Seamlessly weaving personal anecdotes with detailed analysis of the psychological impact of life in Palestine, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and prolific writer Dr Samah Jabr narrates her insights into what resistance and resilience means in the context of the ongoing Palestinian reality.
The film begins with Dr Jabr relating the story of how, one day on her way to An-Najah University in Nablus, she was stopped at a checkpoint. The Israeli soldier on duty pointed a gun through the window, directly at her chest, and proceeded to ask for her papers. Dr Jabr explains to the group of women in the meeting that this was by no means the worst experience that a Palestinian could suffer, and as such her threshold of fear is markedly different from that of other people, who are not accustomed to fear being used as a strategic instrument of control in their daily lives. She furthers this line of thought with an observation that although many Palestinians can relate to their Israeli neighbours, colleagues or counterparts at an individual level, the seemingly unending dichotomy of their respective daily realities means that “the more [that] Israelis breathe, the more [that] Palestinians choke.”
Unpacking the effect of this reality is a central theme of Beyond the Frontlines, a documentary film directed by Alexandra Dols. Working across French, English and Arabic, Dr Jabr narrates the effect of occupation on several generations of Palestinians in what she and others have called the ongoing Nakba. She explains that this continuation of the trauma that began in 1948 contributes to the repeated re-traumatisation of Palestinian society, with even the most individualistic or apolitical Palestinian being affected by its consequences. She points out that while many psychological disorders are clearly categorised medical conditions, there is no label for that which is experienced by Palestinians living under a system which often seeks to reduce, repel or even deny their identity.
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Dr Jabr points to the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as a key determinant of this situation, but also suggests that Palestinian politicians and community leaders are not doing enough to combat the psychological effects that this brings. She highlights many cases in which the rhetoric of terrorism, used by the international community to condemn Palestinian uprisings and methods of resistance, is also espoused by Palestinian leaders. This demonstrates that such rhetoric has been internalised by Palestinian society, which in turn contributes to difficulties in developing identity and finding release from what Dr Jabr has called a “mental prison”.
The film also documents the voices of Palestinians from across the political and geographical spectrum, from Abaher El-Sakker and Rula Abu Duhou, both professors at Birzeit University near Ramallah, to Ghadir Al-Shafie, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who co-directs the Palestinian gay women’s organisation Aswat. Each raises many issues, from the fragmentation of Palestinian society through an intricate web of permit systems and ID cards to the way that place and time is frozen for those imprisoned, both within the military detention system as well as within the broader framework of occupational control. Al-Shafie highlights the problem of “pinkwashing”, the term given to the practice of states presenting themselves as gay-friendly and progressive in order to downplay or detract from their negative actions in other arenas; the term is applied frequently to Israel. She believes that the struggle for equality goes hand in hand with the struggle of Palestinian society against occupation, and the intersectionality of these aspects needs to be recognised.
Reflecting on the situation, Dr Jabr uses the analogy of “false peacocks and tiny red poppies”, referring to those in positions of power who look down from on high at Palestinians and their society. She explains that, like the red poppies that grow on the hills and in the valleys, Palestinians may have brief and fragile lives but they also have a collective capacity to revolutionise the “oppressed of the earth”. She speaks of a Palestinian society wrought with grief but not despair, disappointment but not bitterness, and the belief that there will always be red poppies even on scorched earth.
This analogy for the notions of entrenchment, sumud and resilience that have come to characterise what it means to be Palestinian strikes at the heart of the stories relayed by the interviewees shown in Beyond the Frontlines. Yet all of this has not been without its psychological consequences, as depression and the internalisation of inferiority have led to a collective loss of the ability to express pain. And the antidote? To remind Palestinians always that they are fighting for freedom, not revenge.
This is an original approach to exploring the complexities of life as a Palestinian. Beyond the Frontlines provides a unique look at the little-discussed effects of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The combination of candid interviews with beautifully shot cinematography makes the film a must-see for anyone seeking to understand the continued resistance and resilience of the Palestinian people.