The colonisation of Palestinian landscape and minds, author Greg Burris argues, is imbued with spaces in what he terms “the radical imagination” that breaks through Israeli impositions. Film and media are perceived as the medium with the “capacity to break the Israeli stranglehold on reality and open a window into another world.”
In his book The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media and the Radical Imagination (Temple University Press, 2019), Burris insists that politics needs a stage and film is the political object that disseminates its dynamics. Throughout the book, he contrasts the present reality with the imaginary to suggest that the alternative to the ongoing historical and political trauma is not a future abstract but an existing condition as a result of Zionist colonisation. Israel’s implementation of a discriminative system based on inequality and deprivation requires constant justification, and one that constantly has to reinvent itself as violations increase. Burris argues that “inequality is opposed because equality is first presupposed.”
Having established how colonisation is an imposition and resistance is a necessary and natural derivative to counter Israeli violence and oblivion, the author explores film and documentaries as responses to trauma and as contestations of Zionist narratives. Zionism, Burris writes, “has endeavoured to colonise not only Palestinian space but also Palestinian time.” The latter, however, is subject to debate and it is the concept of time and its interpretation, alongside Palestinian action and international solidarity, which indicates the potential to envisage “the Palestinian idea within the present.”
Visual media transcends the notions of visibility to present new images of Palestinian representation from within. The author ponders the fact that Palestinian visibility “is often tied to cyclical theories of power and resistance.” Yet there are underlying concepts which are forced into oblivion by the dominant Zionist narrative. Film and documentaries have the power to dispel this dominance and portray the inherent contradictions in Zionism, in particular how it required both the presence and absence of Palestinians.
“If the Zionist negation of Palestinian being aims to shut down possibilities, the affirmation of Palestinian non-existence opens them up,” Burris writes. Film, therefore, has the potential to further the visual creation of Palestinian identity. This identity is steeped in trauma, yet both depiction and experience have resulted in different interpretations and possibilities. Burris contrasts these differences to show how the Nakba, as stated by Joseph Massad, “functions in Palestinian film as a structural absence.”
In the film of Ghassan Kanafani’s book Return to Haifa, prominence was given to Palestinian refugees, thus showing how absence, through forced displacement, can become a perpetual presence. In Palestinian reality, the absence is enforced by Zionist destruction of archives to weaken oral testimonies.
The film When I Saw You recounts absence from the perspective of a potential return which is fraught with perils, yet becomes a successful endeavour. The crossing of the border, Burris writes, shows that “the Nakba does not have the final say” and it also dispels the notion of Israel’s invincibility without putting into question its political and military might.
This form of resistance is also expounded upon in Burris’s analysis of the documentary, My Love Awaits Me By The Sea, in which Zionism is described as “an outdated mode of thinking”. The documentary questions the colonial constructions of time and maintains that Zionism’s failures are opportunities to perceive “Palestinian time in the here and now.” This is also an example of visibility which is not dependent upon a hypothetical future to assert its presence. Burris urges the reader to locate the future in the present opportunities; pockets of Palestinian utopia which counter the Israeli colonial dystopia.
Palestinian intellectual the late Edward Said, quoted by Burris, stated, “The whole history of the Palestinian struggle has to do with the desire to be visible.” Burris expounds upon two main strands of Palestinian visibility: the first as a result of Israeli surveillance technology, and the second through resistance and protests. Once again, the colonial contradictions and Palestinian response come into play. While surveillance is normally associated with colonial oppression, Palestinians have utilised similar methods of documenting – surveillance of Israeli violations, for example – and disseminating on social media, thus creating a niche of visibility with the potential to resonate internationally. The author describes this method of visibility as “turning the cameras back on the occupiers.”
Burris’s philosophical narrative urges the reader to ponder the concept of visibility, stating that this process depends upon “finding a way to communicate the Palestinian Idea,” a term borrowed from Said which is embodied in Palestinians’ actions in terms of communicating their identity. It is here that the author discusses resistance while describing suicide bombing as a terror act when discussing the film Paradise Now. His argument is that such actions will entrench Palestinian oppression. In such instances, the author writes, “power and resistance thereby generate each other in a closed loop and the dimension of equality is neglected and forgotten.” To trace equality, however, one has to go back before the commencement of the historical trauma of the 1948 Nakba, which enforced inequality and thus created the space for different forms of anti-colonial struggle and Palestinian visibility.
A section of the book is also dedicated to Palestinian visibility from an international perspective, with the author highlighting changes in perception, particularly from 1967 onwards, as well as the connection which Palestinians made with the black community in Ferguson during the summer of 2014, when Operation Protective Edge was unleashed by Israel upon Gaza. This social media visibility had the potential to transcend both the geophysical space as well as Israel’s colonial entrapment, triggering a two-way solidarity that gained traction.
If spaces to communicate the Palestinian idea exist in the radical imagination, Israel has failed in its propagation of narratives intended to neutralise Palestinians and their cause. Burris’s treatise has the potential to encourage a profound rethinking of Palestinian identity within the concepts of time, visibility and the ongoing Nakba trauma and how this process can also spur new perspectives on the possibilities of decolonising spaces occupied by Zionism.