Nostalgia for the Future

Images of Palestine circulate globally as long as they don’t picture return

In 1969, Hany Jawhariyya, a filmmaker and member of Fatah, contacted Jean-Luc Godard to produce a film tentatively titled “Until Victory.” Jawhariyya, along with his colleagues Mustapha Abu Ali and Sulafa Jadallah, had produced numerous short documentaries while participating in armed struggle, many of which were screened at international festivals. “Until Victory” would focus on daily life in the refugee camps and Fatah’s political education activities. Years later, upon meeting these filmmakers, the Cuban documentarian Santiago Alvarez hailed their importance, saying, “You are the first among all revolutions who had cinema during the struggle.”

Although Godard quickly accumulated significant footage from the camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank, revolutionary time for the avant-garde filmmaker runs at a slower pace than revolutionary time for the avant-garde guerilla-filmmaker. What was a state of crisis for Palestinian filmmaker-fighters was a stage for representing “global” crises. Godard did not speak any Arabic and relied on Fatah’s interpreters, who translated only parts they imagined were relevant to the film. His strategy of doing multiple takes of a shot was at odds with the logistical realities of guerrilla warfare. The flashpoints of Godard’s political evolution were absent from  his Palestinian comrades’ chronology. Godard even requested that the Palestinians stop their training exercises so he might film them reciting passages from Mao’s Little Red Book—a text none of them had heard of. The Palestinians’ telos did not include Mao and, ultimately, neither did Godard’s.

Godard returned to France, hoping to create multiple, hour-long documentaries of footage he took in a language he did not understand on the vitality of the Palestinian liberation movement. Instead, he lived incognito for months, fearing reprisal from the Israeli government for his film. (At the film’s first screening years later, the theater received a bomb threat from Zionist groups.) Black September quickly ended the lives of his Palestinian colleagues in Jordan.  Godard then decided to have the Arabic retranslated by a UN employee, and learned he possessed rare footage depicting the aftermath of battles, strategy sessions among the leadership, and endless jokes, laughter, and singing—all of which contrasted the slogan-heavy, laconic “translations” provided by his Palestinian fixers. These revelations did little to challenge or disrupt the filmmaker’s desire for personal mastery of that place and time.

The resulting film, Here and Elsewhere, is a painful, distanced account of Godard’s difficulties as a French leftist to make anticolonial films (or “dead corpses” as he once described them). His voiceover unironically criticizes the performative and staged quality of leftist political films and mocks Fatah’s makeshift attempts to create its own media. The necropolitical undertone of scenes featuring Palestinians signals a disavowal of that period of “time out of time,” of revolutionary urgency in favor of the belated, inevitable knowingness that characterizes the cinema of those who could live elsewhere.

At a small DVD store in Amman, I noticed a copy of Here and Elsewhere hidden behind a row of Hollywood B-movies. The initial feeling of excitement and dread I’d had when first learning of the film returned to me again. I tried to imagine risks they took to afford Godard access to their worlds, the depth of faith they had in his abilities and access. But I also recognize as a film editor that the Palestinians’ creativity and resourcefulness could not have been the film’s story, in spite of all the steps they took to make it so. Knowing this does not mean much; it does not stop me from searching again for those things, here, in this patronizing “essay film” I’ve seen countless times, or elsewhere, in conversations at this DVD store.

“I’ve been trying to get rid of these old, old films,” the shopkeeper said, insisting, as he packed my bag of DVDs, that I do not pay for it.

Early Palestinian cinema and its consequent visual culture sought to give, to the world, an image of Palestinian life that Palestinians themselves could recognize. These Palestinian filmmakers provided a vital, immediate response to geopolitical conversations that deliberately did not address them—a defining feature of Palestinian image-making. Mustapha Ali’s They Do Not Exist, one of the most significant Palestinian films ever made, is a direct response to Golda Meir’s speech in which she denies the reality of Palestinian lives. Inflected with the same sardonic tenor, titles of other films (With Soul and Blood, Children Nonetheless, No to the Surrender Option) also sought to respond to political statements or assumptions while addressing the Palestinian public. After Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the archive containing the vast majority of these films went missing. But the need to create images that give meaning to Palestinian life did not.

The global optics through which Palestine is visualized changed dramatically during the Oslo years. The iconic Arafat-Rabin handshake produced a set of responses that were repeated on loop when “the Palestinians” were invoked. In the absence of a coordinated left, a legacy of the economic and political limitations of the Oslo era, a potent fantasy emerged: that the needs of Palestinians could be addressed without reparation of past trauma or the projection of a politically solvent future. National priorities shifted, with the entry of international patronage, from collectively addressing the “question of Palestine” to addressing so-called global stakeholders regarding the Palestinians in question. Palestinians still lacked autonomy over land, water resources, and life chances, but were given boundless opportunities to feature in dissertations, film projects, artwork, and magazine articles. Palestinians found themselves holding nearly infinite social, political, and cultural capital in relation to the international community, provided they exercise “strategic” and “cooperative” disavowal of a Palestinian future. That is, Palestinians were granted “permission to narrate,” provided they police their imaginations well enough to steer clear of the more vexing, “divisive” questions of Palestine (i.e. resistance, return).

While the ways that Palestinians have negotiated this demand have been complex and evolving, it has come to permeate every aspect of Palestinian life. What was once a “search for a state” has been forcibly molded into a wish for “future co-existence” and “national rights.” What was once a Palestinian nation, seeking autonomy and liberation, has been rebranded, in the parlance of international development, as “Palestinian civil society,” a curious entity that many speak of but to whom no one speaks. Capacity-building projects have abounded for a society built in tandem with its patrons and refracted through the elite futurities of those “not here.” Relationships among Palestinians have been shaped and re-shaped through monetary development schemes, produced and dismantled through “anti-terrorism” provisos. Those who were once activists, organizers, socially-engaged artists and social workers have found their work sustained primarily via international funding, which carefully shepherds Palestinians away from movement-building and presumably toward the more nebulous task of “civil society building.” To borrow from Lacan, the objective of the immediate post-Oslo moment was—rather than find ways for “both parties” to “speak the same language”—to bring Palestinians in sync with a particular way of speaking.

Fortunately, innovations in digital camera technology arrived on Palestinian time. The first prosumer digital cameras became available in 1993. The anxious lust for “facts on the ground” provided an uneasy, messy counterpoint to the demand for visual evidence of the “both sides” narrative. As the post-Oslo architecture of expanded checkpoints, settlements, and militarized communities carved its way through Palestinian communities, the demand for greater access to image-making technology increased. Palestinians began providing footage of gross human rights abuses and war crimes, particularly for Israeli human rights organizations and journalists. B’tselem famously provided cameras to Palestinians living in close proximity to constant violence; their citizen-journalists produced crucial documentation on violent incidents that would otherwise go unmentioned. Yet the context through which such media accrues meaning is radically different. The advocacy videos of B’tselem’s citizen-journalists target the Israeli public and are used to lobby its courts, police, and military for accountability and procedural reforms.

The visual culture of Oslo demanded that Palestinians give the international audience an image of Palestine that it recognizes, yet the act of producing this image has been fraught. Palestinianness became a form of capital, one that could threaten or legitimize a media project; for example, the strategic use of Palestinian fixers during the Intifada foregrounded the use of fixers throughout “high-conflict” zones in Arabic-speaking societies. While many courageous solidarity activists, such as Rachel Corrie, sought to protect Palestinians from violence with their own bodies, the transnational visual culture of the era placed value on Palestinians’ proximity to risk.

The documentary A Death in Gaza is a troubling example of the conflict between Palestinian realities and post-Oslo fantasies. Focusing on three Palestinian families in Gaza, the film attempted to explore the “origins” of Palestinian “martyrdom culture.” During a curfew in Gaza, director James Miller and another cameraman ignored his subjects’ warnings and left to shoot footage of the army. Inevitably, they get fired on. While in shock, his colleagues are told by army officials that “a Bedouin,” not a Jewish Israeli shot him; they find this oddly consoling. Later, his crew reveals that Miller had initially hoped to make a film on the plight of both Israeli and Palestinian children, but decided this framing would not be fair to the Israelis. In a bitterly ironic moment, some Palestinians created a poster, to the dismay of Miller’s crew, commemorating his “martyrdom.” The dissonance between the world of the film and the world it purports to document is so jarring as to resist language. And so I am reminded of Jean Genet’s words: “If the reality of time spent among, not with, the Palestinians resided anywhere, it would survive between all the words that claim to give an account of it.”

At the nexus of activism, occupation tourism, brand-making, and war journalism lies the current transnational visual production of Palestine. The Israeli security industry’s pathetic efforts to police virtual space have only amplified the global desire for those elusive “facts on the ground.” Google Earth completely omits parts of Palestine or prevents visualization from a particular proximity. The clinical, relentless deletion of Palestinian referents, including names of towns, pages commemorating particular events, and Vines of protests, compliments Israel’s recent habit of declaring war through Twitter. Aerial videos of Gaza’s destruction appear on the army’s YouTube channel while reservists live-tweeted massacres during the last siege on Gaza.  Settlers even arrived on hilltops, carrying lawn chairs, popcorn, and binoculars, to relish the ‘theater’ of the Gaza’s latest war. The army’s total control over air, water, and land is paralleled by its virtual control over digital representations of Palestine.

Unsurprisingly, images of suffering Palestinian bodies, depicted in photographs, memes, posters, and gifs, have become ubiquitous on social media platforms. Such representations have been used to shirk the confrontational aesthetics of the Intifada years and the banality of Oslo-ized humanism, and invite neoliberal forms of solidarity (i.e. “Not this cause, but this person—or NGO—should be supported.”) Some photographs documenting physical confrontations with the occupying military are branded with the photographer’s signature before they are shared on social media platforms. Others depict Palestinians, subdued, broken, ambling through their own (destroyed) homes.

One recurring meme, which appeared during each raid on Gaza, depicts a Palestinian boy jumping in the air. The text states that the boy could not sleep for weeks, “waiting for the Israelis,” until they bombed his house, killing him. The boy is smiling in the photo and staring at the viewer, as though our witnessing posthumously fulfills a secret wish. Another theme, during the last three wars on Gaza, includes photographs of Palestinian fathers carrying their dead or dying children—a kind of anti-Pietà. The figures in such pictures, unlike the Virgin Mary, rarely face the viewer and demand neither rescue nor recognition. Their images appear to be have been procured quietly, surreptitiously, through doorways, hospital corners, as though these fragments of stillness could only be accessed through the trick of the camera. Fathers carrying toddlers with blasted faces, fathers tending to families without hands or legs, fathers holding IVs in the air—all are bathed in chiaroscuro lighting. Indeed, this is the light of divine time, whose accounting lies just beyond the grasp of human intervention.

What is occupied time? What burden does it place on those under its watch? In Nabi Saleh, a village that the army has raided once a week (at least) for over five years, the Tamimi family has created a vital community media project, a cinematic testament to their survivorship. The Tamimi family is, at once, producer, fixer, editor, shooter, distributor, and interpreter. With cameras from B’tselem, they have documented nearly every tear gas-infused raid, as well as the arrests, murders, and beatings of many community members. They are also survivors of forcible displacement and imprisonment. Manal Tamimi, one of the lead organizers, hosts tour groups who come to watch videos of the latest atrocities against her family; some of the videos are uploaded the day before. If tour members wish, they might join the village in the protest. Others, from a distance, will watch the army arrive and enact in real time what they just viewed on screen. Occupied time must contain many multitudes; Manal has even learned to make vegan food for activists from abroad. On one tour, someone asked her what sustains her family. “The cameras,” Manal said, “are like a weapon. And like a kind of therapy, too.”

Once tied to Palestinian futurity and return, the act of waiting evokes nostalgia for the future.