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‘I wanted to make a film [on] the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians’: David Koff on his groundbreaking 1981 film ‘Occupied Palestine’ (Updated)

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On June 5th 2013, I was fortunate enough to watch the documentary Occupied Palestine by David Koff at the Jerusalem Fund. It was one of the most informative documentaries I have seen about the occupation of Palestine.

It offers an analysis of the Israeli occupation that is still rare to find today. It does so first by giving a visual account of historical events described by Palestinian scholars such as Walid Khalidi and Rosemary Sayigh. Women give a testimony of the Nakba, debunking the Zionist myth that Palestinians left because they wanted to. It narrates the extreme violence the Haganah used to scare Palestinians. Similarly to the work of Sayigh, it shows how Palestinian peasants, deprived of their land, decided to resist, thus explaining how Palestinian resistance started from the bottom up. Koff filmed Palestinians narrating the Israeli occupation and violations of international law. What Israel is accused of today in terms of human rights abuses was already happening in the 1970s. The documentary contains testimonies of Palestinians detailing how Israel stole their water, destroyed their homes and imprisoned them arbitrarily. Koff also films testimonies of Palestinians who were force-fed in prison.

The documentary was first shown at the 1981 San Francisco International Film Festival. A few minutes into the showing, the theater where the festival was taking place received a bomb threat and had to be evacuated. This documentary could have been the call of conscience for many individuals sympathetic to Israel. The rampant occupation of Palestine might have been stopped if individuals around the world saw images of colonies being built by Zionists coming from North America or Europe. Koff’s documentary is still relevant today because it shows that contrary to what leaders and many in the media assert, the Israelis never had good intentions with the Palestinians.

I recently had an opportunity to ask filmmaker David Koff a few questions by email about the film and its reception:

Why was your documentary not shown in other festivals across the United States after the 1981 San Francisco festival?

At the time the film was released, in the early 1980s, there was little public knowledge in the U.S. of the Palestinian movement and the resistance of Palestinians to colonization and occupation. Because the film doesn’t shrink from the realities of the confrontation between Zionism and the Palestinian resistance it was considered “controversial” and beyond the limits of reasonable discourse. So, for example, when the film had its U.S. premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1981, the screening was interrupted for more than an hour by a bomb threat. The consequences of that were immediately manifest when a theater-owner in San Francisco who had shown my previous films, and who came to the premiere with the intention of doing the same with Occupied Palestine, told me afterwards he would not show it. I had a similar experience in London, where another theater owner, who compared the film to The Battle of Algiers, also refused to program it. Both these reactions were driven, in my opinion, by fear of audience reactions and public opinion.

Why did you stop trying to show your film? Was your documentary censored in the United States?

The film was not formally “censored” in the US because there was no “official” attempt to suppress it by the state or state agencies. It was effectively censored, however, by the unwillingness of distributors to represent or show it. One major distributor of films in the US refused to represent the film on the basis of the title alone – “I don’t have to see it,” he said, “to know we don’t want to have it in our catalog.”

The film has been shown over the years on a limited basis in the U.S., mostly on college campuses where it has been used by instructors and more often by student organizations active in Middle East political issues. A shorter version of the film was shown on some public television stations in the U.S. in 1986 but the major stations in New York and Washington DC refused to air it. Depriving the audiences in those cities of a chance to see the film was definitely a form of censorship.

Why did you decide to make this documentary about Palestine?

Long before I began making films I was a student of colonialism and national resistance. I had lived and worked in Africa and had traveled around the world observing and writing about colonialism and independence movements. The first films I made were in Africa, focused on African resistance to colonial rule. I had always had an interest in Israel, having grown up in a Jewish (but not Zionist) home, and by the late 1970s I wanted to learn more about what was actually happening on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories. I realized that the Palestinian experience of Zionism was missing from much of what was written, and almost completely absent from what was shown on the cinema screen. When I set out to make the film in 1979 it was soon after the Camp David Accords. There was a lot of talk about ‘land for peace’ and the possibility of resolving the conflict. I wanted to make a film that went beyond the current events and paid attention to the deeper currents that drove the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians.

When you went to Palestine in the late 1970s did you remember which American companies were present? Which ones were benefiting from the Israeli occupation?

In the film itself you see a Mack earth moving truck and a Caterpillar tractor.

According to the Guardian, you stated that you were surprised that your documentary was shown. Why were you surprised?

I wasn’t so much surprised that the 2013 London Palestine Film Festival decided to show Occupied Palestine, but rather that the organizers of the festival chose to feature it for the opening night Gala. I had hoped the film would simply be selected to be shown during the festival. This was a courageous decision on the part of the festival directors, given that the film was made more than thirty years ago. However, I think their decision was validated by the excitement the film generated and by the audience response at two separate screenings. The festival program called the film “trailblazing,” a “tour de force” and “a singular work of engaged filmmaking.” There was a vigorous Q&A with the audiences after the screenings, and there was also a substantial amount of media coverage.

David Koff passed away on March 6th 2014. Occupied Palestine was one of the many documentaries in which Koff gave a voice to the dispossessed and the workers of the world. May he rest in peace. 

Joumana El Alaoui

Joumana El Alaoui holds a B.A in international politics and is currently a graduate student in political economy at the University of Pittsburgh where she is active with Pitt SJP.

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8 Responses

  1. Citizen on June 18, 2013, 9:41 am

    Hey, maybe one day 200 Years Together will be published in English in the USA?

    • W.Jones on June 18, 2013, 10:58 am

      It has been, but it had an extremely limited distribution, especially for such a famous author.

  2. W.Jones on June 18, 2013, 10:58 am

    Is there a trailer for this or clips of this movie that we can see on the internet?

  3. seafoid on June 18, 2013, 11:51 am

    I came across this the other day

    “Prof. Haim Bresheeth, of the British Committee for Universities of Palestine (BRICUP): He emphasized the need for a profound analysis not only of Zionist Israel’s strengths, but also of the failures of Israel’s regime, as a system that can cause massive destruction but is unable to provide solutions to Jews, to the Palestinian people, or to the people in the region.”

    • W.Jones on June 18, 2013, 12:25 pm


      Perhaps the real reason they abuse the neighbors is because of the way they treat their own Arab minority? It messes up their attitudes about Arabs and that spills over into the international arena?

      The standard Israeli line is that Muslims can’t let nonMuslims have a country in the Middle East. However, that’s incorrect, as Armenia and Georgia get along OK with their southern neighbors. Granted, the Turks massacred Armenians under Turkish control, but Armenia itself isn’t particularly aggressive.

  4. Nevada Ned on June 18, 2013, 12:52 pm

    The film came out in 1981, which was still a tough year in which to market a film critical of Israel. After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the massacre at Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, more eyes were opened and the audience would have been more sympathetic. (The theater-owners and distributors might not, however).

  5. R2mi on June 19, 2013, 6:19 pm

    Highly willing to watch it as best answer to #Hasbara “Israel ever wants peace”.

  6. Henry Norr on June 19, 2013, 8:37 pm

    In case anyone is still reading comments on this day-old post: David Koff, the guy who made this film more than 30 years ago, is now preparing to put it out on DVD to sell for home viewing. If you’re interested, fill out the form at his site (scroll down to the bottom of the page)
    and he promises to let you know when it’s ready. I filled it out and got a nice note from him in response.

    Aside from the merits of the film, he deserves our support, IMO, for his clarity and courage at a time when so many of us were still asleep on this issue.

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