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

Israel/Palestine
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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.

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