BY CHRIS SZABLA
Palestinian cinema has proven a powerful tool for motivating and mobilizing those who deplore the current state of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it is never more so than when it touches human nerves by presenting personal stories of humiliation, aggravation, and loss. Among these works are Elia Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance, documenting the ironies of its characters’ lives under occupation, and Hany Abu-Assad’s even more intimate Paradise Now, exploring the lives of two friends who become reluctant suicide bombers.
By contrast, most of the films presented at the law school during last week’s first annual Boston Palestine Film Festival, co-sponsored by the student group Justice for Palestine, were dominated by the pedagogical heavy-handedness of maps and montages. Dashing from interview to stock footage to slice-of-life vignette, the films presented the broadest possible overview of the political situation in the Holy Land. At times, the effect was enough to make the affair seem far more like a weighty Power Point presentation than a poignant means to connect with the struggles of a beleaguered population.
To its credit, the festival was not exclusively composed of the sort of didactic documentary often screened at the law school. Still, the uniformity and consistent tone of these films led one to wonder why Harvard was not given a taste of some of the variety present at the festival’s other venues. On neither night the festival was on campus was Langdell South even populated by many law students, attracting instead a mélange of local activists and students from other schools. One such outsider was “amazed the event [w]as being held in the seat of power,” observing that the room was officially named after Kirkland & Ellis, victors of Bush v. Gore.
The festival began with a promising selection appropriate for a legal audience, Line Halvorsen’s USA vs. Al-Arian, chronicling the plight of a Florida academic arrested under the Patriot Act for allegedly financing Palestinian terror groups. A jury acquitted Sami Al-Arian on all counts, but an embarrassed Justice Department manages to keep him incarcerated. The film proved most powerful when exposing the continually crushed hopes of Al-Arian’s family, but their suffering seemed somewhat undercut by an interplay of news clips which, though underscoring the glibness of the Fourth Estate, dragged the film too close to the irreverence of Michael Moore.
The next screening, Nada El Yassir’s All That Remains, exposed the friction between Israel’s Negev Desert land policy and the region’s Bedouin inhabitants. Mostly bypassing the sufferings of individual Bedouins, El Yassir sets up their villages, and the Israeli bureaucracy, as two monolithic forces on a natural collision course. There is little room to explore how personalities shape (and are shaped) by this forgotten conflict. The film closes with a massive rally for the Bedouins’ land rights; here, the only character is the collective mass, and identification becomes futile.
Two of the most popular films were even less personal: Mohammed Alatar’s The Iron Wall, praised by former President Jimmy Carter, and Sufyan and Abdallah Omeish’s Occupation 101. Both are comparatively big-budget documentaries, which has something to do, perhaps, with their extensive scope. As the second film’s title implies, they are intended as “educational” tools, though whether they sought to simply document facts or somehow inculcate a deeper, more emotional attachment to the Palestinian cause proved a tension within each. Occupation 101, for example, devoted considerable attention to the plight of Palestinian Christians, in what appeared to be an attempt to drum up support among their Western counterparts.
The more affecting works screened were also among the shortest and least expensive. Alan Grieg’s 30-minute Confronting the Wall: Art and Resistance in Palestine documented a family, trapped on the wrong side of Israel’s “security fence”, who reclaim their view by covering the wall with a mural. Grieg’s film served as a necessary complement to the abstraction of Alatar’s Iron Wall: the confrontation between a poor family and the Israeli security apparatus displaced the occasionally depersonalized discourse of “occupation”, providing instead a look at the naked power states may hold over disenfranchised individuals. In this same vein, Abdel Salam Shehada’s Rainbow explored what it meant for the process of sifting through rubble in Gaza to have become a condition, an aspect of Gazans’ everyday lives. Shehada’s view goes beyond the personal and explores what it means for him to witness devastation from behind the distorting lens of a rolling camera.Conspicuously absent, even from the better films in the lineup, was much discussion of the security question that motivated Israel to build its much-lamented wall to begin with. These documentaries preferred instead to draw not unapt comparisons between the Palestinian struggle and the limited violence that accompanied the anti-Apartheid and Civil Rights movements. Still, exposing the political circumstances of occupation will not alone achieve what the festival may have had in mind when deciding to screen so many documentaries in the “seat of power”. For that, it would need to go much further, and both address the questions, and tap the emotions, of the unconvinced.