Told With Piercing Quiet

Egyptian director Yusry Nasrallah and Palestinian-Lebanese writer Elias Khoury were not sure they would be able to translate Khoury's book "Bab al-Shams" into a feature film. In the end they succeeded in creating a screen epic of the Palestinian problem.

Egyptian director Yusry Nasrallah and Palestinian-Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, two old friends, were not sure they would be able to translate "Bab al-Shams," Khoury's detail- and character-filled book, into a feature film. However, at the end of a lengthy editing and selection process, they succeeded in creating a screen epic of the Palestinian problem in a large-scale film production, in which companies from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, France and Morocco took part, with the finest Egyptian actors.

"Bab al-Shams," Khoury's ninth book (published in Hebrew by Andalus Books in 2002, translated by Moshe Hacham), describes the Nakba ("The Catastrophe" - the Palestinian term for the events of 1948), the hardships of the refugees and their life in the refugee camps, as told by the refugees themselves.

Adopting the style of Khoury's book, the film - which is four hours and 48 minutes long - tries to present history "from below," from those who remember it as opposed to those who produced the events. The screenplay, which opens with the signing ceremony of the Oslo Accords in Cairo in 1994, was co-written by Khoury, Nasrallah and the critic Mohammed Sweid. The film was shot in Lebanon and Syria over the course of eight months. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May.

It was important to Nasrallah to make an authentic film, and Khoury, who wanted the film to present the Palestinian problem, agreed to some broad changes for the sake of the screenplay. In a newspaper interview, Nasrallah explained what is meant by "authentic film": "In order to maintain factual accuracy and take up a historical subject such as this, we called in foreign experts to assess the credibility of the explosions in the film. Syrian and Lebanese security people took part in the shooting of the film, to verify that the explosions were authentic." In addition, the myriad accessories needed for the sets and costumes took a long time to collect, Nasrallah explained.

Inevitable rift

Yet despite the prodigious efforts, the film has made little impact in Egypt. In the past few months, it was hard to find any noticeable advertising in the country for the film. The distributor is the International Egyptian Film Company, which is headed by celebrated Egyptian director Yousef Chahine. In recent years, professional and personal rancor has developed between Chahine and Nasrallah. Nasrallah felt that Chahine was responsible for his failure to receive government assistance for his excellent film "Mercedes," which concerned events following the Six-Day War.

Nasrallah, a leftist who was active in the Egyptian student movement and moved to Lebanon at the height of the civil war there, studied filmmaking with the German director Volker Schlondorff and the Syrian director Omar Amiralay. He subsequently joined Chahine, and was an assistant director in many of his films. Nasrallah's success, it seems, and especially his temperament, came between the continued collaboration with Chahine, and the rift between them was inevitable.

Thus, the film version of "Bab al-Shams" became the victim of the dispute between the two directors. Chahine's production company, which received the film rights from the French company that produced the film, printed only three copies of it, which is why it was screened at only three cinemas in Cairo. Advertising was minimal, as was box office success - mainly because the film came out in Egypt one week before Id al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), a time of the year that most of the public prefers to sit at home and watch new television programs.

The Egyptian film critic Ala al-Shaafi wondered if there wasn't anything intentional against "Bab al-Shams" that was reflected in its release date. Shaafi noted that Chahine had done the same thing to Nasrallah's two previous films, "Mercedes" and "Al-Madina" (The City). In any event, the film is likely to gain much wider exposure soon, after the airing of its television version, which is longer than the version screened in cinemas.

Given the lackluster success of "Bab al-Shams" in Egypt, some observers were asking if the Palestinian problem was to blame, and whether it has ceased to be of interest to the public. At least in the cinema arena, the answer to this question is negative: Last year, several important films about the Palestinian problem were produced and released. Their novelty mainly concerns the way in which the problem was presented. Unlike earlier films, the presentation of Palestinian history is no longer rendered by "screams and cries of despair," as the important film critic Ibrahim al-Aris wrote, and not by leaders, but by human stories that focus on individuals who describe what they went through with a piercing quiet.

Who writes memory?

This new perspective encouraged Feisal Darraja, a Palestinian intellectual who lives in Damascus, to pose once more the question of who writes memory. In an article that appeared this month in Al Hayat, the Arabic daily that appears in London, Darraja wrote: "Are these individuals with memories, or historians? Does the professional Palestinian historian have preference over the individual with memories, who wrote about his life experiences before being exiled, without censorship or supervision, far removed from the moral pressures that weighed heavily on the historian, who was tied to his stolen land?"

Feisal's trenchant article shows no compassion for "owners of the official Palestinian history, who are adept at speaking English and along with that are well versed in the ways of cheating and deception." Feisal calls these local leaders effendis, or respected elders, in Arabic, or in the Hebrew of the occupation, by the desultory name "the Balfours of Palestine" - in other words, those who put the Balfour Declaration into practice for the Jews.

Khoury's book and Nasrallah's film, as well as other films made with a similar mindset, are atypical of the Palestinian writing and screenwriting landscape. But nor do they succeed, it appears, in resolving the question of Palestinian identity and overcoming the gap between the way the Palestinians are conceived as a problem, and their identity as ordinary people. For the most part, the film does not succeed in differentiating between Palestinians and Palestinians, that is - between those who fled or were expelled and became the "refugee problem," and those who remained behind and became the "Arabs of 1948," a term that is still not entirely understood by the non-Palestinian Arab public.