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‘Find a Story in a Grain of Dust’: the Search for Palestine’s Lost Cinema

Screening as part of the London Palestine Film Festival, recent archival research is uncovering important films once thought lost forever

In the early 1980s, a vital resource of Palestinian film history threatened to disappear for good. Lebanon was in the midst of civil war between the country’s divided political factions and Palestinian refugees, a complex sectarian conflict that was further stirred up by Israel’s invasion in 1982. In the upheaval that followed, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was forced to leave Lebanon, providing little opportunity for the many recently established Palestinian cultural institutions in Beirut to transfer valuable documents and archives to a safe location. Six years earlier, the filmmaker Khadijeh Habashneh founded the Palestinian Cinema Institution (PCI) Archive, an extensive collection of Palestinian films and works of solidarity by Arab and Western directors. The archive was lost soon after the Israeli military arrived in Beirut in 1982; it has since become a symbol of the contested visibility of Palestinian resistance.

The devastating consequences of the Israeli invasion are recorded in Kassem Hawal’s film Palestinian Identity (1984), which captures the ruins of war-torn Beirut in the wake of the lost archive. Israel’s aggression in Lebanon caused the tragic destruction of more than 85 Palestinian schools and kindergartens, and significant institutions including the PLO Research Centre were razed to the ground. Hawal’s film unflinchingly accuses Israel of directly targeting Palestinian cultural institutions; the destruction of the Gaza Cultural Centre earlier this year bears witness to the ongoing threat to Palestinian identity today.

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Kassem Hawal, Palestinian Identity, 1984, film still. Courtesy: ICA, London

Kassem Hawal, Palestinian Identity, 1984, film still. Courtesy: ICA, London

In 2004, Azza El-Hassan documented her search for the PCI archive in the film Kings and Extras: Digging for a Palestinian Image (2004), retracing its vestigial legacies. In the film she discusses a number of possible explanations for the archive’s disappearance with Habashneh, speculating whether it might remain in some unknown location in Lebanon, Syria or Israel. With few leads to follow, El-Hassan is persuaded to visit the Martyr’s Graveyard in Beirut, to see if the archive might be hidden amongst the graves. In the unlikely event that it was buried, there would be little left to be seen; had the films been improperly stored underground for two decades, they would have been reduced to dust.

The sentiment of both Palestinian Identity and Kings and Extras is neither pessimistic nor nostalgic; the films express defiance, the refusal to abandon collective memory ‘in spite of all’ to quote Georges Didi-Huberman. As part of the London Palestine Film Festival, Hawal’s Palestinian Identity was recently presented at the ICA alongside a number of films once thought lost or destroyed. Fourteen years after making Kings and Extras, El-Hassan made a new discovery; the original copy of Palestine in the Eye (dir. PLO Film Unit, 1976) had been stowed away in the family home of El-Hassan’s childhood friend Hiba, the daughter of Hani Jawharieh, one of the founders of the PLO Film Unit (later known as the PCI). This deeply affecting work is a tribute to Jawharieh, a devoted militant filmmaker and photographer who captured his dying moments on film whilst recording at the frontline, leaving behind a shrapnel-ridden camera. As El-Hassan’s graveyard search makes only too clear, violence has left an indelible mark upon the history of Palestinian cinema.

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Palestine in the Eye

PLO Film Unit/Mustafa Abu Ali, Palestine in the Eye, 1976. Courtesy: ICA, London

Another chance discovery led to the screening of two films by the late painter and filmmaker Ismail Shammout, restored by his son Bashar after they were found in his mother’s home in Jordan. The researcher and curator Rona Sela recently unearthed copies of these same two films in the heavily ring-fenced Israeli Defence Forces Archive (IDFA), which were seized from the Cultural Arts Section in Beirut, a PLO organization administered by Shammout. This is the first incontrovertible evidence that films were looted from Palestinian archives in the 1980s, and with much of the IDFA still off-limits, it is possible that more Palestinian film remains hidden in Israel.

Yet, this archival loss can be supplanted. Many important films have been unearthed by retracing a transnational network maintained by Palestinian filmmakers, and the discovery of scattered copies has enabled a diffuse process of re-collection. Pre-empting the destruction of the PCI archive, the filmmakers Mustafa Abu Ali and Rhanda Chahal smuggled some significant footage out to the Italian Communist Party, prompted by the destruction of a number of negatives during the bombardment of a Beirut film studio in the 1970s. Around 200 reels of Palestinian film have been uncovered in Rome, including the surviving reels of Tel al Zaatar (dirs. Mustafa Abu Ali, Pino Adriano and Jean Chamoun, 1977). This important collaborative project by Palestinian and Italian filmmakers is a profound testament of resilience in a time of crisis, documenting scenes of protest and community in the aftermath of the tragic massacre of around 2,000 Palestinians at the Tel al Zaatar refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut in 1976.

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Azza El-Hassan, Kings and Extras: Digging for a Palestinian Image, 2004. Courtesy: ICA, London

Some of the acetone sound reels of Tel al Zaatar had disintegrated into a fine powder, giving off noxious fumes as the containers were opened up. The monumental restoration work was carried out by Palestinian artist and filmmaker Emily Jacir in collaboration with Monica Maurer, a filmmaker who worked alongside the PLO Film Unit in the 1970s. Reconstructed from mostly unedited rushes in unmarked containers, the restored film incorporates everything that could be salvaged. Jacir refused to discard even the most damaged offcuts and fragments, avowing that she can ‘find a story in a grain of dust’.

Jacir’s approach evokes Walter Benjamin’s ‘ragpicker’, the materialist historian who salvages the ‘refuse of history’, piecing together the ‘tradition of the oppressed’ from lost and obscured fragments. Likewise, Mohanad Yaqubi’s ambitious film Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory (2015) translates Benjamin’s historiographic conviction in ‘the principle of montage’ into a visual language. The result of extensive archival research, Yaqubi’s assemblage of around 36 extraordinary Palestinian and solidarity films is presented without the addition of a voiceover, just as Benjamin proposed of his own montage: ‘I needn’t say anything. Merely show’. These important visual testimonies of Palestinian resistance must continue to be shown and seen, restoring what was once lost to the new generation.

The 2018 London Palestine Film Festival runs across various venues from 16 – 28 November. The Cinema of the Palestinian Revolution held at the ICA on 20 November was organized by Professor Anandi Ramamurthy (Sheffield Hallam University) as part of the Creative Interruptions research project.

Nathan Geyer is a freelance writer based in London.

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