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Palestinian images of resistance showcased at Toronto Film Festival

Palestinian revolution cinema was a struggle against invisibility and the erasure of Palestinian identity that followed the creation of Israel
Mohanad Yaqubi is a founding member of Idiom Films, a production company in Ramallah in the West Bank (Courtesy of Idiom Films)

TORONTO, Canada – First as refugees, then as fighters, the images flicker on the screen and the audio pops and crackles sharply.

The cinema fills with footage from the Palestinian struggle for liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. It is at once distant, yet oddly familiar, despite the fact that for many in attendance, this is the first time it has ever been seen.

Palestinian fighters (fida’e, or fedayeen) jump over makeshift mounds of dirt and army-crawl under barbed wire; families, including elderly men and women, clean and show off rifles in their living room; school children recite lines about Palestinian liberation in a cramped classroom.

“The history of that period exists between these shots,” said Mohanad Yaqubi, the director of Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory, a new Palestinian documentary that splices together footage shot by Palestinian revolutionary filmmakers decades ago.

The film splices together footage shot by Palestinian filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s, what was known as Palestinian revolution cinema (Courtesy of Idiom Films)

The film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, spans several key moments in Palestinian history.

It moves from the forced displacement of about 750,000 Palestinians following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 - which Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (catastrophe) - to life in refugee camps in Jordan, to the war of 1967 and the training of Palestinian fighters and key battles in their revolutionary struggle to return to Palestine.

For Yaqubi, one of the founding members of the Idiom Films production company in Ramallah in the West Bank, Off Frame is the culmination of several years of research, production and several rounds of editing.

He told Middle East Eye he wanted the documentary to be less about telling a specific story, and more about exposing audiences to the series of images, presented in the best video and audio quality available today.

“I’m trying to show you this is one way, one method, of shooting a revolution and changing and being in control of your own image,” Yaqubi explained.

“This revolution was about representation,” he told MEE. “Palestinians really managed to create an image, a hybrid image, a cinematic image, of people in struggle. It was also important for them to feel that they exist, even if it was in cinema or in [an] image.”

Off Frame had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada in September (Courtesy of Idiom Films)

Palestinian revolution cinema

Off Frame is composed almost entirely of images that were shot by Palestinian filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s.

First called the Department of Photography, the Palestine Film Unit was created in the 1960s under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the central entity in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine and the return of Palestinian refugees.

The movement was founded by Sulafa Jadallah – the first woman in the Arab world to graduate from the Higher Cinema School in Egypt, and Hani Johariyyeh and Mustafa Abu Ali, both graduates of the London School of Film Technique.

According to Palestinian film researcher George Khleifi, the foundation for Palestinian filmmaking at this time was a basic photography set-up in Jadallah’s kitchen, where she primarily developed photographs of Palestinian martyrs.

Shortly thereafter, the work moved to the Amman offices of Palestinian faction Fatah, and expanded from photography into moving images.

The filmmakers borrowed equipment, including cameras and film, from the Jordanian television industry where Abu Ali and Johariyyeh wrote, Khleifi wrote in the book, Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma, and Memory, co-written with Nurith Gertz.

‘This is us’

The unit’s first film, No to the Peaceful Solution, was a response to the 1969 Rogers Plan, formulated by then-US Secretary of State William Rogers, for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders. The Israelis turned it down, as did the Soviet Union and Arab states, which insisted on a United Nations-imposed withdrawal to the 1967 lines.

The unit’s work moved from Amman to Beirut, Lebanon, in the early 1970s following the Black September conflict in Jordan in 1970-1971 that saw fighting between the Jordanian army and Palestinian armed groups.

After the move to Beirut, the Palestine Film Unit gradually became known as the Palestine Cinema Institute, and around 35 documentary films were made until the PLO was forced out of Lebanon after the Israeli army invaded in 1982.

The films its members produced from the late-1960s until 1982 became known as Palestinian struggle cinema, or Palestinian revolution cinema.

The films included In Blood and Spirit (1971), which depicted the Black September events, and They Do Not Exist (1974). One of Abu Ali’s best-known films, They Do Not Exist, includes scenes in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and fedayeen training camps, and the impact of Israeli air strikes on Palestinians in exile.

Yaqubi’s first introduction to the Palestine Film Unit actually came in 2007 when Abu Ali himself asked him to help put English-language subtitles on They Do Not Exist.

“It was something totally new for me,” Yaqubi recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is us.’ These are Palestinians in Lebanon holding guns and going around talking about dreams.”

Pioneers of Palestinian film

Khadijeh Habashneh is a Palestinian filmmaker and researcher who worked as film director and head of the archive and cinematheque at the Palestinian Cinema Institute until 1982.

She told MEE that “the people who made the films were pioneers”.

The filmmakers often made their documentaries under dangerous conditions, like embedding with Palestinian fighters in the midst of battle, subjected to air raids and shelling. She said the filmmakers wanted the world to be introduced to the Palestinian cause, and “they were ready to sacrifice their lives” for that goal.

They also shot nearly everything going on among exiled Palestinians at the time, from daily life in refugee camps to protests and battles.

“We found out when we started to screen our films for the people, they were so happy that they were seeing themselves for the first time in films,” Habashneh said. “This played also a good role to mobilise the people towards their struggle and their national cause.”

While most of the films were moved to a safe place in Beirut after the Israeli invasion, by the mid-1980s, the archive was lost, Habashneh explained.

Today, she has collected about 26 of the 35 documentaries that were made up until 1982. The work is ongoing to restore and digitise them, and bring them to a new audience, she said.

“The new generation doesn’t know these films,” Habashneh said. “People need to know their history and this was a very important period of Palestinian history… This is very important for the national memory.”

Making Palestinians visible

At the time, Palestine was considered to be a part of a global, anti-imperialist struggle that was mobilised against the war in Vietnam, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and dictatorships in Chile, Brazil, Portugal and Greece, among others, explained Rasha Salti, the executive producer of Off Frame.

Filmmakers and other artists were intimately involved in those struggles, “and the PLO embedded themselves very organically in the network of international, anti-imperialist solidarity,” Salti told Middle East Eye.

Habashneh also said the Palestinian filmmakers created a network of solidarity and collaboration with filmmakers from around the world, many of which came to work with them directly. “It became like a cinematic phenomenon,” Habashneh said.

Abu Ali, for instance, collaborated with famed French director Jean-Luc Godard, among others.

While the films were made in a particular time and space and each had a distinct message, they are imbued with a more profound meaning, too, Salti said.

“It was really the Palestinians not only forging a representation of themselves on their own terms, but also changing their perception from refugees waiting for handouts in refugee camps, to fighters who were shaping their own destiny,” she said.

Palestinian revolution cinema was also a struggle against invisibility, and the erasure of Palestinian identity that followed the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Salti said.

“In 1948, a lot of the Israeli leadership referred to a land without a people for a people without a land. The word Palestinian was no longer used in the media. The Palestinians were referred to as the Arab residents of Palestine, or the Arab citizens of Palestine. And it was really important for Palestinians to bring the word back into visibility and people into visibility,” she said.

While most of the footage in Off Frame comes from films made in the 1960s and 1970s, the film ends with a scene at a school in the West Bank (Courtesy of Idiom Films)

To get the material to make Off Frame, Yaqubi recovered the films after conducting a long search around the world.

One copy – a 16-millimetre copy that was only screened once – was found at a student union in the US, while other films were discovered in Mozambique, which was screening them during that country’s own anti-colonial struggle at the time, Yaqubi told MEE.

“From Yemen, from Cambodia, Laos, Chile… All of these film festivals or educational screenings were happening all the time,” Yaqubi said.

Impact today

According to Habashneh, being exposed to Palestinian films from this period will help fill some of the gaps in the Palestinians’ collective memory.

“The Palestinians are scattered, their stories are scattered all over here and there,” she said, “so there is a need, a crucial need actually, to collect this and to put it together for the national memory of not only the new generation, [but] everybody.”

Yaqubi, meanwhile, said he hoped Off Frame would create “a moment of reflection” on how Palestinians have presented their own image in the past, and can continue to do so today.

“I think this film is giving a glimpse of a possibility that we can be people speaking into [the] camera about love and about how to survive, not only to speak about the walls and the checkpoint and the restrictions,” Yaqubi said.

“That’s the difference between a victim and [being] oppressed. A victim sits down and waits until somebody will come and open for him the checkpoint, and [the] oppressed will go out to tell the story, to try to communicate.” 

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