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From Gun to Pen: The Palestinian Revolution Lives

[Still image from [Still image from "This Is My Picture When I Was Dead"]

This Is My Picture When I Was Dead. Directed by Mahmoud Al-Massad. Netherlands/Jordan, 2010.

‘If you don’t know Ma’moun Mreish, you don’t know the history of the Palestinian Revolution.’

This line is key to the mixture of personal and national history presented by director Mahmoud Al-Massad in This Is My Picture When I Was Dead. It begins with the shooting of father and son, Ma’moun and Bashir Mreish, in Athens in 1983, one of many Mossad assassinations of senior PLO cadres. The film then hints, and later confirms, that four-year old Bashir did not die, having been shielded in some way by the way his father had been holding him. It turns to relating the way his life unfolded beyond this ‘twist of fate’. Today, Bashir is an established political cartoonist, living with his mother in Amman, never having seen Palestine.

With his personal life forming a subplot, the film foregrounds Bashir excavating his father’s past and discovering increasingly strong parallels with his own personal and Palestinian national present. His conversations with his father’s childhood friends and comrades, as well as his own mother, take the form of interviews, and he listens sombrely as their accounts piece together his father’s journey in the PLO, through two major Special Operations, to his targeting in 1983. The implicit lesson is that all Palestinians today have a personal and family history they should explore in order to better understand the history of their national struggle.

The linked fates of father and son are the main narrative device in the film, and receive varying degrees of direct treatment. At the more explicit end, there is a scene of a dream in which Bashir hears his father tell him, ‘you and I became one’. There is also the story Bashir is told by his doctor, and his father’s friend, of the way in which his father was reprimanded, then secretly commended, for political activity at school. This clearly resonates with Bashir’s own experience, after his tutor confiscates his sketch during a lecture, then hangs it on his wall and encourages him to become a caricature artist, telling him, ‘your father’s weapon was the gun, yours is the pen.’

The trope is far more interesting when implicit, however. Bashir bitterly narrates his crushed hopes in university studies in Paris, cut short after a PLO scholarship, based on his father’s contribution, is stopped. There is a clear indictment of the treatment of both father and son, and the fate of the Resistance movement, and this soon after his mother is heard saying, ‘it was the purest of revolutions, I wish it stayed as it had begun in the 1960s...’

Continuing with the device of father-son parallels, the film moves between the father’s story and that of Palestinians today to illustrate that the injustices committed by Israel and the US against them relentlessly persist. The focus on the figure of Tzipi Livni reveals her role in the Mossad assassination of Bashir’s father, interwoven with her more well-known and unrepentant role in the 2008-9 massacres of the war on Gaza. We then watch as Bashir constructs a powerful cartoon on Gaza and the Arab states, while Barack Obama’s voice rings out affirming America’s commitment to preserving ‘Israel’s qualitative military advantage’. This is juxtaposed with the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, whose refrain, ‘There is on this land that which deserves life,’ is particularly emphasised.

[Bashir Mreish's cartoon. From This Is My Picture When I Was Dead]

Mainly because of his amnesia, Bashir is at first unaware of how closely tied he personally is to a (not so) distant struggle. In this way, the film speaks to the younger generation of Palestinians in exile, in whose reality today the Palestinian Revolution can appear anachronistic. Indeed, the various strands of the film form a commentary on the Revolution from the perspective of what Bashir calls ‘PLO kids’, whom he says ‘all share death’, as their parents were in the Resistance. This commentary is often dark, and at times highly critical. It is also somewhat disjointed, being interspersed with sketches from Bashir’s family and professional life and notes on his health. Palestine is not necessarily the focus it was for Bashir’s father. Here the film seems relevant to young Palestinians in Jordan in particular, where it is possible, indeed expedient – given Bashir’s company’s censorship of his more critical cartoons – to forget or deactivate their Palestinian ties.

Yet the film counters this with a trajectory of swelling pride in the Palestinian Revolution, as Bashir encounters more of his father’s comrades and comes to understand what he lived and died for. In its angry, fragmented, but ultimately committed relationship to the historical events it tells, the film may be an allegory of the contemporary attitudes of many Palestinians of Bashir’s generation.

Early on in the film, there are moments where Bashir’s voice is critical of the Palestinian national movement, describing its outcome as the Fateh-Hamas split, ‘a nation turning on itself, fighting for a victory not yet achieved...’ The faces of Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan on the newspapers he sees are a sign of the times. They contrast sharply with the newspaper clippings of his father, and with the scene of an elaborate wall-sized pastiche of old iconic Arab patriots such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, alongside pictures of Jerusalem and slogans of liberation for Palestine.

However, as the film brings us the voices of more and more of Ma’moun’s generation, we see Bashir uncovering a family and national history that shapes his present in the process. It is precisely Bashir’s cartoons which, by punctuating the film and taking us momentarily out of its narrative thread, provide us with the sense of his increasingly Palestinian and pan-Arab political consciousness. Bashir begins with a cartoon on the Jordanian citizen and ends with one on Palestine and the Arab condition.

Structurally, the most startling aspect of this film is its intermittent shifting from documentary to feature film mode, and the way it plays on this to enhance our reactions to particularly poignant real-life events. Thus watching the doctor diagnose Bashir, or watching him complain to his friend about his girlfriend, we forget that we are watching Bashir play himself, only to be starkly reminded when his mother narrates a family photo album for him – and us – pointing to pictures of Ma’moun Mreish, his family, and comrades such as Dalal Mughrabi. Her slight awareness of the camera and her repressed grief bring the reality of the story home, and are among the most moving of the film’s scenes. Though all the film’s actors play themselves, it is worth further mentioning the performances of Bashir and his doctor, whose understated reactions to stories of violence and bravery are realistic.

Director and scriptwriter Mahmoud Al-Massad has woven together multiple strands – snippets of text, image or sound, all different in time and place – into a watchable and thought-provoking whole. The price, however, is a slight sense of dissatisfaction at the end, as a series of threads are left unpursued or underexplored, and seem to have cost the film some measure of coherence. This applies, for example, to Bashir’s own personal issues. Regarding his health, what becomes of his cancer diagnosis, and why the extended discussion of the tumour? Also, we listen to his mother’s insistence on him marrying, and then we see her smiling on as he plays with his two toddlers. What is the significance in the wider context? This is particularly confusing in light of the overarching symbolism of father-son relations that underpins the film.

At the end of the film’s journey, amidst a stunning view from Amman’s hilltops and the sound of the adan on Eid day, a cryptic line is spoken: ‘This killing would end if the dead could return’. It is the coda of a reflection by Bashir on the significance of the festival, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, whose descendants Bashir describes as ‘Palestinians and Israelis’. It is open to interpretation whether Bashir is suggesting the possibility of peace, or making a somewhat morbid judgement on the two sides as historically predisposed to death and loss. In both scenarios, the use of the word ‘Israelis’ is odd, as it seems to bestow biblical legitimacy on today’s Israel, rather than distinguish between Jewish history and modern Jewish nationalism. This jars with the rest of the Palestinian discourse in the narrative. It is a strange end to the film, and the discussion of Abraham is an instance of the issues the film raises but leaves to the viewer, the questions it poses rather than answers. For example, are Abraham and Ma’moun being compared as two fathers sacrificing family for a greater good, or is Abraham’s tale rather being contrasted with Ma’moun’s own sacrifice for Bashir? If so, to what end? Whatever the viewer decides, these issues and questions are what lend the film its thoughtfulness. Although somewhat irregularly, the film offers information on, but even more an interrogation of, Palestinian resistance, the place of each generation in it, and the mutual responsibilities of the movement and its cadres. This is all accomplished in a most unusual blend of fact and fiction.

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