Creating new perspectives since 2009

‘There is a mythology about what return is’

Hassina Mechaï interviews Palestinian film director Reem Shilleh on her latest documentary “Perpetual Recurrences” which weaves together archive footage from militant filmmakers in the revolutionary period 1967 - 1982

June 24, 2017 at 10:04 am

Still from “An Oppressed People is Always Right”, (dir. Nils Vest, 1976) as shown in Perpetual Recurrences film programme, 2016 [Subversive Film]

I meet Palestinian film director Reem Shilleh in Paris during the Festival Ciné-Palestine. Shilleh says straight away she doesn’t see herself as a “legit” director: “I consider Perpetual Recurrences as a video, even if it’s considered as a film. I consider myself as an interventionist who asks questions: What is memory? What are historical narratives? How are they established? How do they survive?”

“Perpetual Recurrences” is a 60-minute documentary composed of edited archive footage, through which Shilleh brings to life 40 decades of cinematographic production in and about Palestine. Politics in Palestine and the memory of the struggle are themes she revisits throughout the production.

The documentary features films and activist directors from the Palestinian revolutionary period to our time: “I was interested in the Palestinian struggle between 1967 and 1982,” says Shilleh, on why she chose to focus on this time period. “It was a turning point in global politics. People were joining the struggle, a lot of filmmakers emerged, especially in the seventies. It was all about radical politics, a certain way to affiliate themselves to the struggle. Now it’s more about humanitarianism.”

Read: Normalisation plans to marginalise Palestine

Are all these films about remembering the struggle creating another memory of their own? Shilleh’s style of editing certainly reflects this: “I was asked to think about films and politics, themes that [are repeated] in Palestinian cinema,” she replies. “I did a lot of research and the first thing that caught my attention was the repetition of scenes from one movie to another. Something in these scenes holds together. One of the first themes I spotted was the classroom. You would be surprised to see how many Palestinian films about the revolution are set in a classroom. The editing work condenses the theme in order to make the obvious more obvious.”

Shilleh is also a researcher, an author and a curator. In 2011 she co-founded Subversive Film, a collective of artists who produce research-based work on rare film material in Palestine. The collective is based in Ramallah and its aim is simple: making films as freely as it’s possible. “I want to do films on my own terms – I am referring to the industrial way to make films. We don’t have funds to finance films, we have to find funds abroad [and with that you have] the problem of intervention. So we can only [accept] small [amounts of] funding to make sure we keep control over our projects.”

Her research studies led her explore and discuss the history of Palestine and how the country as we know it today has been created. There are different memories of the ongoing Palestinian struggle – in the seventies, for example, Palestinians had their own representatives. “They created their own images,” she explains. “They made films about themselves. But there was a certain pattern that was created, recreated, about what was Palestinian resistance. It established a memory. But I wanted to dig through to see what is left today. Now it’s unclear. There are many layers of what resistance is, how to face the occupation. Questioning the collective memory is something useful.”

Read: The Cuban Five’s René González on history, revolution and solidarity with Palestine

One of the most striking themes in her film is education and how Palestinian children in refugee camps in Lebanon and in Jordan are being taught in schools. Shilleh uses old footage from the seventies which shows children pointing on a map of Palestine to the cities of Safed, Jaffa and Jerusalem, chanting, “the struggle will continue until the end”.

Still from “An Oppressed People is Always Right”, (dir. Nils Vest, 1976) as shown in Perpetual Recurrences film programme, 2016 [Subversive Film]

“The footage I used for the theme of the classroom was shot during the revolution” says Shilleh – “in Jordan and in Lebanon, mostly. Many international filmmakers came to Palestine to make films about the Palestinian revolution, the struggle. They made them to rally their countries [behind] the Palestinian people and cause. It was important to show all the aspects of the revolution. One of them was education.”

Shilleh shows skillfully that this deep political education can lead to the ideological indoctrination of the children: “Obviously education helped to fight illiteracy. Education was one of the building blocks of the resistance. Education was formulated in a way to respond to the political agenda. It’s became obvious like it was something memorised in certain scenes but it was a part the failure of the revolution, of that chapter of the resistance. But it was also necessary, like this collective way to rally the Palestinian people [behind] the struggle. For instance, one of the scenes shows an evening class where fedayeen [freedom fighters] are also educated.”

It wasn’t just the children who took classes on politics: “I found footage of young men and women sitting on a rooftop and discussing politics, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong” says Shilleh.

The biggest strength of “Perpetual Recurrences” is how it questions the Palestinian struggle between revolution and freedom. According to Shilleh, “it’s more a liberation movement” yet the during the seventies the revolution is referred to multiple times: “‘Revolution until victory’ was the title of a lot a films produced in that period [of] Palestinian militant cinema. The leadership tried to take a certain revolution model. Fatah was like a mishmash of different ideologies. It was about affiliating, trying to take examples from revolutions that succeeded. The Palestinian liberation was one of the last. Not the last. It came in a succession of liberation movements.”

Like every other young Palestinian Reem Shilleh is very realistic about this struggle. “Why has the struggle become such a symbol?” I ask her. She ponders over the question before answering: “Because it’s still ongoing. Palestinian people became the victims of the victims. It raises a lot of questions, philosophical ones, but global questions as well.”

However, she puts the Palestinian struggle in the context of a bigger picture, on the same level as any other global movement: “Around the world different struggles are winning. There is a certain awareness that the world is not how the mainstream media want us to believe it is or how they portray it. Systematising oppression has become more obvious. What happened post Oslo, many people of my age saw it as a failure. There was so much hope in that agreement. This political resolution wiped out  everything that happened before. But it’s related to global politics, it was a global failure.”

“Our inability to find solutions is our inability to deal with the Nakba,” she concludes. “It was a very violent event, totally destroying the structure of our society. The films are about [how to live], how to have a normal life. There is a mythology about what return is. Now return means political freedom.”