND let them speak on their own terms. It took Rona Sela, a Jewish Israeli with a stubborn mind and legal assistance, over 10 years to even get access to these visual documents. All of them are locked up in the Israeli archives, with absolutely no hope for them to ever be open, especially in the current political climate. What a paradox it is, that it takes an Israeli to recover the hidden visual history of Palestinians–a Palestinian, obviously, would not stand a chance in the tightly censored IDF archives.
The biggest revelation for me was an archival screening of the 1972 Syrian film, “The Dupes,” by an Egyptian director Tewfik Saleh. It’s based on a novella “Men in the Sun” by a late Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani. The action is set in 1948 and the plot follows three Palestinian refugees who are trying to get to Kuwait to work. Without plot-spoiling, the film ends in tragedy. Besides being a beautiful (although heart-breaking) black-and-white art film, what is so remarkable is that it lets us experience the immediate aftermath of 1948 from the Palestinian perspective. In addition to the narrative plot, it includes also what looked to me like documentary footage: tents, lines to food kitchens, snippets of daily life in early camps. The narrative plot is structured as road film, following the three men, intercut with flashbacks telling their individual stories leading to the lethal journey. That structure, with flashbacks to the stories of characters reminded me of “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer” – a 1955 Zionist film that is also set in 1948, telling a parallel, albeit very different story.
Another significant film was a new doc by another Israeli woman filmmaker, Anat Even, “Disappearances,” recovering the memory of a Palestinian neighborhood Al-Manshiyaa, which today is buried under the lawns of beach-side Clore Park and high-rise buildings in Tel Aviv. The story is familiar: in 1948 the neighborhood is “cleansed” of its original citizens, and new immigrants – Holocaust survivors and North African Jews move into abandoned houses. Later, even that proves out as an insufficient erasure of the past, and so the entire thing is razed, with only one old Arab building remaining. Ironically, today it’s a site of the Etzel Museum. The film is quietly political – personal and moving. Anat Even doesn’t tell this story at once, there is no didactic voiceover, instead, she brings in to the site families who once lived there. These include Palestinian refugees, some of whom haven’t been to the place for decades, as well as Jewish Israelis who were relocated to other places, also against their wills. Additional commentary is provided by voices of architects – some who designed the current park, others, who give it a critical interpretation. The Hebrew title of the film, יזכור למלנשייה, is way more successful than the English translation – I think she should have kept the Yizkor there, a word with rich and tragic association in the post-Holocaust world.
I also watched a bunch of predictable shorts, as well as “1948: Creation & Catastrophe,” which is a more standard edition doc, with talking heads, maps, archival footage, and male voiceover. Although not without problems, it can be productively used for education, especially if paired with a documentary presenting Israeli perspective.
Even though the festival presented significant films, there was something provincial and sad about it: announced speakers weren’t always there, the speakers that were there weren’t best prepared, whatever Q&As there were, weren’t moderated, English subtitles promised in the program sometimes didn’t materialize, etc. But most of all – empty theaters. It’s not that Tel-Avivians are apathetic–thousands showed up for the March of Shame to protest Netaniyahu’s corruption. This for them is urgent, political, and personal, whereas memory of Palestinian loss, let alone taking responsibility for the violence that caused it, is not. This for me was among the main takeaways of the festival.
Olga Gershensonis Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies and Film Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
When is the Arab world going to be held accountable for not accepting the UN 1947 partition plan. They set into motion the the war and the beginnings of the Palestinian refugee problems