This Palestinian Woman Made a Film About Her Grandmother, but the Nakba Looms Large

Documentarian Juna Suleiman spent seven years recording her octagenarian grandma for ‘Mussolini’s Sister,’ a touching, funny and sad film about gender and aging

Eness Elias
Eness Elias
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From the documentary 'Mussolini's Sister.'
From the documentary 'Mussolini's Sister.'Credit: Juna Suleiman
Eness Elias
Eness Elias

When she first started shooting her film “Mussolini’s Sister” more than seven years ago, Juna Suleiman wasn’t quite sure what she was looking for from her grandmother, Hiam Jarjoura, aside from satisfying an urge to record her — an urge she’d felt since she was 21. A decade passed before her grandmother agreed to be filmed.

The resultant documentary is both funny and sad, touching and thrilling, familiar and unfamiliar. Watching it, you enter a hidden world you may not have wished to encounter. But the story is handled in such a gentle, sensitive and aesthetic way that you are immediately drawn in. Before you know it, you’ve been sucked into 85-year-old Jarjoura’s world — a world of old age, grumbling and admonishing phone calls; an ever-changing parade of caregivers; and having to cope with the body’s physical betrayals and an awakening of consciousness and memory.

>> Read more: 'A story of survival and rebirth': The Palestinians who didn't flee during the Nakba

In the midst of all this, what stands out is Jarjoura’s relationship with life. She’s exhausted and yearns to die, but to her, life is a given: She’s alive and that’s all there is to it — without meaning or ideas, or a quest for identity or belonging. A whole world that comprises this solitary Palestinian woman in her home in Nazareth.

The story of Jarjoura, a fascinating, sharp and unusual character, is not the type of story one usually finds in Palestinian cinema (it’s showing at the DocAviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv on May 25-26).

“In all the years I worked in filmmaking, I saw identity and the occupation being used almost exclusively as a tool to represent an entire spectrum of Palestinians,” explains Suleiman. “I couldn’t find the personal and the human. So I was searching for new channels of connection with the world around me.”

Suleiman, whose name is sometimes spelled Sulieman, began filming her grandmother in her home. “I didn’t know how to film and I had no experience,” she recounts. “I bought a simple camera and just started recording her. Seeing what my eyes see; how I observe things. The first time I turned the camera lens on her, not only was she totally natural, she also gave a real show: cursing a bit, gazing into the camera. A minute later, she would lose interest and go back to her day. Gradually, the way I moved in the space became intuitive and the camera became like just another piece of furniture that had been in the house for years.”

Universal, not local politics

Ostensibly, the film is not about local politics but about the universal politics of gender and aging. Nonetheless, they are still present in the film as an inseparable part of daily life.

“There’s a hole in what we know in relation to 1948. I wanted to hear about how it affected daily life. Alex Bakri, the film’s editor, and I made an artistic choice in the editing not to talk about traumas, including the Nakba,” says Sulieman, referring to the Palestinian term (“The Catastrophe”) for the establishment of Israel. “It felt phony and forced for the film, and not genuine for the people who live the occupation on a daily basis — the people whose trauma we’ve recycled into a nationalist slogan.”

Juna SuleimanCredit: Ruba Salameh

Jarjoura was expelled with her family from Bisan (Beit She’an in northern Israel) in 1948 at age 17. Suleiman says her grandmother never wanted to talk about traumas. For her, the Nakba was one specific memory that she often recounted.

“She says the Jews took them in a truck with their things and tossed them out near Iksal,” says Suleiman, referring to a small Arab town near Nazareth. “Hiam and her mother and her nine brothers and sisters made their way on foot all the way to a monastery next to Afula, and afterward to Nazareth — but in her mind, life began when she moved to Nazareth,” adds the director. “There are studies that describe the shame of people who lived through ’48 and their inability to talk about it. She didn’t talk either.”

Jarjoura doesn’t talk about hardships; they are not part of her daily consciousness, which is focused instead on the home and her children.

The late Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman “once spoke about her mother, a Holocaust survivor who doesn’t talk about her feelings and spends all her time cleaning,” notes Suleiman. “I felt like she was talking about my grandmother. It’s something that you find with a lot of Arab women, including my mother — where the home becomes their whole world. It has to do with this trauma. These are women who don’t want a connection with the outside world; everything becomes internal.”

Physical betrayal

Along with the history Jarjoura’s life encompasses, there is also the present — and the inescapability of the physical betrayals of old age. Here is a woman who has always been able to rely on her body; she was always doing something, working on something, always in motion. “She wanted to work in carpentry, on shutters,” explains Suleiman. “She’s a very strong woman. One time, I came to visit her when she was about 70: She had taken down the big windows of the house to clean them. It has all affected her physically. She’s absorbed everything with her body.”

From the Juna Suleiman's documentary, 'Mussolini's Sister.'Credit: Juna Suleiman

And then suddenly she has to stop doing and can only sit in front of the television and think. People come and go from Jarjoura’s life, and she has to be dependent on them. Her relationship with the television and telephone are at the heart of the film, and represent her connection with the outside world. “Right when the Arab Spring erupted, Jarjoura was suffering from osteoporosis and her condition deteriorated in tandem with the region. But the only thing that interested her was getting well and remaining independent,” says her granddaughter.

“I gradually came to realize that there is a repeating pattern in her life: kitchen, bedroom, living room,” adds Suleiman. “Her whole life revolves around these places. Whenever something small changes, the difference is palpable. Her entire emotional engagement is with objects. For her, this means getting up every day and ending the day with cleaning and food, etc. That’s how she lives. During the filming, memories came up and the past came up, and it seriously affected her physically. Through the past, she began to seek a connection with death.”

We see all of the emotions that were suppressed for so many years overwhelm her. She remembers her husband, who was a very tough character. She remembers her beloved dead brother.

“My grandmother has an immediate connection with life,” says Suleiman. “She doesn’t ponder life or death. We’re always living life within a different consciousness. I guess I was searching for that connection with life through my grandmother. For that simplicity.”

In the film we don’t actually learn how old Jarjoura is; what her state of health really is. Everything comes from her mouth, from her eyes, her ears. In this movie, there is no fact or fiction. It’s all truth. Suleiman takes this world of shadows, of women, of old age, and brings it into the light of day.

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