From Reality to Fiction – From Poverty to Expression
In 1948, two major events took place in the Middle East: the creation of the State of Israel and the onset of the Palestinian tragedy. Two different realities have since evolved: the State of Israel became strengthened into a regional power with a formidable military, economic and technological arsenal; while the Palestinian cause has continued to marginalize itself within the Arab World – itself plagued by civil wars and military or monarchic regimes that are still denying their people basic democratic rights. The intensity of the bitter struggles in the Middle East, however, have contributed to the radical change that slowly and gradually took hold after the October 1973 War, first with the visit of President Anwar al-Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977 and then, in the mid-1990’s, the signing of a peace treaty between some Arab countries and the State of Israel. This development was considered by some as a capitulation and by others as a strategic choice designed to remedy and re-stabilize the Middle East.
After the Gulf War (1990), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the State of Israel launched negotiations and treaties of mutual recognition. By some force of history, these two entities, once enemies, became alter egos and are now, perhaps, partners, for better or for worse. Within this context of anger and revolt, I began my film career in the beginning of the 1980’s. This was the result of my personal, political, and cultural experience, which was influenced by my childhood in the Nazareth of the 1950’s and 1960’s – a place that, for me, was a ghetto at the heart of the Galilee under Israeli rule. At that time we were cut off from the Arab world, every progressive opinion was suppressed by the military power, and our people were scattered among the Arab countries. The education curriculum was reviewed, reshaped and imposed on us by the new state. For us, this was a time of fear and isolation – indeed, of solitude.
My first cultural benchmark was when I discovered poetry, theatre, and literature in outstanding writers such as Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, Paul Eluard, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, O’Henry, Bertolt Brecht, August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and others – not to mention Arab poets and writers whose works reached us from time to time. All these writers and poets provided us with small windows
to the world and the hope for freedom, which every person needs to humanize his or her daily life and to make it more bearable. At that time, in Nazareth’s only movie theater, we used to share with the viewers of the rest of the world the pleasure of watching Hollywood films from the 1950’s and 1960’s, before the emergence of television, which was going to eventually close this wonderful window of dreams. In fact, even now, when I catch a glimpse of a film from that period, I feel I am a child again, and I realize the impact of these productions on what is made today.
Within that context, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War had negative consequences for Arab societies in general and particularly for Palestinian society, and, later, for Israeli society as well. It is only now that we have become aware of the negative consequences of that war, which saw Israel defeating all the Arab armies and occupying a huge territory, forcing it to rule a large civilian population. The 1967 War reunited the Palestinian territory and opened our society to the Arab world after twenty years of isolation. The situation became explosive and revolutionary. The PLO asserted itself on a political, military, and ideological level, and consequently its influence became great. Through the rallying of most Arab and Palestinian intellectuals, a PLO culture thus emerged. Literature, poetry, cinema, and folk expressions were part of the activities favored by the PLO in order to renew an Arab-Palestinian identity.
The 1967 War saw the end of innocence while the time of building political and national foundations was beginning. It was also a revolutionary time all over the world: the Vietnam War, the movements in favor of democratization in the Eastern bloc, the tide of protest in the US and the post-1968 period, which paved the way for a real cultural revolution in Europe.
After 1967, I became aware that without a true cultural movement, which would advocate a genuine change in our thinking and which would recognize the individual as a citizen with his/ her rights safeguarded within the structures of existing and future Arab states (the Palestinian state, for example), the hope to have a liberated society would remain a remote dream. I also became aware of the need to de-colonize cultural action from the domination of political and ideological discourse. How can we create a culture that could retain within itself its own originality and specificity, while still being universal? How can we create a cinema, which could carry the Palestinian human experience, vertically (historically) and horizontally (on the basis of people’s daily reality)? Is there really a culture of the poor, and if yes, how to protect it? These questions were on my mind before leaving for Belgium at the beginning of the 1970’s.
During the 1970’s, Palestinian cinema was the political expression of the PLO. These films directly focused on the events experienced by the Palestinian populations in Jordan until 1970 and in Lebanon thereafter. Towards the end of the Civil War in Lebanon, this cinema slowly died away without having ever shined, because its role was taken over by television cameras, which rushed out to film the Middle East. As far as I was concerned, the Palestinian cause was a just one, but the way it was being fought was wrong. We had to provide the world with another way of talking about us. At the time, we had the simplistic idea that the world was against us and that Zionists were everywhere. From the time of my childhood I had a specific viewpoint and I wanted it to be at the heart of my cinematic expression. The strength of Israel stems from our weakness, and our weakness does not stem from Israel’s strength but rather derives from Arab society’s archaic structures: tribalism, patriarchy, religion and community life, where there is no recognition of the person as an individual nor of men’s, children’s and, above all, women’s rights.
These were the axes around which I wanted to organize my work. By protecting the individual from various oppressive regimes, the Arab World will achieve a new culture; by moving towards other individuals, with all out contradictions but no fear, we will recover our faith in the past, the present and the future of our common destiny. As to the confrontation with Israel, it is around the human rights principles that it must be settled. No one should compromise these legitimate rights or the principle of equality before the law. From now on, our daily life should be organized around civil law and not around the laws of religious and archaic mythologies.
So, as you can see, making a film about or for Palestine is not an easy task. One is faced with many internal and external elements of our multiple histories:
a history defined differently by different people – Israelis or Palestinians, Jews or Arabs, Arab-Muslim and Western judeo-Christianity. One is faced with commercial, technological, ideological, and historical war machines. We, cursed citizens of this under-developed world, this Third World of miseries, what can we do? We must keep on producing, creating, and fighting for life. We must he part of one of the most dynamic and progressive intellectual movements, whether cultural, aesthetic or philosophical, We must appropriate the world, take charge of it. Thought does not recognize borders, it is as free as the wind, ready to abandon any language or region if it is defeated by repression.
My films are part of a school of thought that always attempts to liberate languages from their ruling systems, whether ideological or commercial. My cinematographic roots stem from the history of direct cinema, which anchored itself in people’s reality. As a filmmaker, I wanted to reach a universal cinematic language. A century after cinema was invented, we must go beyond differences, trends, and schools of filmmaking. We cannot separate the documentary from the fictional film. The question I ask myself is: How can I manage, with sound and picture, to make a film that will integrate drama, theatre, action, and reportage all into one work? Let’s not forget that I come from a Third-World background of poverty, so the culture of the poor was always in the back of my mind, pushing me to find solutions in order to be creative. Perhaps one’s viewpoint could combine all this because looking as a way of thinking about cinema as a piece of writing. Literature can combine all these notions. In a novel, a documentary description can follow a fictional scene and then a poetic evocation of one detail: light, color, and movement, without creating a problem for the reader. I think that in our case, the only way to confront the power of commercial cinema is to use a camera as you would use a pen. In order to develop this concept, I had to ask many questions:
I. What is “direct cinema?” Are the directors Robert J. Flaherty, Dziga Vertov, Joris Ivens, Henri Stork, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Jean Rouch, Jean-Luc Godard all anchored in reality?
II. Does the obsession with objectivity presented by TV reporting really hold up to scrutiny?
III. What is subjectivity and how is it manifested?Is it in the collective vision of a team, from a philosophical, social, cultural point of view? Is it in the technical aspect of a medium, in the framing, the film stock, the soundtrack? Or is it with the journalist or the director who acts as the viewer’s proxy, does he/she grasp the language of film?
IV. What are the limits and strengths of militant cinema, and how are young filmmakers, with no financial means, managing to film reality as if it were fiction or fiction as if it were reality, as with neo-realism, new wave, nova Brazilian cinema, and independent American cinema?
V. How is poetry used by different cinematographic schools? (For the Italian realists Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica, and Cesare Zavattini, poetry serves subject; in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films, the subject serves the director’s poetry; in Andrej Tarkovski and the Taviani Brothers’ films, poetry is like a subject serving the viewer; in the cinema born from the
French Nouveau Roman – Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Alain Resnais – poetry is perversion.)
All these questions led me to one conclusion: cinematic expression bears in itself a logic of narration. It must narrate a story, and every story is the result of a subjective discourse, which comes from (an) individual(s). I decided as a free individual to dedicate my work to showing the Palestinian experience according to my perception of the world, through film... because these questions taught me to watch a film in order to watch reality, to hear voices and resonances in order to listen to people’s cries and joys. To look and to listen, as Godard said.
My Apprentice Years
Between 1977 and 1980, I took part in the directing of several documentaries in Palestine/Israel for Belgian TV. At that time, the documentaries we made were essentially based around a journalist’s voice-over, reading a commentary analyzing the subject and illustrating it with pictures. These sequences were punctuated with political interviews. From my first TV film, I had the voice-over reduced – I diminished
the politicians’ speeches and I concentrated on powerful situations. that expressed the complexity of reality. I was giving voice to the people who were experiencing the event. After the first documentary, I had the feeling that the logic of television was limited to the event and was unable to get deeper into the subject to see and to hear the hidden reasons behind these events. The subject was always being “covered’ instead of being revealed to show the roots of events. This was (and is) the huge contradiction of TV films.
On the other hand, the individual was always shown as an abstraction: the Palestinian, the Israeli, the army, the fedayeen (freedom fighters). Who are they? How do they live, what do they think about, do they dream, hope or despair? Where do they come from and where are they heading? The idea of Fertile Memory (1980), my first film, stems from these questions. I thought that if I wanted to make a film about my society, I had to raise uncompromising questions: If Palestinians are the victims of the Israelis, then who are the Israelis? The victims of inhuman repression who then became the tormentors of the Palestinian people? But the Palestinians – are they only victims or are they also both victims and tormentors? They are tormentors, but towards women and children... Everything should be taken on its own level, and only to ascertain the damage done will not show who is the victim or the tormentor. We can only reach the truth by denouncing the logic and the systems that transform us into potential tormentors and victims.
This is how I decided to make a film for – and not about – the women of Palestine, and through them, a film for Palestine. In Fertile Memory, Palestine – its history, its reality, its future, and its contradictions – appear through the portraits of two women, who are almost marginal in the eyes of society: a widow and a working woman. They become the archetype of their people’s experiences. Here was how a subdued society oppresses half of its population. Fertile Memory was for me the vision of the present towards the past for a better future. I tried to push the real scenes from daily life towards fictionality, by exploring the two women’s external and internal worlds. I had to suppress the boundaries between reality and fiction, document and narration. Is not Palestine the essence of the mythical country, in spite of its reality?
This film turned the PLO’s militant cinema upside down. It demonstrated that it is more important to show the thinking that leads to the political slogan rather than the expression of this slogan that is political discourse. For the first time, we could see Palestinian women in their private environment, all by themselves. Their memory was becoming subject, since they were themselves the subjects of their people’s drama. Thus Fertile Memory is impregnated with Palestinian poetry “from the interior” as a number of commentators have observed – i.e. from the Palestinian society inside the Israeli state.
After I completed this film in 1981, events took a dramatic course in the Middle East: a direct war between Israel and the PLO in South Lebanon, President Sadat’s assassination, inter-Palestinian civil wars in Lebanon in the presence of the Syrian and the Israeli armies in the South, which was going to result in the occupation of Beirut, which would in turn result in the PLO leaving Lebanon. It was in this context of new defeats that I started to write Wedding in Galilee (1987). At that time, producers only wanted strong scenarios written on the American model, with a happy ending. Without success, I had been looking for a production team to work on a project called A Season in Exile that would have represented an aesthetic and dramatic continuity to Fertile Memory. It was the description of a young Palestinian woman who had fled her village to follow her lover to Europe. For Wedding in Galilee, the idea came to me through the story of a quack doctor who was faced with a newlywed couple unable to make love on their wedding night, creating unbearable tension in a village. From this idea, I wrote a modern tragedy in which two “gods” confront each other, representing two systems, military and modern, one of the Israeli military governor and the other the patriarchal and archaic authority of the Palestinian Mukhtar, or mayor of the village. As each tries to pull destiny his way, it is the fate of the people of the village that is at stake. The question is: who will win?
In this film, for which I also wrote the script, I wanted to erase the boundaries between fiction and reality. The characters came from my imagination but they were played by non-professionals who had been chosen for their fictive resemblance to the scenario’s
characters. Here, I was interested in the theme of joyfulness resilience under occupation. I tried to multiply the points of view from realism to formalism, theatrical documentary, etc. The overpowering immanence of Palestinian society and the way it is anchored in vertical reality, in the historical and cultural reality of this land – these had to be shown. I had also to concentrate on the visible elements of confrontation (Israeli/ Palestinian, soldier/civilian, power/emotion, etc.) and other invisible elements (old/young, men/women, sexuality/tradition, symbols/needs). By limiting the drama within one space and one timespan, I wanted to have a go at the Manichean rigidity of the Arab and Palestinian way of thinking on the one hand, and at the Israelis and their supporters on the other hand. Sergei Eisenstein once said: “You can find the world’s complexity in a dew-drop,” so how can we describe such a formidable reality as that of the Middle East?
This film was made during a very confused period, when the protagonists of the drama did not know where they were heading (between 1983 and 1987): all paths were open. There was a sort of quiet before the storm: the film was completed and screened in Cannes six months before the onset of the first Intifada, while three years later it was the turn of “Operation Desert Storm” to destroy the Middle East.
Wedding in Galilee had an incredible impact. Apart from the numerous international prizes it was awarded, it has been shown all over the world, sparking exciting debates and provoking viewers whenever it is shown. Some could perceive through this film the possibility of a co-existence in the Middle East, others saw it as a poetic and humanist work, others as a denunciation of the archaism of Arab-Palestinian society. I think that with this film I followed my path: to make films that raise questions rather than films that give answers. I genuinely think that questions generate life and answers death. I always believe in active viewers and never in passive ones. All readings are right but they are always incomplete, like life itself. While Palestinian poets had influenced me through the making of Fertile Memory, I read almost every Palestinian short story and novel before writing Wedding in Galilee. The film refers to the works of Emile Habibi above all but also of Mohammed Naffa and others. But the poet who influenced me most in the writing and the direction of this film was Yannis Ritsos, the great Greek poet who passed away a few years ago.
At the end of the film, the Palestinian villagers take to the streets and rebel against the military occupation. Six months after the first world screening of this film at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the International Critics’ Prize, the Palestinian people of Gaza, and later on, of the West Bank, rebelled and the First Intifada (1987-94) set the whole country ablaze. I think that many people saw in the film a glimpse of hope in the dark and violent reality of the first years of the Intifada. That was good. But I was already feeling the urgency to do something that would narrate the suffering of the people of the Intifada: families, women, men and above all children who were dying from the army’s bullets.
In 1989 I had just completed a screen adaptation of the first novel of a Belgian friend, L’Ordre du jour, which was about bureaucracy, individualism and corruption in Belgium, an approach which you could call Kafkaesque. I was excited about the idea of making a film that would give a fictional, anthropological reflection on the life of this bureaucratic class, the largest class in today’s developed countries. I thought I would film the existential exile of the European individual at the end of the twentieth century. However, urgency made me put this project aside and head for Jerusalem to shoot a new film called Canticle of the Stones.
The initial project was to make a poetic, impressionistic investigation based on the portraits of some of the children killed by Israeli repression. Again, I had to go beyond the reductive images conveyed by the numerous international television reports, especially by CNN. The Palestinians already had an automatic discourse, a sort of “ready-to-wear!’ language for journalists. There, I turned the problem around and I started filming the theme of sacrifice as a subject of the Intifada. This was a universal approach, since sacrifice is part of all human experience. “Everybody is always sacrificing something,” says the male protagonist, whoever it is for – family, loved ones, children, work – everybody has to sacrifice a little bit of his/her dignity and freedom. So, instead of talking
of the dead as martyrs, an idea verging on fascism, I wanted to emphasize their universal value, to understand their death as a form of sacrifice.
First, I wrote a poetical dialogue with two voices: she and he. While I was writing it, I realized that there was some similarity with Hiroshima mon amour, by Marguerite Duras, adapted in Alain Resnais’ outstanding film. I thought about this resemblance and I realized that the Middle East and Palestine, destroyed by war, looked like postwar Europe at the end of the 1940s. Towns and villages, land, houses, and, above all, souls were damaged. Fifty years on, it is more or less the equivalent of several atomic explosions. Why not have the literary and cinematographic references of Hiroshima mon amour? Besides, it was a way to draw attention to the fact that Marguerite Duras had always held a stubborn pro-Israeli position even during the invasion of Lebanon and the occupation of Beirut in 1982. To talk about Hiroshima is also to reject all situations of violence and repression everywhere in the world. It is to uphold all demands for dignity and freedom, which arise all over the world and to be in solidarity with these demands. You cannot be selective when it comes to the implications of these questions. The film was shown in Cannes and, as expected, sparked heated discussions and debates.
After the Gulf War, I directed my first Belgian film. The subject, location, and characters all came from the novel of my friend Jean-Luc Outers. As I explained, it was an almost anthropological look at the bureaucrats of the end of this century. A critic wrote the following: “the film casts a critical and ironic eye on our changing Western world... through a poetic-lyrical study of our bureaucratic societies where surrealistic absurdity often mixes with reality.” I won’t dwell on that film, which to this day remains a painful memory for me: through the irrational rejection of this film in Europe, I discovered that European society refuses, in an intolerant manner, any external viewpoint on its own reality. It seemed to me that the prevailing opinion (“what does an Arab filmmaker have to do with this?”) was similar to the blunt refusal, which is also a form of censorship, of most of the Arab regimes of my films, and toward Wedding in Galilee in particular. The two sides are similar and disconcerting in their attitudes: This image does not resemble us! The Arabs don’t acknowledge a woman’s real problems, the problem of for example, her virginity, or a man’s real problems, in his sexuality, And the Europeans do not want their bureaucratic and state-run systems to be inspected, the very systems that provide tens of millions of men and women with work. Both were accusing me, each in their own way, of being hostile to them. Arabs thought I was too Westernized and Europeans thought that I, the “Oriental”, was filming them with no love. In other words, the film was a blow to me; it was hard to live with, especially when there was such misunderstanding.
And then I wrote and directed Tale of the Three Jewels in Gaza, just before Arafat entered. It was like taking the road to Palestine once again by exploring a new aspect of the human adventure of my people: the theme of childhood in the nest endured under occupation and violence. And the need to rebuild the world of the children of Gaza and their right to dream and to be as free as any other citizen of the world who claims his or her right to life. A society cannot be built without its children’s creativity. In the Middle East, it is necessary to get children, including Israeli children, to consider their region’s history on the basis of a whole tradition: in other words, it is necessary to get them to understand that the history of their region belongs to them all. This way, I could build the scenario from the elements of region’s popular and religious cultural traditions: Tales, holy books, popular beliefs, Jins, etc. Historical space cannot be divided into communitarian and confessional parts – Jewish, Christian, Muslim; and I would add atheism as well, for I believe everyone has the right to inherit the cultural and historical legacy of the region, including the pre-monotheistic legacy of yesterday and the secularism of today.
I have always worked on the problem of narration because I think that identity needs to be narrated. Look at the role of American cinema in the building of American national identity. Before creating Tale of the Three jewels, I challenged myself to produce a modern tale using the traditional form of the oriental tale. World cinema, and particularly American cinema has, from the beginning, based itself on biblical narrative (Old Testament) or on The Arabian Nights. Therefore, our task was to cross the resources of our imaginary, that vertical dimension of our culture, with
the reality we are living nowadays. The result was a love story, with a fantastical dimension, between two 12-year-old children, against the background of the blunt reality of the cursed Gaza Strip.
As a conclusion, I would like to define the intricate relationship between my cinematographic language and the prevalent political language. The prevalent political language aims at determining a harmony of concrete interests. It is a uniform language that emphasizes the difference between what is similar and what is different within a very precise geographical and economical area. On the other hand, my cultural action, and not cultural language, aims at liberating spaces where everyone can be moved, can rediscover the real nature of things, marvel at the world, think about it and immerse oneself in the world of childhood. Finally, politics excludes the imaginary, unless it can be used for ideological or partisan ends. But my films’ cultural world is made up of both reality and the imagination, both of which are vital to the creation of my films. It is like a child’s quest for identity: he or she needs these two levels – reality and dream – to approach life in a balanced and non-schizophrenic way.
Originally published in El Pais, February 1997. The English translation was published in Hamid Dabashi (ed.), Dreams of a Nation: On Palestine Cinema (London: Verso, 2006).
This text was also part of the publication Michel Khleifi, MÉMOIRE FERTILE / FERTILE MEMORY, compiled, edited and published by Courtisane, CINEMATEK and Sindibad Films, published on the occasion of the Michel Khleifi retrospective in Brussels (26 September - 5 November 2019), an initiative of CINEMATEK and Courtisane. Copies available via Courtisane.
With thanks to Michel Khleifi and Omar Al-Qattan
Image (1): Michel Khleifi, Ives Vandermeeren, Marc-André Batigne, Sahar Khalifa and her daughters on the set of Fertile Memory (1980)
Image (2): Michel Khleifi and Ives Vandermeeren on the set of Fertile Memory (1980)
Milestones: Fertile Memory takes place on Thursday 18 March 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.