Toward the end of the film “Canticle of the Stones” by Palestinian directors George Khleifi and Zyad Fahoum, an Israeli military plane crosses the sky from one side of the screen to the other, leaving behind smoke and noise. It is replaced by a kite that paints the sky with the colors of earth, sand and sea, and continues to fly until the screen goes dark.
The kite in this film is only one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of kites that flew through Palestinian cinema way before the flaming kites and balloons landed in the reality of communities and fields in the Gaza border communities. Not only were there kites in these films, but also balloons and birds and sometimes simply objects that fly. For example, a bowl filled with the dish of meat, rice and vegetables called maqloubeh flies over an imaginary stone house in the 2012 film “Upside Down,” directed by Rashid Mashrawi. The bowl travels for long distances, arrives in Jerusalem, makes its way over the walls and arrives at Al Aqsa where, above the Dome of the Rock, it stops.
During the past two decades, Palestinian cameras have spent a lot of time in the sky with the kites, the balloons and the birds, almost more than they have spent on the ground. Director Elia Suleiman explains: “It is possible to control my movements, my deeds and my time, but it’s impossible to control my imagination. I can be stopped on the ground, but the sky is open. There, me and my camera are free.” In his 2002 film “Divine Intervention” he sits in a car at the Al-Ram crossing point in Jerusalem, takes out a balloon on which there is a portrait of Yasser Arafat, blows it up and releases it into the sky. The balloon rises up above the car and floats over the roadblock. The soldiers come running — one soldier wants to open fire, another soldier stops him — and at a loss, they phone their commander for orders. But the balloon keeps going, floating through the skies of Jerusalem, over the churches and the synagogues; in the end it stops at the same spot as the bowl of maqloubeh, above the Al Aqsa Mosque.
The Palestinian cinema has told various stories about the lives of Palestinians, but the main story woven through the works like a scarlet thread is this tale of the kites, the balloons and the birds that fly into the sky accompanied by the camera.
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There are examples in Michel Khleifi’s films “Wedding in Galilee” and “The Tale of the Three Lost Jewels,” Rashid Masharawi’s “Haifa” and “Ticket to Jerusalem,” Liana Badr’s “The Green Bird,” Sobhi al-Zobaidi’s “Crossing Kalandia” and others. The films are set in narrow, blocked places surrounded by fences and walls, where the protagonists live. In many cases, the plots begin with a car that breaks down, stops, gets lost or is detained at a roadblock.
As the protagonists are stuck with or without their cars, the camera moves through the surroundings and takes to the sky. From barbed wire fences, a soldier in a watchtower and military vehicles, it passes over stretches of wilderness and rises up, moving over fields, orchards, date plantations, looking down from above at the sea and the shore, hovering among the birds and sometimes reaching the moon.
With the help of flowing, poetic editing, the camera builds a space larger than the confined area where the protagonists live. It enlarges this space even more as it descends from the sky down to earth and ascends again, roaming through the landscapes, moving away from the eye of the observer and coming closer to it in long shots, medium shots and closeups.
Often it follows movements on the ground and above it: a horse galloping on the horizon from one edge of the screen to the other, birds in the sky, a cart rolling along in the distance, kites and balloons. In this way the camera creates a harmonious and multidimensional space in which things that are distant are also close and what is in the sky also touches the earth.
In this cinema the Israeli army dictates a certain map, at the center of which are military zones, settlements and fences. The camera builds a different, open map without a specific center, spreading upwards, lengthwise and widthwise. The kites, the balloons and the birds have been the tools of dream and imagination in Palestinian film. And indeed it was not possible to shoot them down; yet nevertheless at a certain moment, they came down to earth to return fire.
In an essay entitled “The Arcades Project,” Walter Benjamin talks about how the signs imprinted in a literary text can be deciphered only by a future reader.
So now, here we are in the future, and from here we can go back into the past and decipher the possibilities that were still latent there, when the kites could choose one of two trajectories: continue to fly their way toward freedom or to descend and burn fields. It is the second possibility that has been realized. Yet if we turn back, we see that it was possible, and might still be possible, to steer events in a different direction and “brush history against the grain,” as Benjamin described it.