In 1982, Israel invaded the Lebanese capital Beirut to root out the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Vast swathes of the city were razed. Among the buildings targeted for destruction were the Palestine Film Unit’s archives, home to more than a decade’s worth of film footage that stood as testimony to the birth of the Palestinian resistance movement. We now know that these reels were stolen by the Israeli military.
Over 30 years later, a handful of these films will be screened at the Palestine Film Festival taking place in London this week, after copies were found and then painstaking restoration by the Creative Interruptions project headed by Dr Anandi Ramamurthy. Anandi tells me that what happened to the Palestinian film archives in Beirut “is a classic example of an attempt to control the history and culture of people”.
“Settler colonialism has often appropriated or destroyed the culture of those who have been colonised in order to assert the legitimacy of their own existence,” she explains, adding that: “By restoring the archival films we [in the Creative Interruptions team] are attempting to challenge some of the erasure of this culture and interrupt the attempts of the Zionist narrative to be dominant in how the situation in Palestine is understood.”
This erasure of culture is far from an isolated incident, but rather forms part of the ongoing Nakba of the Palestinian people. This is a notion explored by “Glow of Memories” – a 1973 film by Ismail Shammout – which forms part of the “Cinema of the Palestinian Revolution” series. “Glow of Memories” combines Shammout’s iconic artwork – consisting of vibrantly-coloured, romantic scenes depicting rural Palestinian life – with archival footage of key points in Palestinian history, from the riots of 1929 and the 1936 Great Revolt to the Partition Plan of 1947 and the Nakba that followed. Soft hues of gold and green turn to blood red and foreboding grey, as Palestinian women who once danced in traditionally-embroidered thobes now weep for their loved ones.
Commenting on the film, Anandi says: “I think that “Glow of Memories” has a painterly quality in terms of how the camera is used – in a sense it is drawn across pictorial spaces. The film makes beautiful use of Shammout’s paintings to show the narrative of Palestinian resistance and history”.
She adds: “I love the fact that there is no voiceover and that it just gives, through the paintings, photographs and music, this effective response to the Nakba. By avoiding verbal language, [Shammout] makes a film that can speak so easily to an international audience and urge the search for greater understanding.”
Yet “Glow of Memories” also explores the transformation of the Palestinian people from refugees to fedayeen, paying homage to the heady days of Fatah’s first mission inside Palestine in 1965 and the birth of the jeel al-thawra – or generation of the revolution – from the ashes of defeat in the Six Day War of 1967. Kuffiyeh-clad men and women hide among the olive trees, heavily armed and ready to head into battle. Palestine, embodied as a woman with her head raised and a flag flying proudly, stands defiant despite the grey skies.
As the film series’ title suggests, this galvanising moment in Palestinian history runs as a theme throughout, demonstrating an awareness of the need to communicate the resistance movement’s ideology both to Palestinians themselves and an international audience. Seeing the Palestinian struggle as part of the transnational currents dominating the world at that time – from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Pan-Arabism to the revolutionary movements in Algeria, Vietnam and Latin America – these Palestinian filmmakers sought to situate their own experience in a context that could be understood be the masses.
This idea is communicated eloquently in Kassem Hawal’s 1983 film “Palestinian Identity”. The film features interviews with some the most iconic Palestinian thinkers of the generation, including Mahmoud Darwish. He explains that the Israeli narrative hinges on its self-representation as an extension of Western civilisation, crafting the story of a land devoid of culturally-productive society as a means of delegitimising the Palestinian claim to the land.
“The film was made during a period of struggle – the PLO had left Beirut and things were very difficult,” Anandi stresses, adding that what Hawal was able to do by “snatching footage and getting these interviews together” has in fact produced “this statement which, on an intellectual level, is incredibly powerful”. She adds “the film explains in a sense what our project is trying to articulate – the value of culture in the struggles of the disenfranchised and, in the case of the Palestine struggle, the struggle for national liberation.”
There is something holistic about the way each of the five films that make up “Cinema of the Palestinian Revolution” weave together seamlessly, as though they were always intended to be shown together. Anandi explains that in many ways this was a peculiar twist of fate: “There are elements of chance to a certain extent that the films weave together so well,” she says, explaining that the restoration project came together gradually and was born out of discussions with a variety of Palestinian filmmakers.
“Azza [El Hassan, artistic consultant and one of Creative Interruptions’ restoration directors]’s found the two Jawhariyyeh films in the family home and brought them to the project to be restored. Then, when I was in Ramallah in October 2017, the archivist at Palestine TV mentioned Palestinian Identity to me”. “To find a film that was about Palestinian identity while working on a project about the same topic seemed to be so relevant, so that’s how it started,” Anandi explains.
She continues: “Over the course of Azza’s research, she discovered that Bashar Shammout was already restoring his father [Ismail]’s films, so it seemed so relevant to bring it into this programme, particularly because Ismail Shammout was being interviewed in Palestinian Identity.”
“One of the things I love about the whole programme is that it focuses on the city, music, painting and then we have this intellectual response to tie the films together,” she reflects.
Watching the collection as a whole, the viewer is left with a sense that – despite the fact that the films are between 30 and 50 years old – their relevance has not been curtailed with the passing of time. Perhaps because Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories endures, making the sense of continuity that arises from the films remains poignant.
Take for example the 1969 film “Zahrat Al-Madain” by Hani Jawhariyyeh and Ali Siam, which juxtaposes scenes of daily life in Jerusalem alongside the devastation of 1969, during which the city was occupied by Israel. Scenes of street vendors selling their wares to Palestinians of all shades give way to wounded children. A once vibrant city is suddenly clouded by death, as iconic Lebanese singer Fairuz’s song “Flower of all cities” laments the day “peace was martyred” and “war settled in the heart of the world”.
“This is clearly a Jordanian film, there are Jordanian flags flying in it, and there is a certain degree of propaganda there in terms of the motivation behind it,” Anandi explains. Yet despite this, in fact “the film actually offers something which is quite sensitive”.
“As far as my reading of the juxtaposition is concerned, I’m sure it was meant to be deliberately jarring, because it represented the destruction of peace in the city and I think the filmmakers wanted to represent the rage at the city’s occupation,” Anandi says of the film. “We had just had the film digitalised about a month or so after [US President] Donald Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel. It hadn’t even been restored yet, but watching the film felt like it was an expression of temporary rage, it felt so relevant.”
Today’s screening of “Cinema of the Palestinian Revolution” is the result of two years of work and research by the Creative Interruptions team. In challenging the destruction of Palestinian culture, Anandi hopes the films will “give back to Palestinians and an international audience a knowledge of Palestinian film history”.
“Film might not produce massive social change,” Anandi concludes, “but in a sense it can offer a trigger for that social change.”