‘Occupied Palestine’ doc’y finds new life 30 years after a bombthreat killed its release

An image from David Koff's film, 1980

An image from David Koff’s film, 1980

Largely-suppressed for 30 years, the  film “Occupied Palestine” will be screened on October 22 at the 2013 Boston Palestine Film Festival. Joumana El Alaoui said earlier this year that the film presents “an analysis of the Israeli occupation that is still today rare to find.” UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelley lately tweeted, “David Koff’s powerful documentary Occupied Palestine . . . proves settlements a conscious colonial strategy.” And film scholar Terri Ginsberg, in a talk about the film at the Jerusalem Fund in June, called it “unique, timeless [and] strikingly relevant from the perspective of 2013.” We asked filmmaker David Koff to tell us about it. –Editor.

Seven years before the First Intifada brought international media attention to the lives of Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories and in Israel itself, I produced and directed a documentary film called Occupied Palestine. With a small crew, I filmed in 1980 throughout Israel and the West Bank. Only once were we detained by the military authorities and our film confiscated. Otherwise, we were able to go wherever we wished.
Occupied Palestine premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival in October, 1981. Ten minutes into the screening, a bomb threat sent a thousand people out into the streets of the Castro district. Police and fire fighters searched the theater and, finding nothing, permitted the screening to continue.
But the damage had been done. A theater owner in San Francisco who had intended to exhibit the film backed out; another theater owner in London, after having compared the impact of the film on him to that of The Battle of Algiers, nonetheless refused to program Occupied Palestine.

Film distributors wouldn’t even look at the film — “I only have to see the title to know we don’t want it in our catalogue,” one prominent distributor told me.

Today, were something like that to occur, the extensive network of Palestinian support groups that has developed in communities and on college campuses would spring into action, using social media among other means, to defend the film and insure its widespread distribution and exhibition.
But at that time, the film’s portrayal of the relentless nature of Zionist colonization and occupation, and the implacable resistance of Palestinians to it, was characterized as both untrue and outrageous. A reviewer in the New York Times, for example, reviled the film as being “not far removed from the films produced under the Third Reich.” Another critic, writing in the progressive weekly In These Times, concluded that Occupied Palestine occupied “a kind of ethical twilight zone in the craft of documentary film.”
Fortunately, the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed dramatically since then. Today, 5 Broken Cameras can compete for an Academy Award in the feature documentary category—notwithstanding the fact that  its Palestinian co-director was detained for a time while trying to enter the U.S. for the awards ceremony.
And so Occupied Palestine’s time, too, has come, after years of languishing in obscurity. The London Palestine Film Festival began the resurrection of the film by selecting it for this year’s opening night gala, calling it “a singular work of engaged filmmaking and a unique record of an overlooked chapter in the course of the conflict – a trailblazing tour de force.” The Guardian ran an accompanying story about the film and its history.
Now the first U.S. theatrical screening of Occupied Palestine in more than three decades will take place on October 22, 2013, as part of the Boston Palestine Film Festival. The original 16 mm film has been digitally restored to produce a new master from which DVDs will be available for community and campus screenings.
I will be at the October 22 screening to participate in a post-film Q & A. Readers in the Boston area are invited to join me for a provocative evening of film and conversation. The event is scheduled for 7:30 PM at Harvard Law School (room TBA), and there is no admission charge. Details from the festival program may be found here.

More information on Koff’s work and on Occupied Palestine may be found here.

About David Koff

David Koff is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker whose work has focused on colonialism, racism, revolution and human rights in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and North America.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 8 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. George Smith says:

    Please tell us how to get the DVD so we can show it in our own communities.

  2. Cliff says:

    Thank you Mr. Koff. I never knew about this documentary. It’s very interesting to see the Occupied Palestinian Territories prior to the First Intifada.

    • tree says:

      I think that is one point of its incredible historical importance. It pre-dates both the first and second intifadas, and so can not be “explained” away as an Israeli reaction to suicide bombings which came only after multiple decades of brutal Israeli occupation.

  3. Krauss says:

    A reviewer in the New York Times, for example, reviled the film as being “not far removed from the films produced under the Third Reich.”

    I seriously hope someone will do a meticulous book where they will gather and analyse all that the Times has written on the conflict over many years, for their role deserve to be highlighted and shamed.

    The quote above is truly stunning coming from a ‘progressive’ publication.
    True, it would never be that debased today, but it isn’t thanks to the Times that the conservation has shifted, above all it’s thanks to the grassroots activists as well as scholars like Mearsheimer & Walt.

    The Times has had a strong role in supressing what Americans got to know about Palestine for many years, but I didn’t know it was that bad. That quote is essentially what hard-right Likudniks and fanatical racists say today about the conflict.

  4. Krauss says:

    By the way, this find is amazing!

    I would prefer to get the film digitally, though, if it could be possible.

  5. Henry Norr says:

    I followed up on David Koff’s mention of New York Times review of his movie by searching the Times’ archive. Turns out there’s a somewhat interesting story there, detailed in both a news story and a column by the Times’ TV critic at the time, John Corry, in April 1986. (The comparison to Nazi films, as well as other nastiness, came from Corry’s column.)

    Since both pieces are, I believe, behind the Times’ paywall, I’ll summarize:

    In 1985 KQED, a public-broadcast outlet in San Francisco, launched a series called “Flashpoint,” which was intended, according to the Times, to provide a sort of “video op-ed page” presenting contrasting, openly partisan points of view on controversial issues. (For those of us who know KQED today, it’s hard to imagine that they were ever so daring – nowadays its programming is totally “safe” for mainstream audiences.) The series was distributed through PBS, but from the start it was too controversial for some PBS stations – WNET in NYC was among several stations that refused to air the first episode, which was about abortion.

    When “Flashpoint” decided to do a show on Israel and the Palestinians, they picked a one-hour version of Koff’s film and two half-hour pro-Israel films by Israeli filmmakers, plus a half-hour discussion among some “experts.” When the program was announced, the lobby sprung into action: “David Gordis, the executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said his group had urged its local chapters to persuade their public-television stations not to run ‘Flashpoint,’ or, failing that, to replace ‘Occupied Palestine,’” the Times reported. This campaign evidently wasn’t all that effective: a PBS spokesman told the Times that “Of the 165 licensees in the PBS system, only 6 stations are refusing to carry the program for content reasons.” But those six included not only WNET in NYC, but also WETA in Washington. (The Howard University station did show it in DC.)

    All in all, the story made me realize that the lobby has, unfortunately, made a lot of progress in its thought-control efforts over the last quarter century, even as a growing minority of the public has begun to see the light about Israel. It’s scarcely imaginable today that KQED would distribute anything like Koff’s film, or, if they did, that the vast majority of other PBS stations would agree to run it.

  6. Henry Norr says:

    David Koff was kind enough to pass along a better account, from the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, of the controversy around the showing of his film on PBS in 1986:

    link to wrmea.org