P.O.V. No.22 - On Documentary Film

Documenting the Middle East

Irit Neidhardt

The Middle East is probably filmed more than any other region in the world, especially Israel/Palestine. The predominant images of Palestine show shootings and mass demonstrations (at funerals) - which are usually pictures from the news - as well as images of veiled women, poverty and guerilla training camps when it comes to reportages. Who is creating these images and what or whom do they represent? What kind of documentaries are made in Palestine and which ones are screened in the Western world? Which images do Western viewers expect to see? I will discuss these questions on the basis of my experience in distributing films from the Middle East and teaching workshops about issues related to Palestine and/or Israel and film.

As this article focuses on the reception of documentaries from the Middle East, mainly from Palestine, in the Western world I should say a few words about fictional movies as well. In too many cases fictional films are not read as fiction, storytelling or fantasy but as testimonies of real life. This applies for example to Tawfik Abu Wael's Atash/Thirst, winner of the International Critic's Award in Cannes in 2004, which most viewers read as the factual story of a real Palestinian family rather than as a study about the emotional constitution of five members of a family that lives with a taboo. Consequently, many Arab festivals in the West do not screen the film because they are afraid of contributing to the negative image of Arabs. Many theatres decide not to show the film as it is not really about Palestine, and even raising production funds had been impossible in Europe because funding institutions said that nobody would want to see such a story from Palestine.[1] The same applies to Annemarie Jacir's award-winning Ka'innana Ashrun Mustaheel /Like Twenty Impossibles (2003) that deals with the psychological damage experienced by a team of filmmakers crossing checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territories. When the sound-man of the fictional film crew is searched by the army, there is no sound; without the cameraman, there is no image; and when the director is taken away for searches, there is relative chaos. It happened more than once that a festival called and complained about the bad quality of the copy as though there was a technical problem with the sound and image. Selection committees let me know that they selected the film but asked me to be sure to send a good copy, since on the preview tape the image disappeared at a certain point.

We understand and categorise images on the basis and in the context of our knowledge about a specific subject. Concerning the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict and wars, we derive our knowledge and ideas from the media as well as from the Christian narrative, as the following example shows. In 2001 I taught a seminar on Jerusalem in Film to post-graduates in Germany. I asked them to discuss the questions: "What images of Jerusalem do you have?" and "Who made these images?" The first man answered enthusiastically that he has his images from Monty Python's The Life of Brian, which inspired a woman to add that she has her images from the Bible, too. Regardless of the various confusions these answers implied, more stories of childhood memories came up, private and emotional memories connected with places and events in historical Palestine. The naivety and honesty were disarming and eye-opening. The next question was about the images they expected to see in the film excerpts I was going to show from Palestinian and Israeli works. Nobody thought of images of daily life or social problems such as poverty, street kids or prostitution. The majority of the post-graduates expected the Palestinian films to be about Islam or Muslim fundamentalism and war. They were not clear about what to expect from the Israeli films.

Two documentaries about the day-to-day-life in Jerusalem just around the beginning of the second Intifada demonstrate different approaches to documentary film-making in Palestine as well as the reception of the works by the West: Alia Arasoughly's Hay mish Eishi/This Is Not a Living (42 min.) and Tawfik Abu-Wael's Natreen Sallah el-Din/Waiting for Sallah el-Din (Saladin) (52 min.), both produced in Palestine in 2001. Coincidentally the introductory parts of both films were shot at the same street in East-Jerusalem,[2] one in August 2000, just before the Intifada, and one in October 2000, just after the outbreak of the Intifada. Both portray four people in their daily routines. Hay mish Eishi/This Is Not a Living opens with scenes of East-Jerusalem which are quite familiar to those who watch the news somewhat regularly. The streets towards Damascus gate (the main entrance to the Old City from the Eastern part of town) are crowded with people on their way to prayer (most probably the scene was shot on a Friday); there are lots of armed police, partly on horses, people are screaming and there are incidents of Israeli police hunting down or beating up Palestinians. The music underlines the threat, here and there people who are rushing give a short interview and let their anger out. The four portraits of women that follow show how their daily lives are destroyed by the ongoing violence, closed roads and shortages caused by the occupation. By portraying mainly middle-class women the director, who herself comes from an upper-middle-class family, clearly corrects an image - dominant in the West - of Palestine in general and of Palestinian women in particular. A class that was also absent from the Palestinian screen until the middle of the 1990s. The film was initiated and mainly sponsored by the Swiss feminist Christian Peace Service (Christlicher Friedensdienst) and is clearly addressed to a Western audience. Despite the correction of the image of "the" Palestinian or Arab woman, it provides no new images or approaches. The population is nothing but a victim, which does not really enable the viewer to identify with individuals, and the Palestinian case seems hopeless if not lost. This tends to inspire a feeling of pity for the "other" and in this way confirms certain Western as well as Arab views.

Natreen Sallah El-Din/Waiting for Sallah El-Din opens with a short text introducing Sallah el-Din.[3] The first image is of the moon followed by a close-up of the ear and cheek of a sleeping man. A place-seller who is soon getting up for his shift in front of the Israeli Home Office, which is situated in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have to apply for everything at the Home Office: identity-cards, travel-permits, birth-certificates, marriage-licenses, death-certificates... The queues are long and those who can afford to buy a place, as is known from other societies that suffered from shortages or military occupation. The camera is with these cool, small-time criminals and an old man who came in the middle of the night to ensure himself a place on line. This time he does not want to wait in vain; he needs his papers for the pilgrimage. He does not understand why there should be thirty people in front of him, he sees only three youngsters. Another old man is sitting on the sidewalk with his typewriter. He helps people with the forms that need to be filled out in Hebrew and not in Arabic. These scenes happen every night during the week. From off-screen a voice reads a Palestinian poem about waiting as a Palestinian, waiting for everything, being trapped in a state of immobility. The portraits that follow show people and their daily struggle to keep their dignity. To finance himself as a student at the film department of Tel Aviv University, Tawfik Abu-Wael sold books from door to door in East Jerusalem. Having Israeli citizenship, his status is different from that of East Jerusalemites. The society is fragmented and most Palestinians from the different areas (inside Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza) do not know much about each other due to the political situation. Selling children's books in East Jerusalem, Abu Wael found himself again and again in the situation of advising people not to buy the books as they could hardly afford their food. His approach to the film and the story he is telling is not related to a specific time or event but rather looking at long-term issues. Regarding the question as to whether the outbreak of the second Intifada changed the situation of waiting, he replied in an interview: "Arabs/Palestinians still live in a constant state of waiting. The 'second Intifada' is a political expression, most Arabs/Palestinians are suffering in silence, like people in other places around the world."[4] Natreen Sallah el-Din/Waiting for Sallah el-Din is Tawfik Abu Wael's graduation film. He was not interested in what Israelis or potential Western spectators would say about it but rather felt an urge to tell this/his story. Other than Alia Arasoughly, Abu Wael had no connections to Western institutions by that time that could have sponsored the film.

As far as distribution is concerned, Hay mish Eishi/This Is Not a Living was screened at many festivals around the world and one could say it was quite a success. Natreen Sallah el-Din/Waiting for Sallah el-Din was hardly ever selected. As distributor of the film, I had many conversations with festival and TV programmers about their decision. Most people could not get connected to the film, the pace was too slow, the images too foreign, the subject seemed irrelevant. Why waiting and why boredom, why ordinary people's boring lives? Instead of seriously considering these questions, they were used as arguments for turning the film down. In some cases programmers found it a work of high cinematic standards but either not fitting in with the other films they intended to show from the region or too demanding of their audiences - an argument that I hear quite often when it comes to unfamiliar images from the Middle East.

Before dealing with more familiar images and films, I would like to tell a small story concerning familiarity. In a workshop about Palestinian and Israeli women filmmakers as part of a larger conference, I asked each of the German participants - well educated, politically interested middle-class women - to give the names of five filmmakers from any country, dead or alive. In the next round I asked for the names of five female filmmakers from any country. Even helping each other, they could think of only three names.

A documentary that is doing very well internationally at the moment is Badal (2005) by Palestinian Ibtisam Ma'arana. The film is an Israeli production, and Ma'arana an Israeli citizen. "'A Badal deal marriage' usually means when a brother and sister from one family marry a sister and brother from another family - interlocking the two couples forever. Divorce on the part of one couple will immediately lead to the divorce of the other part of the deal. This is common practice in Muslim families in the Middle East. The film follows a family during the process of putting such a deal together. It portrays the lives of Palestinian women living within Israel: their difficulties and struggle to be a part of their traditional society vs. the quest to maintain their full rights as women, and citizens of a Jewish state."[5] Ibtisam Ma'arana herself run away from a Badal, and the family she is portraying is her own. This adds credibility to film, in case that is needed, as the film reconfirms the view dominant in the West of Arab and/or Muslim society, mainly in terms of the characterization: Arab/rural/traditional/oppressed women vs. Western/urban/ modern/free women. This synopsis describes the work precisely. What the film lacks, for example, is to explore why the director's aunt is arranging a Badal, if it has such negative effects. Does it give her an influential status in her community? Was she, who had a Badal made as well, married happily? We learn nothing about the contradictions the Badal involves and we are left with the impression that Arabs just live with bad traditions.

Films we see from or about the Middle East often confirm our image or deliver the exact opposite of our expectations.

Most of the representations/ images coming from inside the Arab world are mere reactions to the misinterpretations/ images coming from the West, a fact that only consolidates the Eurocentric thought and vision. The result is culturally repulsive; there is no dialogue (a term so much in fashion recently), or exchange of views, no discussion, or mutual recognition. There is only a flat assertion of many positive qualities and features. These assertions, easily made to consolidate images, do not affect the West's claim to an absolute authority in shaping the 'other' and in producing knowledge.[6]

Most of the documentaries from the Middle East that are screened in the West are Israeli films; some are Palestinian and very few come from the other twenty-one Arab countries. The majority of Israeli films screened (not made) deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the situation of Palestinians and consequently present, and to a certain extent define, Palestinian life. Those films in which the directors ask what the occupation or repressive laws do to the "other," like Anat Even's and Ada Ushpiz's Asurot/Detained (2001) or Ayelet Bechar's Acherei haChatuna/Just Married (2005), for example, are still an exception. And also here problems of representation arise. Geographically Israel is obviously situated in the Middle East, but culturally it represses it's Middle Easternness.[7] Israel is represented at the European Song Contest and it's soccer teams take part in the European Champions League. Politically it is affiliated with Western states and seen as the only democracy in the Middle East. With an Israeli passport traveling in the Middle East is only possible in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, which people visit, if at all, as tourists. Only in very rare cases do personal contacts exist. The Arabs that Israeli film-makers know are Palestinians, a people that lives under extreme conditions and has, due to the ongoing occupation as well as the unequal position inside Israel, no chance to develop a self-determined culture and life. The urban centres, Jaffa and Haifa, were destroyed in the 1948 war, the Israeli War of Independence and the Palestinian Naqba. The population either left the country or was pushed towards the hinterland, if they survived at all. The cities are lost and with them the urban culture they represented.

As far as Palestine is concerned the above-mentioned characteristics are true to a certain degree, but not for the other Arab countries. Cairo, for example, is the largest city in the world. Not only is one Arab country different from another, but also inside each countries there is great richness of diversity. A new generation of Arab filmmakers is emerging that is making use of this, that is telling personal stories that open doors to a new approach to political questions and new views - not only about that region.

However true the story of a documentary is, we need knowledge of it's context in order to read the film. So far the familiarity we have with subjects related to the Middle East is a home-made one which represents only a small part and certain viewpoints of the region. To get a better picture, and sometimes works that are cinematically more interesting, we need to see a greater variety of films from the region and to dare to confront ourselves with images that might confuse and disorient us at first.

1 Ironically the film was financed only by Israeli funds and cable-TV. There is hardly any Arab funding in general and the Europeans approached were not interested in the subject.

2 The Palestinian part of the city, which was annexed by Israel in 1982. Residents of East-Jerusalem have the so-called Jerusalem Status, which gives them more rights than Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza but not Israeli citizenship.

3 An Arab leader of Kurdish origin who succeeded in uniting the divided Muslim-Arab state and conquered the crusaders in Palestine, liberating Jerusalem from their rule. His name was immortalised in the history of the Arabs and became the symbol of the expected leader.

4 Interview with the author for the press-kit of the film.

5 From the online catalogue of the film's World Sales Agent, Cinephil.

6 From the paper presented by Shereen Abou el Nagain entitled "Image creation as a problematic" at the conference: Cultural Mobility in Near Eastern Literatures. Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 28 to 29 April 2005. www.wiko-berlin.de/kolleg/projekte/AKMI/culturalmob/cult

7 I mean the Palestinian culture as well as the contribution of those Jews who emigrated from Arab/Muslim countries. Together the two groups make up a majority of Israeli citizens, and they are under-represented in decision-making positions.

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