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To Be a Palestinian Documentary Filmmaker in Israel

Despite Israel being a powerhouse of political documentaries – most of them are directed by white, Jewish and generally privileged filmmakers – no matter how sensitive and morally attuned they are

Ibtisam Mara'ana Menuhin
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Ibtisam Mara'ana Menuhin
Ibtisam Mara'ana Menuhin.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
Ibtisam Mara'ana Menuhin

In the late 1990s I went to the video library at the school where I was studying film and television, in Givat Haviva, and borrowed Ran Tal’s film “67 Ben Zvi Road,” a documentary about Abu Kabir, the Israeli forensic pathology institute, which focuses mainly on the bodies of people who did not die a natural death. I was very interested in the film because that same year the body of my sister Hanan was brought to Abu Kabir for a postmortem. My sister was 22 years old when she died, and the cause of death was prolonged medical negligence.

Watching the film, which was made by an Israeli, Jewish, Ashkenazi man, was the beginning of my connection to Israeli documentary work and to documentary film in general.

I’m not sure that I identified the soles of my sister’s feet in Tal’s amazing film, but through Tal’s eyes I was able to get to know the shadows that fill that place of death whose random tenants share the same tragic fate. I began to believe in Israeli documentaries through this film, which aroused many questions for me: questions about the point of view of the filmmaker, his identity, the access he was given to film in a particular place, and about the importance of documentation on the personal, social and political levels. After seeing that film, I myself chose to work in documentaries as a filmmaker, and I obsessively viewed every documentary movie I could, especially Israeli ones.

In the past two decades, documentary film in Israel has become a cultural and political force that works alongside the political-diplomatic arena here. Dozens of non-fiction films have focused on and documented the occupation, the Holocaust and its consequences, the prolonged Jewish-Palestinian conflict.

Many films have been made about the sociocultural mosaic that defines divided Israeli society. In their attempt to shed light on the truth, they have succeeded in penetrating shady investigative files. Dozens of them have dealt with historical questions about the Jewish people; dozens of personal portraits have tried to reshape Israeli society. Hundreds of excellent films have exposed and deconstructed the complexity of the conflict with the Palestinians, discussed the question of self-determination among members of Palestinian Arab society in Israel, and dealt with the character and opinions of the Palestinian.

In the great majority of films, the narrator was the privileged Ashkenazi Jew. He had the right, the self-confidence and the privilege to tell any story. Whether it was a tale related to the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service, the police, the military government, prisons or murder files – the filmmaker had full access to investigate, burrow in the archives and make the story possible.

That same privileged person, the sovereign, was able to penetrate places and invade various cultures that are not necessarily his own, cultures that are foreign to him. In that connection, questions arise regarding the legitimacy of the documentarian, who takes it upon himself to tell the story of a society or a culture to which he doesn’t belong, whose language he doesn’t speak, and whose values and social codes are not familiar to him.

The sovereign, who grew up in and served the political and diplomatic system, is the same sovereign who served in the army, stood at the checkpoints, participated in the wars and settled in the homes of Palestinians. That same sovereign is both the occupier and the one who engages in soul searching and deals with ethical questions; he is seen as both a fighter and as a guardian of democracy. That same sovereign also created the organizations B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence.

In the final analysis, the documentary cinema that has been created here has been controlled by the hegemony, the white male collective. That same collective shares an identical historical narrative and memory. In its experience, it owns the place and believes that it can carry out justice, and through its point of view, it shaped a cinema with self-determination and a collective identity, an ethical and aesthetic definition of culture.

The minorities in Israel rarely make films about themselves, nor do they criticize the country and its institutions. Documentaries made by the minority in Israel, and specifically the Palestinian minority, can be counted on the fingers of two hands. It seems they have been barred from or never invited to participate in documentary film. Hence, what is missing is the point of view of the minority, with its perspective on all the social and political aspects and issues.

The creation of a documentary that requires the Palestinian filmmaker to write in Hebrew, which is not his or her mother tongue, will continue to constitute an obstacle in the initial process of the work. Few people overcome the language barrier, and those who do will go on to be required to present their idea to a public body, such as one of the film foundations or broadcasting organizations that are supported by the Culture Ministry. Those groups demand to examine the script from their own point of view: an Israeli, Jewish point of view, the point of view of the landlord whose role in the final analysis is to mediate between the film and its audience, that same Jewish Israeli audience sitting in an armchair at home, and who will choose whether or not to watch an Arabic-language film.

The commercial television channels have no interest in Arabic-language documentaries or films about Arab society, and certainly not when the filmmaker is a Palestinian. The documentary cable channels are the only ones with the courage to support and air such works. On the other hand, the Palestinian Arab viewer in Israel is unlikely to have a cable subscription and is alienated from the Hebrew Israeli media in general, having lost all confidence in Israeli television and its values.

The Palestinian public in Israel doesn’t really distinguish between television in the sense of news and investigative reports, which are usually mediated by “reporters on Arab affairs,” who speak embarrassing army Arabic, and documentary films. Palestinian society prefers to watch the television networks of the Arab world.

As I write this I recall the first film I made, in 2003, “Paradise Lost” (about Fureidis, a Palestinian village in Israel). In one of the scenes accompanied by my narration, I tell about my father, who was born in 1938. When he was 10 years old he participated in the digging of a mass grave in the neighboring Palestinian village of Tantura (today Moshav Dor).

While I was sitting opposite the artistic consultant at one of the public film foundation screenings, whose job was to approve the film and continued financial support for it, he said to me: “We have a problem with stating as fact that there was a mass grave in Tantura. It’s a claim that has yet to be proven and you’ll have to find a way to formulate it that will communicate the uncertainty of the event. And of course, you have to find another word for ‘Nakba.’” I surrendered to his dictates and added the words “I heard” before saying that my father was sent to participate in digging a mass grave in Tantura. And the word “Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe”) was replaced by “the 1948 war.”

The sovereign, whom I had seen as very humane, attentive, democratic and ethical, at that moment defined for me the nature of my history and that of my father. The sovereign decides to trick my personal and collective memory. The sovereign decided for me that my work of documentation would either be seen through his point of view, or it wouldn’t exist.

That film was aired on Channel 8, a cable channel. It was viewed mainly by Jews who like the genre. The Palestinian public in Israel wondered whether a Palestinian and feminist film funded by Israeli money was in fact propaganda cinema. Today, if I were to return to that same point in time 15 years ago, I would refuse to surrender to the dictates of that same artistic-political consultant. On the other hand, perhaps I wouldn’t be making films at all, if that’s what it required to avoid such a paradoxical relationship with the sovereign and the state.

The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute will present a series of artists’ talks on the subject of “Contemporary Political Art in Israel.” The above text is part of the opening discussion that will continue at evenings to be held at the institute once a week beginning on May 22.

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