Since founding a film school in Nazareth 10 years ago, Anan Barakat has been striving to follow in the footsteps of the French New Wave and Italian neorealism. He wants Arab directors in Israel to leave their mark on history, too.
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It’s an ambitious goal, especially considering the little help he gets and the vicious criticism in the Arab world. Although the school folded five years ago for budgetary reasons, and funding remains scarce, Barakat isn’t giving up.
He was born in 1977 in Nazareth and at 18 moved to Haifa, where he shared an apartment with three young female kibbutz members – it was part of a Jewish-Arab movement. He later studied journalism and then moved to Tel Aviv to study cinema at the Camera Obscura School of Art.
After five years he returned to Nazareth, where he taught film at a high school and adopted a Palestinian political awareness. “Only then did I realize that cinema can be a political tool, a highly effective political tool,” he says.
In 2003, when he founded his school, he began to form his philosophy. He published a one-time version of the French journal Cahiers du Cinéma featuring articles by filmmakers from around the Arab world. He encouraged his students to create films with a political awareness based on the rules he had set down.
During the five years that his school operated, Barakat created three short films and produced a number of other efforts. After the school closed (it has since become its own separate filmmaking center), he started training teachers so that they could teach cinema in Israel’s Arab cities and villages.
“I’m an independent, experimental filmmaker,” he says. “This is part of my vision of an independent Palestinian cinema, which doesn’t ask for funding in advance, which studies the development of a Palestinian cinematic language, and which has an awareness of the importance of cinematic images as a tool for political expression, and as a marketing tool throughout the world.”
In his new book out in Arabic, Barakat discusses the new wave in Palestinian cinema. He’s proud that it’s the first book in Arabic of its kind. Nurith Gretz and George Khleifi’s work, which came out in Hebrew in 2005, was published in English three years later as “Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory.”
What not to do
In his book, Barakat presents 10 guidelines for filmmakers to create the new wave he’s looking for. For instance, filmmakers must strive to shatter the stereotypical image of the victim, of the unkempt, of the person who’s always tired. They must avoid the perpetuation of place and memory as a central motif. They must focus on Palestinian life in the here and now; they must eschew the narrative that since 1948 has regarded Arabs in the country as an occupied people.
Barakat demands that creators of the new wave avoid the traditional atmosphere of sadness and grief. They must emphasize an aesthetic element that is indigenous to society here. Because of the shortage of budgets and resources, they must be minimalists. To deepen the examination of the Palestinian narrative and present new cinematic ideas, they must incorporate self-criticism.
Finally, they must avoid the perpetuation of Palestinian symbols like the kaffiyeh head covering, Yasser Arafat, the Muqata presidential complex in Ramallah, and the key representing the Palestinians’ desire to return to their pre-1948 homes, or to those of their parents and grandparents.
"My dream, of course, is to take these theories and use them to make films,” Barakat says. So far, the films of Barakat and his students have all been short productions. The first feature film was directed by Na’aman Bishara and is currently in the final production stages.
Barakat is a great admirer of the previous generation of Palestinian directors, particularly Michel Khleifi, George Khleifi, Ali Nassar, Hany Abu-Assad and Elia Suleiman. Still, he is critical of their work.
“They were involved only in practical activity; there was no one alongside them who wrote about cinema. Thus, although the technical means of Palestinian cinema and its approaches have developed, the cinematic language of Palestinian films has remained stagnant,” he says.
“Italian neorealism, the French New Wave, even the New Sensitivity movement in Israeli cinema have all included theories and rules that supplied filmmakers with a certain basis – with something they could think about. In Palestinian cinema today there is no such basis that Palestinian filmmakers can build on.”
Still, Barakat thinks a cinematic revolution is possible. “I hope that this book will generate a change, that it will show its readers that Palestinian cinema has a history and a cinematic language that is not stuck in the Palestinian narrative but which is changing and developing.”
Forget about peace
Since he has felt free to openly disagree with the views of leading film critics in the Arab world and to show great interest in Israeli cinema, Barakat has made many enemies – on both sides of the fence. When in Tunisia years ago he insisted on lecturing on Israeli cinema, the angry audience accused him of being more Israeli than Palestinian.
Today as well, his new book has stirred rage in the Arab world because it includes an entire chapter on Israeli cinema, and especially because one of the people he dedicates his work to is Israeli filmmaker David Perlov.
“I debated for a long time whether he should be one of the people I would dedicate my book to, because, as everyone knows, this isn’t a country that grants too many rights to minorities, particularly Palestinians. Our rights were robbed from us in 1948, and even today we don’t have enough rights. And that’s also true in culture. So I debated whether such a dedication was valid,” Barakat says.
“In addition, I don’t believe that there will ever be peace. As long as hate, a deep lack of understanding of reality and an incorrect reading of that reality persist in our subconscious, I don’t think [peace] will ever happen,” Barakat says.
“Although he’s a great filmmaker and despite my love for his cinematic work, Perlov was very Israeli and, as a cultural figure, he didn’t do enough to contribute to the Palestinian identity in this country. He didn’t devote enough attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and preferred to live in his own bubble. That made it all the more difficult for me to decide whether to include him among the people I was dedicating the book to.”
But Barakat says that since he was dedicating the work to director Mustafa Abu Ali, poet Mahmoud Darwish and French director Jean-Luc Godard, he realized that his dedication would turn out more idealistic and less personal. “These people created high-quality art, although they spoke politics and thought politics,” he says.
But his book is also critical of Israeli cinema. “In my book I refer to Israeli cinema as self-destructive cinema because today it has no cinematic language that will develop in the future,” he says.
“Only a few people spoke that language – I’m thinking of Perlov and Uri Zohar – but it stopped there in the 1980s and ‘90s; there has been no follow-up. In this new century no new wave has emerged in Israeli cinema in the sense of critical writing about contemporary filmmaking. That’s what is preventing the creation of a new cinematic language.”
According to Barakat, “Palestinian filmmakers have no basis on which they can build. In my opinion, beautiful photography isn’t cinema, nor is an interesting study of a roadblock cinema. Palestinian filmmakers must take a more activist approach to the issue of a cinematic language.”