A Palestinian story

a palestinian story

Once again, it seems Palestine is not to have the attention it deserves at an especially crucial time in its anguished political history. For some years now, I have been keenly following movies about Palestine, especially movies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I can tell you right away there aren’t many, but they are growing. The best of the most recent are Salt of this Sea, Miral and Lemon Tree. Miral, of course, has been slightly in the news here because it stars Frieda Pinto with a music score by A R Rahman. (Actually, it’s the flute piece from an old score, Bombay, which director Julian Schnabel asked permission to use — and when the composer said he could write a new score, the director said the old one was perfect).

Written and directed by Annemarie Jacir, Salt of this Sea is a courageous, incendiary movie that tackles the maddening injustices Palestinians have to put up with daily — forced to be refugees and aliens who can’t travel freely in their own land. A band of three frustrated, spirited young Palestinians join forces and turn ‘outlaw’ to explore parts of Israel off limits to them. They don’t have working papers, so they pose as Israelis on a picnic at checkpoints. One of them has never glimpsed the beach in his country, the other once had a beautiful home here that her family was forced to surrender to Israeli authorities. And now a rich young Israeli woman lives there, oblivious to all its Arab history. Imagine standing before the house your family has always thought of as home for generations but you can’t even get anyone to acknowledge, even just acknowledge, not reclaim, that the house with the stranger in it is the only home you once knew — and still know.

Lemon Tree, as fantastic as it seems, is based on actual events. A Palestinian widow takes the Israeli defense minister to court over a lemon grove she has been protecting from being cut down. The middle aged actress Hiam Abbass, who plays Salma Zidane, the widow, has a beautiful, strong face: full of character, strength and tenderness. For decades, she has owned and tended this lemon grove, and now the defense minster, who has become her new neighbour, feels her grove is a security threat, a perfect place for Palestinian militants to hide and attack his home and family. It’s all been decided for her. There’s nothing she can do. What can a poor widow do against the machinery of the state, especially a brutal, apartheid state? The minister’s wife is sympathetic to the widow. So too are one or two of the Israeli soldiers posted at her grove, who plainly see the widow’s plight every day. The widow won’t be bought or bribed. The lemon orchard is her home; selling the large, beautiful yellow lemons her simple livelihood.   

In Miral, the stories of three women (one of them played by Frieda Pinto) take you through the emotional history of ordinary Palestinian people — fathers, daughters, lovers, teachers — to allow an especially remote, indifferent, even prejudiced audience to imagine these Muslims as real, vulnerable and three dimensional citizens. It’s played out against a political landscape now very familiar to the world: the harsh, unjust political realities Palestinians are forced to participate, struggle and live in. But, as its Jewish filmmakers have emphasised, Miral is not anti-Israel or pro-Palestine but pro-peace and pro understanding.

In this column, I wrote not long ago about the documentary American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein. A moving and compelling film about an embattled and beleaguered political scientist who lost one teaching job after another for his radical views on the conflict. Finkelstein, an American Jew who lost his family in the Holocaust, is deeply shamed and angered by Israel and its right wing supporters, and their treatment of Palestinians. Finkelstein has called Israel a terrorist state, and for this he becomes the first Jew to be banned from entering Israel. In several books over the years, Finkelstein has written about right wing Jewish organisations that exploit the Holocaust and Jewish suffering by claiming that anti-Semitism is still a widespread and burning issue threatening the existence and safety of Jews. His scholarship seems impeccable, his integrity unflinching and whole. The filmmakers hold up Finkelstein’s complex firebrandism as one example of radical advocacy. Like Arundhati Roy, surely a hero for our times.

There’s a very good companion piece to this non-fiction called Defamation. Yoav Shamir, a bright, witty Woody Alleneque Israeli filmmaker, born and raised in Israel, is curious about the anti-Semitism he has heard of so much but has never seen or experienced himself. He follows several groups who take tours to Europe and America investigating instances of anti-Semitism but is puzzled when no clear cases surface. It’s a funny, savage indictment of especially the Anti-Defamation League, a heavily funded organisation that has to keep the idea of neo- anti-Semitism alive. Shamir shows how this only escalates Israeli paranoia. Together, American Radical and Defamation, are two very powerful non-fiction movies made on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The earlier set of movies about the conflict didn’t dare as much, didn’t go as far as these movie do. The first set of movies on the conflict took the safer path of humanist cinema, showing both sides of the conflict, the human side. That it isn’t politically black and white, it’s far more complex than you think kind of movies. (Beyond the Wall, Cup Final, The Little Drummer Girl, Paradise Now). I’m glad to report that the new movies are more firebrand, more intense, told more through the eyes of young, vibrant Palestinians both from within the country and those in exile. One remarkable exception from the early years on the conflict is Costa Gavras’ Hannah K from 1983. Few filmmakers dared go there, in that forbidden zone: anything set in Palestine that wasn’t celebratory of the Israeli occupation was unwelcome and severely criticised.    

Jill Clayburg plays Hannah Kaufman, a court appointed Israeli lawyer asked to defend a Palestinian whose land has been confiscated. As the trial progresses, this young lawyer begins to see how racist her own colleagues are about Arabs and discovers to her astonishment that the one person she has deep respect for — and who respects her in return — is Selim, the Arab she is defending. There’s a moment in the film when a Jewish professor she admires, whom she has now turned to for counsel because of her growing doubts about the legitimacy of the occupation, tells her: “For over 2,000 years we have been separated, deported, massacred. You know all that, but it is not a bad idea to recall it. Your family also did share in the Holocaust. And now that we have a country, an identity, we must defend it.” And to this Hannah replies: “By refusing the same thing to others, professor?”