A Budding Filmmaker Generates a Past With a Future
For the past ten years, the bulk of Palestinian film production has been geared towards the immediate goal of mass mobilization (due to the lack of geographical concentration) whereby notions of morale and cohesion, the handling of weapons and man-to-man combat far outweigh the need for personal testimonies, for works of fiction or documents for reflection. It may seem surprising that the Palestinian intelligentsia, some of the most brilliant around the Arab world, whose talent is unmistakable in the world of the arts (see Mahmoud Darwish), has been unable to produce a film that reflects on Palestine in the way that The Spiral does for Chile.1 Indeed, one can imagine the complex tangle of obstacles that would stand in the way of such a project. Meanwhile, Fertile Memory proves that Palestinian cinema, and therefore the Palestinian cause, has everything to gain (qua ideological effectiveness) from broadening the range of cinematographic approaches and discourses on the Palestinian situation.
While the 1980 Carthage Film Days were heading towards a lacklustre conclusion and an unsurprising list of winners, Michel Khleifi’s Fertile Memory, flying the Palestinian flag and scheduled on the closing evening, suddenly rekindled the fading fire and long-dampened enthusiasm. We are still wondering today how the jury, for whom terms such as “audacity” and “lucidity” may have sounded like... Hebrew, could have been so blind as to overlook the fact that, apart from being a first work, Fertile Memory constitutes a political and aesthetic event destined to become a milestone in the elaboration of an audiovisual identity free from imported conventions.
The often overused term “originality” takes on its full meaning here to define a film that has managed to shatter genre limits into a harmonious whisper that only a deep-digging pure source would be able to produce. The source that irrigates Fertile Memory springs from two poles that constitute the foundations and permanence of the Palestinian soul: usurped land and women. Few films show daily life in the physical and temporal reality (32 years for Mrs Farah Hatoum) of the Israeli occupation. And if these films exist, their lack of credibility is such that at best, we make do with imagining the thoughts behind the gestures and gazes – the deepest dimension of which only the prism of culture will render.
More than words, the gestures and physical movements, gazes and silences form the militant attitude and acts of resistance underlying the space of women. Through his two portraits of women in occupied Palestine, 30-year-old Michel Khleifi, a native of Nazareth and a graduate of INSAS in Brussels, doubly proves that the notions of militancy and political film are less and less compatible with the often narrow limits within which certain experiences have sought to confine them. Here, it is the subjective approach to people, objects and places that reveals and determines the outlines of an objective situation in all its complexity. Here, it is the elements of reality that organize the dramatic progression representing the daily fabric/drama in a new light... Fertile Memory is both a plural monologue and a singular dialogue, both story and reporting, both documentary and fiction. The abolition of the boundaries between two (for a long time) separate types of writing indicates the film’s resolutely modern filiation, which seeks its contemporary truth at the crossroads of new practices coming from audiovisual techniques and the magical virtues of representation, as inscribed in our history by the seventh art. Fertile Memory also brilliantly confirms the accuracy of the theses put forward by Godard in Here and Elsewhere on the importance and relativity of discourse, which depends on the place one is speaking from.2
The impact and force of this film exceeds everything we have so far seen about the Palestinian question: no discourse could lessen the meaning of what Fertile Memory shows us with such profundity. The linear but shattered history of the Palestinian people, the human reality of the occupation, the quasi visceral relationship of the Palestinians with their land, the internal contradictions that arose out of the colonization, the way in which the imagination and the culture convey the concrete relationship with Zionism, the objective day-to-day constraints shaping the hearts and minds, the resolve and deep faith in the future in which tragedy and sadness are inseparable from hope, the occupiers condemned to the periphery of language by locking them in de facto non-recognition (“them”, “they”, “these people”...), the fundamental nature of Arab society in which the relationship with women is as vital a struggle as the anti-Zionist struggle, women as fundamental actors in History, whose mental space and thousands of daily gestures are as many militant acts....
One possesses the words, the other doesn’t...
With very different conditions and histories, Farah Hatoum and Sahar Khalifeh are actually two sides of the same political reality, two complementary sides of one and the same social whole: that of Palestinian women under Israeli occupation, that of the mental space of women in contemporary Arab society.
The 50-year-old Farah Hatoum has the impressive stature of an immovable rock. She is the image of deep, ancestral Palestine, with her quiet resolve “erasing” the barbed wire.
Her thirst for justice is armed with the kind of patience whose virtues have been honed by the ordeals that run in parallel with the history of her people. With her husband dead in exile in Beirut in 1948, Farah Hatoum lives in Nazareth in Galilee. Despoiled of her patch of land by “the law of the absent”, she has managed to raise her two children with dignity, despite the painful quarrels and generational conflicts.
You should hear her pronounce a categorical “no” to the attempts of a son who is prepared to compromise on the matter of the land. “I have never ripped off anyone like they have...” The land stays in its place. A deep sense of justice and dignity is driving her and will always drive her, and while she doesn’t possess “the words”, she knows a form of freedom, a mental space, that no tyrant will ever take away from her...
Looking at the one who does possess the words, we can ask ourselves, is she so much freer? Sahar Khalifeh is a young novelist who lives in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank after having lived in Nablus for a long time. Married at the age of 18, she divorced 13 years later. She had to fight and suffer to obtain custody of her two daughters. After resuming her studies at Bir Zeit, the only Palestinian university, she is leading a musical group that is updating the cultural heritage and oral traditions by developing their subversive character. Her pertinent reflections, imbued with smothered emotions, attest to a critical view of rare lucidity on the Palestinian reality under Israeli occupation and on the condition of women in Arab society. Sahar Khalifeh’s words about herself and her sisters seem to have been cast in a painfully beautiful material. “In Arab society, when a woman is divorced and over thirty, she can at most rearrange her ideas and change her principles, but she can never go back in time.”
To the linear certainties born from Farah Hatoum’s unfailing rootedness, Sahar Khalifeh opposes questions in which hope embraces and tosses around conflict and contradiction. For the young novelist, social dynamics are inseparable from the end of injustices, all injustices, including those that lock up Arab women in a space invariably bounded by bars.
There is a lot more to this film, which is delivered to us in the manner of One Thousand and One Nights, with drawers containing other drawers... If Fertile Memory develops a serious and moving reflection on freedom and liberties, on the oppression of women, thereby setting aside Manichaeism in favour of contradiction and doubt (the one deprived of words is probably freer in her alienation than the other who’s armed with lucidity and is stuck feeling doubly frustrated), it is the remarkable distortion of confinement, enclosed spaces, geographical miniatures of places on the one hand and the openness to the outside, the warmth and generosity of the discreet gaze and the universal dimension on the other that heralds the advent of a filmmaker of noble descent.
If, as Nahla said, every “ah” of Umm Kalthoum contains the pain of millions of Arab women, every silence of Sahar contains the hope of the Arab world which will only defeat the enemy by exorcizing its own demons...
This text originally appeared in Les 2 écrans, January 1981.
With thanks to Michel Khleifi.
Milestones: Fertile Memory takes place on Thursday 18 March 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.