By Firas Khoury
No nation can survive without its history being told and recorded for future generations. One of the worst crimes in human history was probably the systematic extermination of the indigenous populations that once inhabited the continents that are now known as the Americas.
There is no one left to tell the tale of how entire nations were wiped out. Most of the survivors didn't speak a written language, so their histories were lost in translation to Spanish, Portuguese, and English.
This was especially true since white men didn't want to hear their stories and actively sought ways to avoid dealing with them in the future. The only remaining information about their experiences comes from studies done in the US after the 1950s, studies that are still largely unknown in a country that annually commemorates the massacres committed against its original inhabitants. They celebrate without understanding why.
Since the 1920s, the zionist movement found out that an undocumented history is one that can’t last.
Military attempts to expel Palestinians via ethnic cleansing began in 1948. However, the evacuation of Palestine and the establishment of Israel in cinema began in 1911 and formally concluded in 1948 — when these films achieved what they set out to do.
The purpose of THE FIRST FILM IN THE LAND OF ISRAEL, which was directed by Mori Rosenberg, was to deliver live scenes from Israel to the 10th Zionist Conference.
Early on, Zionist leaders understood the power of film to rally support for the cause of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Up until the end of the 1940s, every Israeli film was an overt piece of propaganda. The struggles of the Jewish "pioneers" of Israel were the theme of several feature films.
They also focused on capturing vacant desert locales to emphasize Jewish narration, calling the empty desert dunes “a land without a people for a people without a land.” These films portrayed Jewish pioneers as brave men who worked the land with their own hands and built their own settlements.
Obviously, Palestinians were absent in these films. And whenever they did appear in these films, they were either portrayed as shepherds who offered nothing to the vast emptiness of the landscape or as children in some destitute absurd villages.
This propaganda had a huge global influence in bringing Jews to Palestine and gaining imperialism's backing for establishing a Jewish state in Israel. According to these films, there were no civilized Palestinians, and if they weren't shown, then they aren’t there.
There is no reference to the Nakba in Israeli film history. The public is not permitted access to the majority of the archived content. Until now, every official text that deals with the history of Israeli film excludes the word "Palestine," even if it is talking about the early 20th century.
Everything was filmed in the "Land of Israel," and no Palestinian filmmakers were credited, despite the fact that there was considerable collaboration between Palestinian and Jewish filmmakers before the Nakba.
Had any amateur filmmakers or photographers thought of documenting the Nakba, they would not have succeeded, as it would have been most likely that their cameras would have been confiscated, along with their money and valuables.
After the Nakba, Palestinian filmmaking ground to a halt; it wasn't until the start of the revolution and the armed conflict in 1967 that documentary filmmaking resumed. This time, documenting the armed resistance and the life of Palestinian refugees.
The Nakba affected Palestinian cinema just as much as it affected Palestinian lands, homes, and books. Simply put, Palestinian films shot before 1948 are either lost or stolen until further notice. Some of these films can be found in archives in Israel, the UK, and other European countries. Others were lost during the displacement of Palestinians in Jaffa and Jerusalem.
Two pioneering Palestinian filmmakers, Ibrahim Hassan and Gamal Al-Asfar, made the first Palestinian film — a modest documentary film that ran for 20 minutes.
The film featured King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud's 1936 visit to Palestine. I often wonder if the filmmaker incorporated video footage of the martyr Abdul Raheem Mahmoud delivering a poem in front of King Abdul Aziz and asking him: "Did you come to see Al-Aqsa mosque... or did you come to say farewell before it was lost?"
It's difficult to determine since news of Gamal Al-Asfar stopped after the Nakba, and all we know about him is that he settled in Kuwait. Meanwhile, Ibrahim Sarhan died at the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon in 1987. He departed without having viewed any of his efforts, which included documentaries and feature films; all of which were lost when he departed Jaffa in 1948.
In the 1940s, Palestinian film had a sort of resurgence. In addition to the increased number of theatres in Palestine, film production businesses began to emerge, creating promotional films and advertisements.
Obviously, Palestinian cinema came to a standstill when Palestinian history came to a halt and remained mute for 20 years following the Nakba.
Furthermore, 1948 was not the end of the collapse of Palestinian cinema. Another setback happened in 1982, which was the loss of the Palestinian archive under mysterious circumstances after the Palestine Liberation Organization left Lebanon on its way to Tunisia.
Because of this, the Palestinian film industry often had to start over, as establishing a film industry requires access to land and other geographical features, which the Palestinians have never had and still do not have.
It is not possible to classify a film as a "Nakba film" in the same way one can classify a “Holocaust film." The Holocaust is over, and "Holocaust films" are attempts to find facts and face a brutal history in order to learn lessons and/or build a communal Jewish story.
Holocaust films are also made with the help of Zionist institutions, which are crucial tools for overcoming the language barrier on the way to building "Jewish nationalism."
The Palestinian Nakba is currently ongoing. It never ended, so we never stopped to remind ourselves of the lessons.
Even if the events of a film take place in 1948, we still live under occupation and as refugees; thus, a film cannot be considered historical or about the Nakba, but rather a film about resistance.
I recently received a letter from the Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival for inviting Arab directors to participate in the Palestinian Film and Media Conference, which will take place during the festival next June. According to the letter, the conference's goal is "to enable guests to learn about Palestinian filmmakers and focus on their diverse, vital, and valued work." Anyone who reads the final phrase can think that Palestinian cinema has outperformed Polish cinema at its worst in the previous century.
The goal of this sweet talk is to endear Arab directors and persuade them to attend the conference. This appeasement strategy is not exclusive to the Israeli cultural scene, but to the Western cultural scene as a whole. At best, it makes me feel like a crippled student who is applauded for performing little gestures or answering the most insignificant questions.
I am not naive. I am not naive in the sense that I am not aware of such a thing as Palestinian cinema. As a matter of fact, there is no Palestinian cinema, but there are Palestinian films made by solitary filmmakers.
Filmmaking requires more than one person, not just directors. It's like any other kind of art since it needs schools, institutions, and conversations between filmmakers to develop. And because of the Nakba, we haven't had any of these things in a long time.
About Firas Khoury
Firas Khoury is a Palestinian scriptwriter and director who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in cinema. Khoury’s filmography includes several short films, including the award-winning SEVEN DAYS IN DEIR BULUS (2007) and YELLOW MUMS (2010). These films were shown at festivals around the world and on TV.
In 2019, he directed MARADONA'S LEGS — a short film that received the Robert Bosch Stiftung Film Prize as well as Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg’s support. The film was screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Aside from filmmaking, Khoury is passionate about disseminating Palestinian films and training youths. He also taught cinematic expression at the Freedom Theatre's School of Cinema in Jenin Refugee Camp, at the University of Nazareth, and Al-Mashghal Arab Center for Arts & Culture in Haifa.
Khoury is also a Co-Founder of Group Falastinema, which organizes film workshops and screenings across Palestine. Additionally, he holds regular workshops with the Doha Film Institute, like Harrer Harrer, which he co-hosted with writer Suha Arraf in Jaffa, Palestine.
His debut feature ALAM (2022) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, then it won the Audience Award, Golden Pyramid Award, and Best Actor Award for Mahmoud Bakri at the Cairo International Film Festival.
Image by: Kingravsat