Politics and Film: Palestine and Lebanon 70s–80s
Films of Solidarity and Films of Memory
Last year, I came across a film titled Off Frame aka Revolution until Victory (2016) at an international film festival. It was made up of old footage about Palestine, excerpted from a genre that I learned is known as “militant cinema.” The director, Mohanad Yaqubi, encountered Palestinian militant cinema during his time researching film in England and went on to gather films of the same type scattered around the world, making an archive and holding screenings.
What exactly is militant cinema? In the case of Palestine, it refers to films produced by The Palestine Film Unit (PFU, later known as The Palestinian Cinema Institute), established by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan in 1968, and began as a project to record the daily lives of Palestinians. After the 1948 founding of Israel following the end of the British Mandate, the very fact of their daily life was treated as a fabrication. Militant cinema aimed to resist those who uttered such denials, and to serve as part of the memory of Palestine. It was also used to spur momentum for the Palestinian Revolution, begun in the 1930s in protest against British rule.
This program features militant cinema, not only that made by the PFU, but by filmmakers around the world, working in solidarity with Palestine during the 1970s and 80s. The filmmakers drew close to the suffering of the Palestinians, interpreting the legitimacy of the Palestinian Revolution through Maoism, based on Marxism-Leninism, presenting avant-garde propaganda in resistance to the propaganda of imperialism, and inspiring reflection on political representation in film. The screen reflects their trial-and-error efforts, showing us an intersecting trajectory of film and politics. Later, in the 1990s, Richard Dindo, a Swiss filmmaker who experienced the 1968 May Revolution, made the film Genet in Shatila (1999), tracing the footsteps of Jean Genet, who was in solidarity with the Palestinians; while the afore-mentioned Mohanad Yaqubi, a Palestinian director born in the 1980s, gave us his meditation on Palestinian militant cinema in the 2010s.
Meanwhile, civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, lasting until 1990. The fifteen years of destruction and violence altered the country utterly. Leading Arab filmmaker Jocelyne Saab captures on film with unparalleled intelligence and agility—in four separate works—the transformation of Beirut, where she was born and raised, retaining the memories of the lost city. And once the war ended, Saab made a film called Once Upon a Time in Beirut (1994), to commemorate the establishment of the Lebanese cinematheque, in which she keeps searching for the Beirut in her memory, as she brings to the surface various images that Beirut had come to assume. The print being shown has not been screened in twenty years, and the 35mm reels were sent to us personally for this program from Lebanon by the lead actress, Michèle Tyan. I wonder how she, as someone who grew up in Beirut during the civil war, remembers the city.
Fifteen films, made in solidarity with a people facing suffering and loss. As an outside party, I agonize over how to face these films.