Can’t Wait Forever

Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny discuss their new film, The Native and the Refugee, which investigates how the spatial contexts of Native reservations in the U.S. and Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East incubate resistance to settler colonialism. 

AT a time when the boundaries of the world’s nation states seem both vulnerable to the destabilizing forces of revolt yet fortified by growing ethno-nationalism, The Native and the Refugee is crucial viewing. The multi-media project, which has been ongoing since 2014, investigates the sites of two parallel anti-colonial struggles, the Indian reservation and the Palestinian refugee camp–“spaces of exception whose position in the struggle for native and Palestinian autonomy are essential,” in the words of co-director and co-producer Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny.

The duo has already released a few short videos that can be viewed online, each roughly ten minutes long, and are currently in the process of completing a full-length documentary. In “We Love Being Lakota,” filmed on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala Lakota, the wind whips across the vast expanse of the Black Hills, where people have resided long before the land was “reserved” for them. In “The History of the Camp,” which focuses on the Palestinian Al-Arroub refugee camp in Hebron, Palestine, noisy clatter and narrow passageways press in on the viewer as birds circle overhead. Both films open with community members narrating the creation stories of their ancestral homes, which are, they tell us, inextricably rooted in the land that was stolen from them.

Over the course of working on The Native and the Refugee, the New York City-based filmmaker duo seek to explore the particular spatial contexts of the reservation and the camp–places often located outside of a people’s ancestral homeland and bound in a complex interplay with dominant governing forces. Peterson and Rasamny consider this an ongoing multimedia project untethered to the completion of the feature-length film. In addition to the film project, they are working on a text-based essay, a visual arts exhibition, and a book, with the overarching goal of revealing structures of radical autonomy emerging out of either space.

This fall, Rasamny and Peterson travelled to Standing Rock, currently the site of the largest mobilization of Indigenous North Americans in recent history, to deliver supplies and document events. “The community there is a perfect example of what we are speaking of when we speak of a community of resistance being formed in reservations and camps,” said Rasamny. He and Peterson will also be visiting the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island towards the end of this year to show their films.

Aviva Stahl sat down with Rasamny and Peterson to talk about their creative vision and the brutality they endured as they crossed borders to make the films.

STAHL: Something that I was struck by in the two films was their similar arc. They both open with creation myths and close with affirmations of resistance and a commitment to the land. What was the reasoning behind this artistic choice?

RASAMNY: When you’re talking about these spaces, you’re talking about a different relation to land, both politically and ideologically, or even spiritually. So on one level these camps or reservations are a direct product of the nation-state, while at the same time they imagine ways of existing outside of it. For Natives, a lot of people were obviously living on that land before the reservation status was forced on them. The need to formulate the idea and reality of reservations was necessary for the United States to reappropriate surrounding land for the purposes of infrastructure development, resource extraction, and also sale on the private real estate market. The reservation itself though was able to provide space for native communities that resisted private individualized land ownership and continued traditional governance and ways of life. In the case of the Palestinians, the need for camps arose not only through the creation of Jewish state during the ‘48 Naqba, but it is precisely the new nation-states formalized around Palestine that created identities excluding those born outside their borders, an idea which would have been absurd a few decades earlier, forcing the Palestinians into refugee status within those countries. I think that emphasis, whether it’s the creation myth with the Lakota or the biblical stories from the West Bank, both point to ways of relating to the land that exist outside of the national model, and are central to our investigation of both the Palestinian refugee camp and the Native reservation as sites of resistance.

STAHL: Another thing that struck me was the way the land was filmed. In “The History of the Camp,” there was a narrative in the shots of the sky and the windows and the narrow walkways and alleyways, and in the expansiveness of the mountain range and even the wind in “We Love Being Lakota.” I wonder if that spoke to your own emotional experience of the two places.

RASAMNY: In the camps, people were allotted a specific piece of land under the assumption that they were going to return to Palestine after four or five years, not unlike how people conceive of the Syrian refugees today. However, they’ve now been living there in those same camps for 60-plus years, and in the case of Lebanon, are unable to buy property or work outside of the camps. So that crowdedness is part of the reality of what it means to be in a camp. On the reservations, like in Pine Ridge or in much of the Navajo Nation, part of that expansiveness of land means that if you want to go buy food, it’s an hour and a half drive. You have to plan around something like visiting a relative or getting groceries in terms of time, cost, and transportation. Pine Ridge itself was a prisoner of war camp and a direct outcome of the Oglala military resistance to America in the late 19th century, so the current deprivation of reservations like Pine Ridge and Rosebud speaks to that history of warfare, which wasn’t really that long ago, it’s still part of people’s living memory.

PETERSON: People are used to seeing urban poverty, over-crowdedness, garbage in the streets, shoddy housing, sewage problems, and it’s easy to see that in the camps, especially in Lebanon, and understand a kind of emotional reaction or sympathy that would come with showing those images. But rural poverty is something different, or new to some people, and you can show someone images of a wide-open, seemingly beautiful, majestic landscape, and it might be harder to imagine the difficulty to live in such a landscape, finding access to basic things like electricity, water, food. So what might at first seem beautiful has its own experience of brutality or harshness, all the energy, resources, and just driving and driving required to maintain a life in such a vast space, all the time and money needed driving just to get basic things, the isolation, the harsh weather conditions of a place like Pine Ridge or Black Mesa. Not to mention all the environmental and extractive issues that are constantly taking place within and around these landscapes, where it’s precisely these beautiful, out of the way places that are being ruined and torn apart to maintain life in the settlers’ cities.

STAHL: There were a lot of ways that the spaces and experiences of people in the films were related. The sense of a waiting; the violence that people expect; the resilience, especially of youth.

RASAMNY: Waiting is big. In both cases, among the younger generation, there’s a sense of trying to combat this position of being in waiting perpetually for an outcome that is undetermined and that you have no power over. Because the whole point of what the United States government has done to the Natives, as Olowan says in “We Love Being Lakota,” is to put them in a position of waiting, waiting for handouts. And it’s the same thing with the Palestinians: wait for the UN, or these giant political international bodies to make a decision on your behalf, and in the meantime don’t do anything. In both cases there’s the sense that you should just sit tight forever and wait for them to come to a decision. And among the youth in both of these places there’s a sense of “no,” that waiting cannot go on forever.

STAHL: In “We Love Being Lakota,” people spoke at length about their connection to the Palestinian struggle. Did you talk to Palestinians about the Native American experience?

PETERSON: I think because the Palestinian experience has gotten so much more media coverage and attention than the Native American experience, there’s more awareness about Palestine as a reference for oppressed peoples, compared to just total invisibility or silence about Native Americans. This is true even here in New York: ask anyone, even those on the Left, and they will likely know more about Israel-Palestine than they will about contemporary Native life. Part of what we have been doing with this project is to bring the videos we’ve made about Native communities in the United States and present them to refugee communities in the Middle East. We’ve done that everywhere we went, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, Rojava. We’ve organized screenings, discussions, presentations, PowerPoints about the places we’ve been, people we’ve met, the historical and political connections we’ve been making, how the lands were taken over, how the reservations were created, how there are people still resisting, still struggling. And once we showed and explained our travels and research to Palestinians or Kurds, they were so excited, saying things like, “That’s so great, they’re fighting back! I’m so happy!” Everyone we spoke to loved the idea of an ongoing insurgency taking place right now in the US, to know that even within the United States, there is still resistance, that people still speak their languages, maintain their own cultural identity and practices. But the reality is a lot of Native communities know more about Palestine than the other way around. A number of Oglala Lakota from the American Indian Movement actually visited Lebanon during its civil war in 1979-1980, working and training with Palestinians in the camps. For some of them that was their only time leaving North America, or even getting on a plane, which says something about the strength and seriousness of these solidarity movements at that time.

STAHL: Malek, you were detained by the IDF. Could you speak about that or the broader logistical challenges you faced in making the films?

RASAMNY: When we were in the West Bank, we were staying in Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, and at another camp nearby called Aida every day soldiers come and spray tear gas and the kids throw rocks. It’s ritualized, it happens every day, almost like some kind of training exercise. It’s important to say that when the IDF detained me they did so not because I was filming, they detained me thinking I was a kid from the camp. I didn’t have a camera with me, I didn’t have a press pass. They were very harsh with me, rough, aggressive, beat me up a little bit. However, when they took me inside the Wall, that’s when I presented my American passport and started speaking English and the whole tone changed. They apologized and said they were sorry. They tried to justify what they did. They gave me cold water. They asked me if I wanted food. But this is just one example, we have crossed so many borders throughout this project, and we’ve been through many different bureaucratic machines at all these borderlines: between and within America, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Canada.

PETERSON: The United States is probably the worst, or most annoying, as we are both citizens, but they give us the hardest time of all. Any time I return to the United States I am routinely held for hours, flagged, pulled into an office, and it’s quite frustrating because the agents are seemingly required to question people who travel where we travel, but they clearly have no real training or familiarity with the region, so it’s just frustrating to even try to talk to them, they don’t even know what to ask. It’s solely a question of security; with as much political and military investment there’s been in these places, it’s still only seen as a source of potential danger. In the US, one of the places we focused on is the Mohawk community in upstate New York, Akwesasne, which spans both sides of the US and Canadian border, so we were also detained by both Canadian and American border guards on the reservation. Akwesasne has some degree of sovereignty and territorial integrity, but for us, since we’re not Mohawk, we weren’t officially permitted to cross that territory like people with Native status. We were detained by maybe nine people, from all sorts of different agencies and departments, border agents from both sides, tribal police. Getting harassed and handcuffed, you realize borders are real.

RASAMNY: They’re made real by violence.

You can view five short films from the project The Native and the Refugee here.