Movies are a great way to learn about Palestine – and, more important, to educate family, friends, and neighbors. Fortunately, there are scores of great films about the plight of the Palestinians and its historical roots – if the quality and quantity of documentaries on the situation determined the outcome, the Palestinians would have won a substantial measure of justice long ago. And in the Internet age most of these films are available at the click of a mouse, for free or at nominal cost.
The bad news is that it hasn’t been particularly easy to locate such movies. But now two European professors of film studies are taking on that challenge with PalestineDocs, a new website designed to serve as “a web resource on films chronicling the life of Palestinians in and outside the Middle East.” The site’s ever-growing database currently includes more than 100 documentaries, grouped in a dozen or so categories (“Gaza,” “Camps,” “Exile,” etc.); for each listing, there’s a one- or two-paragraph synopsis and links to sites from which the movie can be streamed free, rented, or purchased.
PalestineDocs’ existence is a by-product of this summer’s Israeli onslaught on Gaza, according to its creators, Dina Iordanova, Professor of Global Cinema and Creative Cultures at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and Eva Jørholt, Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. As Jørholt explained over e-mail,
Dina and I had both signed lists of protest … which was all fine, but we shared a need to do more. And then Dina came up with the idea of acquainting more people with the films made in and outside the region about ‘the Palestine issue’ and, not least, about what it means and feels to be Palestinian. Films can represent complex political issues through stories about individual lives under the sway of these ‘political issues’ and, in this way, make a different and perhaps more powerful impact than the learned explanations and images of anonymous victims we see on mainstream news.
We might have chosen a more formal way to go about it – hiring somebody to design a professional website, for instance, which would have required funding – but in order to get the site off the ground as fast as possible, I decided to have a go at setting it up. Hence the extremely simple (amateurish?) design … I am definitely no web wizard! But at least now the site is there!
In fact, that start-simply approach enabled the pair to launch the site on August 20, less than month after Iordanova first raised the idea on July 27. Ever since, the response has been “overwhelming,” Iordanova says. And it’s coming from all over the world: “I am glad to report that I managed to use a new acquaintance who is an active Chinese film critic to publicise the site in China — he is telling me there is a very good response to it at the moment.”
When I first checked the site out, shortly after its launch, I was enthusiastic about the concept but a little disappointed in the initial listings: most of the films I’ve found most interesting and most useful for political education over the years were missing. But the site’s Welcome page invites suggestions – “It is an honor to collect such knowledge, so please do share and keep your e-mails coming in” – and I took the editors at their word, passing along a steady stream of additional titles. And even though they warned that the burdens of a new academic year would limit their ability to work on the site, in fact they’ve been remarkably prompt at adding new films (and making other improvements). By now most of the films I’ve suggested are included.
Many of the titles are probably familiar to most Mondoweiss readers: “5 Broken Cameras,” Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s Academy Award-nominated story of popular resistance in Bil’in; John Pilger’s classic “Palestine Is Still the Issue;” and “Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land,” Sut Jhally and Bathsheba Ratzkoff’s penetrating critique of the U.S. media’s coverage of Israel and Palestine, to cite just a few examples.
But almost everyone is likely to find dozens of worthy films they hadn’t known about: right after “5 Broken Cameras” at the top of the site’s alphabetical list comes “9 Star Hotel,” a neglected classic (at least in my judgment) by Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar, exploring the lives of young Palestinian men who evade both Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces as they sneak into Israel in the dead of night to seek work as construction laborers. And my guess is that only a handful of Mondoweiss readers, if that, have seen the intriguing (though Arabic-only – no subtitles) collection of recent films made by former students of the Al-Aqsa University in Gaza and collected under the title “Daily Life in Gaza: The Local Point of View” on PalestineDocs’ Resources page.
Other discoveries, for me, included “A Boy, A Wall and A Donkey,” an endearing but ultimately bitter short made for a United Nations-sponsored series by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, and Israeli director Eyal Sivan’s “Common State: Potential Conversation,” a “virtual conversation” among Palestinians and Israelis about the prospects and problems of establishing a single shared state. Most of the titles are from the last 10 or 15 years, but some older gems are included, such as Amos Gitai’s “House” (1980), which traces the contours of the conflict by telling the story of a single home in West Jerusalem, and “Occupied Palestine” (also from 1980), David Koff’s pathbreaking American documentary (discussed on this site here and here).
The database includes many films made by Israelis, and some of them reflect a liberal Zionist perspective: Ronit Avna and Julia Bacha’s “Encounter Point,” for example, seems to promote dialog between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians as the key to solving the problem, while Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers” is sharply critical of Israeli policies – from the perspective of former heads of the Shin Bet, the country’s internal security service. While some might object to the inclusion of such films, I personally believe Iordanova and Jørholt are right not to set the ideological bar too high in making their selections: even if you disagree with the politics they express, we can all learn from movies like these, and for some audiences they may be a good way to open eyes and launch discussions leading to a deeper critique.
The only significant omissions I note at this point fall into two categories: some films released in the last year or so, and fictional, rather than documentary, films. While at least one 2014 release is included (“Flying Paper,” Roger Hill and Nitin Sawhney’s moving portrayal of Gazan children competing to shatter the Guinness World Record for the most kites ever flown at one time and place), as well as a number of 2013 productions, some major documentaries I’ve seen over the last year, mostly at Bay Area festivals and fundraisers, are missing as of this writing: Connie Field’s “Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine;” Alice Rothchild’s “Voices Across the Divide;” Judith Montell and Emmy Scharlatt’s “In the Image;” ; and most recently “On the Side of the Road,” by Real News Network reporter and former settler Lia Tarachansky. (For more new and forthcoming films from and about Palestine, see “New Palestinian films showing in Toronto starting Saturday,” a recent post to ElectronicIntifada.net by Maureen Clare Murphy.)
One reason none of these titles is (so far) included in the PalestineDocs database: as its Welcome page explains, “Access is this site’s primary intention,” and these new films are not yet easily or inexpensively accessible. Still, I think it would make sense for the site to let visitors know about new films to watch for, perhaps with something like a “Coming Attractions” section.
As for the missing dramatic films, the obvious explanation is that they’re outside the scope of a site that has “docs” in its very name. But recently the editors added “Short Fiction Films” to their list of categories, and I hope the site’s name won’t inhibit them from moving further in this direction: after all, full-length features like Annemarie Jacir’s “When I Saw You” and Rashid Masharawi’s “Laila’s Birthday” – not to mention true-to-life docudramas such as “Private” (Saverio Costanzo’s searing re-creation of the experience of a Palestinian family whose home is commandeered by Israeli soldiers) – portray aspects of Palestinian life as sharply as any documentary.
As Iordanova and Jørholt are quick to admit, the site remains very much a “work in progress,” but it’s already a unique and valuable resource for activists, educators, and anyone else interested in Palestine. And judging by how far it’s come in just a couple of months, I have no doubt it will keep getting better. As Iordanova wrote in response to some of my early e-mail grousing, “I can assure you that little by little it will all fall into place.”