Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (1989). New Edition. New York and London: I. B. Tauris, 2010
[When Ella Shohat’s book Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation was first published in 1989, Edward Said wrote: “Shohat`s Israeli Cinema is a tour-de-force. Not only is it theoretically sophisticated, it is also deeply rooted in the changing politics and perceptions of the Israeli predicament as they bear upon Israeli films. With brilliant humanistic insight, Shohat describes the underlying ideological myths and allegorical structures and contributes significantly to a new, enlarged understanding of the dynamics between Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, and between them and the Palestinians.” I. B. Tauris has recently published a new edition of the book, with a substantial new postscript by Shohat.]
Jadaliyya: What are the central themes and concepts of Israeli Cinema? How do you see the place of Palestine and Palestinian filmmakers in your book?
Ella Shohat: Israeli Cinema is a deconstructionist reading of Zionist discourse, dealing centrally with Israeli representations of Palestine, of Palestinians, and of Arab-Jews. The book treats cinema as constitutive in the invention of the nation and looks at the myriad and proliferating Zionist representations of the land and the people in the first hundred years of cinematic production in Palestine. The book begins with a discussion of representations of the land; these include the Zionist production of emptiness in the professed endeavor to “make the desert bloom” and the civilizing mission evidenced in images of pioneer Sabras and exotic Arabs and endemic to the settler-colonial project. Subsequent chapters deal with post-1948 didactic allegories, siege narratives, Promethean narrative, and post-1967 spectacles of war in the heroic-nationalist genre. I spend a great deal of the book addressing and critiquing Zionist representations of Sephardim/Mizrahim/Arab-Jews, tracing issues of Orientalism, colonial rescue fantasies, and questions of dislocation and nostalgia. In the final chapter of the book, titled “The Return of the Repressed,” I look at the then-recent Palestinian waves in Israeli cinema, in the mid-1980s. At that time, the first feature-length Palestinian film, Wedding in Galilee, was just being made.
In terms of your second question: If the original book focused on Zionist representation of Palestine, the postscript to the new edition explicitly takes up the question of Palestinian cinema over the past two decades by focusing on the struggle on the part of Palestinians for self-representation. Given the material realities of colonial-settler occupation and the diasporization of Palestine, it is important to look at Palestinian cinema within Israel, at the transnational collaborations of Palestinian filmmakers inside and outside of Israel, and at the revisionist and critical Israeli cinema, much of it collaborative and transnational, which has emerged and offered critical perspectives of Israeli occupation.
In the book and in the new postscript, I complicate the demarcations between Israeli and Palestinian cinema to argue that these labels are clear only to the extent that we bestow on both terms a wholesale nationalist teleology. The label “Palestinian Cinema” is assumed both by diasporic Palestinian filmmakers, by filmmakers in the West Bank and Gaza, and by filmmakers born and raised within the Israeli state. The issue of naming remains centrally important. At the time of publication, the title, “Israeli Cinema” was appropriate given that the book covered Zionist cinematic production and “national cinema,” and the subtitle, “East/West and the Politics of Representation,” referenced the critique of this Zionist master narrative and its Eurocentrism. Since the initial publication of Israeli Cinema, a new cinema—both documentary and fiction—has emerged that focuses on the dislocations of Palestinians within Israel and offers historically revisionist narratives of Israel/Palestine. Moreover, since the book`s initial publication, there has emerged a more visible demand by younger generations that are challenging monolithic boundaries of belonging and debating the conceptualization of Israel as a “state of all its citizens.” The new postscript looks at recent Israeli and Palestinian films that form the cinema of all Israel’s citizens, a cinema that is not only under the rubric of Palestinian cinema but also under the rubric of cinema produced in and around Israel and in the liminal zone between Israel and Palestine, a cinema that illustrates the imbricated relationship of Israel and Palestine in conjunction with the transnational collaborative work that demands that we interrogate what we mean by “national cinema.” The discussion of Palestinian filmmakers within Israel thus inevitably traverses state borders and analyzes Israel as a state where Palestinians also live and struggle for representation.
J: What made you write this book originally, and what led to it being republished with a new and substantive postscript?
ES: I published the book in 1989 in order to offer a coherent theoretical and critical account of the development of Israeli cinema within an East/West and Third World/First World perspective. The manuscript was completed as a doctoral dissertation at New York University toward the end of 1986 and published virtually unaltered in 1989 by the University of Texas Press. I published with University of Texas Press precisely because of their substantial list of publications on Third World literature and cinema; multiculturalism and postcolonial theory had not yet emerged as consolidated fields of inquiry in the Anglo-American university, and I saw my reading of Zionist discourse as not only relevant to Jewish studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and cinema/media studies, but also explicitly within the corpus of anti-colonial Third Worldist literature, the field that would later morph into “postcolonial studies.”
The historical scope of the text covered the emergence of the Zionist movement in the late nineteenth century through the mid-1980s. It was written prior to the first Intifada, in the pre-Oslo era, at a time when Israeli officials were still engaged in the mental acrobatics of denying the existence of anything called “the Palestinian people.” At that time, merely enunciating the word “Palestine,” or displaying images of the Israeli and Palestinian flags side-by-side, was considered unpatriotic and even treasonous by the mainstream. Meetings between Israeli citizens and Palestinian representatives were banned and Israelis who dared cross the lines risked imprisonment. The dominant Israeli media and academia resisted any Palestinian counternarrative, while also silencing a Sephardi/Mizrahi/Arab-Jewish perspective dissonant with the premises of the Zionist master-narrative. The only “legitimate” Sephardi/Mizrahi position was to parrot the standard rhetoric of a “population exchange” between Palestinians and Jews of Arab/Muslim countries. Articulating the concept of “Arab-Jew” apart from any triumphant nationalist teleology was taboo, and my work attempted to do precisely that: deconstruct Zionist discourse in relation to both Palestine and the question of the Arab-Jew.
[Ella Shohat. Image via the author.]
The chapter-long postscript that accompanies the republication considers the film, media, and cultural production of the past two decades since the book’s original publication. The discursive landscape changed dramatically in the wake of the Oslo Accords, even while the violence on the ground continued to worsen. At the same time, beginning in the mid-1990s, the Anglo-American academic debates swirling around “multiculturalism,” “postnationalism,” and “postcolonial theory” began to enter the academic scene in Israel. Some more critical strains of scholarly writing, notably the work that has come to be called “Post-Zionism,” emerged into view. The late 1990s brought an increased receptiveness toward transgressive readings of precisely the kind that had earlier made Israeli Cinema such a controversial book. Collaborative intellectual projects between Israeli and Palestinian scholars became less anomalous. Some of the texts with which the book was in dialogue have since been translated into Hebrew, including Said’s Orientalism (translated in 2000); Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (2003) and The Wretched of the Earth (2006); and Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized (2005). So the current reprint of Israeli Cinema appears within a somewhat transformed intellectual environment with regards to the question of Palestine in Israel as well as in the United States.
At the same time, however, the fundamental questions—the historical and legal rights to the land, the nature of Zionism and the Palestinian struggle, the Israeli Law of Return and the Palestinian Right of Return, and the political and historical status of dislocated Arab-Jews in the wake of the partition of Palestine—remain unresolved and passionately contested. Current critical perspectives, furthermore, have also been caught up in the right-wing backlash in the wake of the second Intifada in Israel and of 9/11 in the United States. All these contradictions haunt contemporary work on the cultural politics of Israel and Palestine. Like the original book, the postscript I have written for the new edition appears against a landscape of political impasse. Yet unlike then, this postscript was written at a time when cinematic productions about and around Israel are being disseminated globally. The postscript focuses on the mutations in the themes addressed in the original book, incorporating arguments elaborated in my subsequent publications. It also reflects on cultural practices and filmic examples pertinent to the issues raised in the book and throughout my writing, issues having to do with the critique of Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and colonial discourse.
J: What was the initial reception of the book?
ES: Israeli Cinema was translated and published in Hebrew in 1991 (the book was also translated into Arabic in 2000), but already before the translation into Hebrew, the book’s argument provoked passionate responses within and around Israel. The early attacks on the book and on “deviant” intellectuals generally at the time came largely from Euro-Israelis positioned on what was seen in Israel as the left. The book struck a nerve because it questioned the aura of left progressiveness, especially given the liberal-left’s historical, cultural, and familial embeddedness in the Establishment. The Israeli Peace Camp generally addressed its criticism only toward that establishment, but not in dialogue with its subalterns. Its narratives often depicted peacenik protagonists besieged by both the Establishment and its Arab subalterns (a depiction analyzed in the last two chapters of the book). This reading challenged a taken-for-granted sense of entitlement, including even entitlement to critique the official national his/story.
Moreover, at the time that I wrote Israeli Cinema, the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies was gaining momentum in the US academy. While conceiving my project as part of this field, I attempted to facilitate a dialogue between cultural studies and Middle Eastern studies. At that time, cultural studies “traveled” largely along a British-American axis, while “culture” within Middle Eastern studies was viewed mostly through the lens of positivist or Marxist approaches. (The endorsement of Said’s Orientalism within anti-Orientalist Middle Eastern studies has tended to reflect a shared ideological critique, but usually not a methodological one.) Moving beyond the base/superstructure approach, and deploying poststructuralist methods, Israeli Cinema viewed culture and politics as intimately linked and highly contested. Rather than seeing “culture” as an afterthought of Zionist practices, I suggested that from the very early days of the Yishuv in Palestine, the diverse cultural practices of the emerging Israeli nation—language, music, dress, cuisine, landscaping, urban planning—were shaped by a discourse at once colonialist and nationalist. The dialogue between cultural studies and Middle Eastern studies that I attempted to facilitate, moreover, was explicitly anti-colonial: my work was indebted to anti-colonialist discourse (including the work of Fanon, Césaire, and Memmi), and specifically to Said’s indispensible contribution to that critique in Orientalism.
In many ways, the book belonged to a historical moment characterized by a search for the analytic language appropriate for cultural production within the twinned spaces between the national and the colonial and a historical moment wherein Third Worldist discussions were often split around the question of Israel/Palestine. Most American academics, with the notable exceptions of a few Third Worldist leftists, were ignorant of or hostile to the Palestinian counter-narrative and entirely unaware of Sephardi/Mizrahi/Arab-Jewish perspectives. As part of the then-emerging field of “Third World Literature and Cinema,” Israeli Cinema tried to draw the limits of the analogies to more paradigmatic cases of both “colonial discourse” and “national culture.” Throughout, the book was developing an anti-colonial critique but in relation to a national space that had rarely been seen as “Third World” in any conventional sense, but which viewed itself in terms of national liberation. Within a comparative framework, the text highlighted the tensions and anomalies of “the colonial” and “the national” in the case of Zionist discourse. While the book was about “the national” and “national cinema,” its reading was not nationalist; rather, it was concerned with dissecting the nationalist imaginary. Indeed, the text was written at a time when “nationalism” itself was beginning to be interrogated by what would later come to be called “postnationalism.”
In the wake of the publication of Israeli Cinema, there were—along with spirited defenses of my work—ad hominem attacks (suggesting I could not write knowledgeably about the subject since I no longer lived in Israel), accusations that I (allegedly like Edward Said) was an inauthentic product of the Western Academe, and other besmirchments of my authenticity. As for the content of the work, during the heated debate and in interviews, in my discussions of how my work examined the politics of representation in Zionist historiographical discourse and Israeli cultural practices, I insisted on the concept of the “Arab-Jew” as well as on the word “racism” rather than the more prevalent psychologizing “prejudice” or the weakly sociological “discrimination.” While the book received a hostile reception from many circles, many critical thinkers in Israel, and especially many critics in Mizrahi and Palestinian activist and intellectual circles, welcomed the book. The Swiss-Iraqi filmmaker Samir also addressed the reception of Israeli Cinema in his 2003 film Forget Baghdad.
Over the years, as critical perspectives have become common in academic circles, Israeli Cinema has been adopted as a textbook and has even been embraced by a new generation of scholars. Yet despite or even because of the impact of the work of critical scholars generally, the process of delegitimization of this kind of critical work continues not only in Israel but also in some quarters in the United States. The enforcing of a very restrictive notion of Zionist correctness often has devastating consequences. In the United States, curating any cultural events devoted to Palestinian issues usually triggers vocal complaints about “balance.” At the same time, the republication of the book encounters a highly modified academic landscape, at least in terms of cracks in the hegemony of official Israeli discourse in the United States, even while the literal landscape of Palestine/Israel has been redesigned for the worse through walls, bulldozing, settlements, and militarization.
J: What do you see as the compelling reasons the book should be re-read in today’s political and intellectual climate?
ES: Israeli Cinema examined the shaping of national imaginary and cultural memory within a movement—Zionism—that emerged simultaneously with the cinema, and that was cognizant of film’s visual force and power to shape consciousness. I argued that Zionism invented the Israeli nation partly through its literary and cinematic narrative. In this way, the book underscored the agency of cinema in narrating the nation, especially in a context where people(s) had to be brought from “the four corners of the world” in order to create the new nation-state. The cinema didn’t passively mirror ambient reality, but helped produce a new Jewish identity. It mobilized spectators to identify with modernization projects such as “making the desert bloom” through settlement practices, all wrapped in Messianic terminology that stressed the redemptive return of the Diaspora to the Biblical “land of milk and honey.” The book traced the contours of this shaping of the nationalist historical memory through the cinema, reading films not as documents of fact but rather as registers of perceptions and perspectives on “reality” and, simultaneously, as a means to actively shape that reality through a celebratory narrative of Jewish revival.
In a larger sense, the book concerned the political uses of representation. While all representations embody intentions and have real reverberations in the world, filmic representations have been especially well suited to accomplishing larger social tasks. The Palestinians have been denied the right to “self-representation.” The same “blocking” of representation takes place, in a different way and by different means, with regard to the Mizrahi Jewish population within Israel. So another key issue orienting the analysis of the book was the question of the filmic representation of the “Oriental Jews,” the majority of the Jewish population in Israel, and the link between their representation and that of the “other East” of the Palestinians. The book worked to transnationalize the scope of what constitutes the field of Israeli cinema by addressing diasporic films that treat the contested geography of Israel/Palestine. It also called for seeing Israeli Cinema as the cinema of all the citizens of the state of Israel, including Palestinians.
I think the relevance for reading and/or re-reading Israeli Cinema in today’s political and intellectual climate lies in our ability to reflect on questions of rupture and continuity in the past two decades, both in terms of violence on the ground and in terms of the intellectual work that reflects on the political context. The last decade witnessed a substantial modification in the realm of film, literary, and cultural studies scholarship concerned with Israel. Research on Israeli cinema/media had become a vital field of study characterized by a deeper investigation of the relation between film/media. Moreover, Israeli and Palestinian cinemas have also become a much more visible presence on the world stage. The emergence of these films has forged a vital polyphonic space for representation and debate that one could only have hoped for in 1986. Today, both the critique of Orientalism and the dialogue with postcolonial studies have come to inform writings (in diverse languages) on Zionist discourse and Israeli culture. Scholarly writings about Israel (including Israeli Cinema) have been translated into Arabic, and Israel, and the work of Israeli scholars, has come to form a legitimate object of critical study for Arab writers. This transformation comes also amidst a new interest in cultural studies that has emerged in Middle Eastern studies in general. Concomitantly, the study of Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East within the framework of cultural studies has been gaining momentum in diverse academic locations. The cultural studies and intersectional approach of Israeli Cinema has thus found a more receptive intellectual place than when the book was initially published, but many of the questions I raised in Israeli Cinema remain taboo, and many of the questions concerning Israel and Palestine remain unresolved, which continues to reflect the enormity of work that still needs to be done and the enduring relevance of the book.
J: How do the book’s central arguments relate to those in your other work?
ES: Israeli Cinema explores the cinema as a productive site of national culture and offers a deconstructionist reading of Zionism, viewing the cinema as itself participating in the “invention” of the nation. Unthinking the Eurocentric imaginary of “East versus West,” I highlighted the paradoxes of an anomalous national/colonial project through a number of salient issues: the ambivalence toward the geographies of both “East” and “West”; the Sabra figure as a negation of the “Diaspora Jew”; the iconography of the land of Israel as a denial of Palestine; the narrative role of “the good Arab” and the limits of “positive image” analysis; and the oxymoronic place allotted to Arab-Jews/Mizrahim within an Orientalist historical and social discourse. Israeli Cinema, significantly, stresses the importance of placing the question of Eurocentrism and Zionist discourse in the same analytic frame as the Mizrahi question. Central to Israeli Cinema are the historical and discursive links between the representation of Palestinians and the representation of Mizrahim. My work critiques the “erasure of the hyphen” that renders the concept of the “Arab-Jew” oxymoronic, tracing the dislocation of Arab-Jews not simply to their moment of arrival in Israel, but also earlier, to the advent of colonialism and later Zionism in Arab-Muslim spaces.
In its initial publication, Israeli Cinema thus attempted to outline the contours of a Mizrahi epistemology that would transcend Zionist teleology and the narrow disciplinary framework that regards the Mizrahi question as “inside” and the Arab/Palestinian question as “outside.” The Mizrahi, I argued, formed an in-between figure, at once “in” in terms of privileged citizenship within the Jewish state, in contrast to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, but hardly “of” the hegemonic national culture. The new postscript written for this edition, meanwhile, examines the emergence of richly multiperspectival cultural practices that transcend earlier dichotomies through a palimpsestic and cross-border approach to Israel/Palestine. The postscript looks at the inscription of the Arab-Jewish memory of Muslim spaces, while also reflecting on the Palestinian narration of the nakba within a revisionist cinema that actively constructs an audio-visual archive.
On one level, the work of Israeli Cinema has been revisited in my other work on the question of representation. Israeli Cinema was concerned with the fraught politics of national, colonial, social, and ethnic representation. The book pursued a materialist post-structuralist methodology designed to highlight issues of representation, while also investigating the question of the “real” and of “realism.” The book looked at the unconscious allegories, tropes, and narrative structures as much as at the discourses and institutional politics informing the film text. Though Israeli Cinema was often read as a critique of the negative stereotyping of the East endemic in Israeli culture, it was in many ways a critique of a positive/negative stereotype approach by offering a relational reading of the image within broader discursive trends and narrative movements. In a subsequent work, Unthinking Eurocentrism (1994), Robert Stam and I developed a fuller theoretical analysis of the question of representation. A “mimetic” and “stereotypes-and-distortions” approach, we argued, entailed a number of dangers, such as essentialism, ahistoricism, and an exaggerated emphasis on “realism” and “authenticity,” along with a privileging of plot and character at the expense of film language, discursive formation, and institutional politics. Such a multi-dimensional textual analysis seems all the more pertinent to the concerns of a contemporary Israeli cinema that is trying to shatter decades of stereotyping and offer ambivalent postmodern spaces for its stories and characters.
Israeli Cinema also explored what came to be called the “intersectionality” of diverse axes of social stratification, precisely those elements that fissure any nation-state and throw into question monolithically nationalist ethnographies and historiographies. Rather than separate gender from nation and race, the book deploys gender critique as part of an analysis of a masculinist national imaginary, in the heroic de-Semitization of the Euro-Israeli Sabra, in the exoticization of Middle Eastern women, in the “feminization” of the Diaspora Semitic Jew, and in the idealized images of Western “women’s equality” contrasted with Eastern patriarchy. This intersectionality can be seen, for example, in the discussion of Mizrahi representation through multiple prisms—class, gender, ethnicity, nationalism, colonialism, and Third World—rather than through the single prism of class. I pursued this work further in Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices (2006), which ties together disparate essays on post/colonial discourses (including on the work of Frantz Fanon vis-a-vis the question of "the black," "the Arab," and "the Jew" and the reception of Edward Said`s work in Israel); Orientalism in American culture; the importance of gender in the cultural representation of empire; and a series of essays that treat the subject of Zionism and Palestine in conjunction with the issue of Arab-Jews, all of which are deeply in dialogue with my work in Israeli Cinema.
More recently, my co-authored work with Robert Stam, Race in Translation: Cultural Wars around the Postcolonial Atlantic, to be released in May of 2012, takes up many of the questions about culture and nation in a comparative look at France, Brazil, and the US. The book investigates the transnational travels of the “culture wars” debates and the emergence of fields like postcolonial studies and whiteness studies in disparate geographic spaces. My work in Israeli Cinema relates to this work in terms of both texts’ shared study of traveling and mutating theories and the varied reception of anti-colonial intellectual work in different political contexts. Further, my work in Israeli Cinema relates to my recent work on the volume The Cultural Politics of the Middle East in the Americas, co-edited with Evelyn Alsultany and also forthcoming in 2012, which explores the dynamic presence and ambivalent and contradictory position of the Middle East within the North and South American cultural and political landscape. Like Israeli Cinema, this volume seeks to investigate the varying and varied political uses of representation, especially in terms of the Middle East, and, like Israeli Cinema, it too is profoundly interdisciplinary, reflecting on the complex relationship between American studies, ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, and disparate area studies, as they shape a complex articulation of the “Middle East” both inside and outside the Americas.
Excerpt from Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation
From the Postscript
Palestinians-in-Israel: Cinematic Citizenship in the Liminal Zone
The densely interwoven relation of Israel and Palestine, as well as of the transnational traffic of media images, sounds, and peoples, then, begs us to broaden the discussion of “national cinema” generally, and of “Israeli cinema” more specifically, beyond films produced and directed by individuals from a single ethnicity/nation within demarcated borders. When my book was originally published, some Israeli reviewers questioned, even mocked, my decision to scrutinize co-productions (Rebels Against the Light) or even foreign productions (Exodus) since they were not “Israeli films.” Apart from the fact that some of the co-productions were directed by Israelis (even if recent immigrants) and that foreign productions involved Israeli crews or actors, shot on location in Israel, and so forth, their narrative movement replicated the official metanarrative. These quibbles, more importantly, only reveal the ideological and ethnic drift of a supposedly normative Israeliness and the nationalist imaginary of a purist definition of what constitutes Hebrew-Israeli identity and culture.
How, for example, should we place the work of Simone Bitton, a native of Morocco, who moved with her family to Israel at the age of eleven, then left Israel in 1976 to study film and cinematography at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinematographiques in Paris? Bitton has since been based in France, but a glance at her filmography reveals multiple affiliations. Her documentaries about the Arab world, such as her film about the disappeared Moroccan leader Mehdi Ben Barka, Ben Barka: The Moroccan Equation (2002), or her documentaries on Egyptian singers and musicians Muhammad Abdul Wahab, Farid al-Atrash, and Umm Kulthum, are inseparable from her own history of dislocation. Although usually made for French TV and shot largely in Egypt, the films were also broadcast on Israeli Arabic TV and consumed avidly by Mizrahim. At the same time, her films on Israel/Palestine—Mahmoud Darwish: As the Land Is the Language (1998), Citizen Bishara (2001), Palestine: The Story of a Land (1993), The Bombing (1999), and Wall (2004)—form another vital aspect of her affiliations. Bitton’s work on Israel and Palestine must be situated in relation to her work on cultural production in the Arab world. It would be misleading, therefore, to simply identify her work as “Israeli,” just as it would be misleading to completely overlook its Israeli dimension, including its strong challenge to Zionist orthodoxy. Her work does not fall into an either/or paradigm, whence the necessity of reading it as situated in the interstitial spaces of Morocco, Israel, Palestine, and France.
More recently, diasporic Arab filmmakers have also explored the leaky cultural boundaries between Israel and the Arab world in films such as the reflexive documentary Forget Baghdad, by the Iraqi-Swiss filmmaker Samir. While technically a Swiss film, it was partly filmed in Israel, and treats multiple dislocations, not only on a Swiss-Iraqi axis, but also, and more centrally, on an Iraqi-Israeli axis, as well as the Iraqi-American and Iraqi-French axes. Organized largely around the life stories of Iraqi-Israeli writers (Shimon Ballas, Sami Michael, Samir Naqqash, and Mousa Houri), mostly former members of the Communist Party, Forget Baghdad reopens a lost chapter of Middle East history. “What does it mean to be an enemy of your own past?” asks the filmmaker. Within an aesthetic of multilayered fragmentation, the film tells a cross-border tale of a religious minority in Iraq becoming an ethnic minority in Israel: Jews in Iraq and Iraqis in Israel. The film also delves into the painful yet humorous stories of the younger generation represented by Samir himself (whose family had to flee Iraq) and by the trajectory of another interviewee (the author of this text) cross-cutting between the Iraqi homes in Switzerland and Israel. Forget Baghdad deploys a rich array of archival materials—British, Iraqi, and Israeli newsreels, Hollywood features (Son of the Sheik , Exodus, and Schwarzenegger’s True Lies), Israeli Bourekas comedies (Sallah), and Egyptian musical comedies involving Muslims, Jews, and Christians (Helmy Rafla’s Fatima, Marica and Rachelle ).
“Israel,” in my usage, stands less for cultural-nationalist content than for a state where Palestinians also live and struggle for representation. Films made by Palestinians are also partially about Israel. Writing about Palestinian filmmakers, including also those in the occupied West Bank or Gaza, as well as those in the Diaspora raise equally vexed questions. At this point of history, “Palestine” and “Israel” are co-implicated and must be discussed relationally. In the aftermath of a colonial-settler project, the scattering of dispossessed Palestinians, multiple dislocations, and the ongoing occupation, the question of a “right to return” has been contested, even though sometimes treated as “off the table” in peace negotiations. And while in the following I will largely touch on the work of Palestinian filmmakers who grew up fil-dakhel (i.e. inside, or within the boundaries of the state of Israel, and subjected to military rule until 1966), the discussion of Palestine-within-Israel inevitably traverses state borders. Indeed, these contradictions often provide the themes of the films themselves. The point here is that the boundaries of Israel and Palestine, which on one level would seem to constitute an irreconcilable wall-like division, are often subverted and interrogated by very complex filmic and cultural negotiations. In some ways, it is virtually impossible to speak of Israeli cinema without “Palestine,” just as it is virtually impossible to speak of Palestinian cinema without “Israel.” “Palestine” and “Israel” as imagined in the cinema are not merely place markers, but constitute an intellectual space of conflictual and interdependent utopias and dystopias.
The boundaries between “Israel Cinema” and “Palestinian cinema,” then, are clear only to the extent that we endow each one with an overarching nationalist teleology. The label “Palestinian cinema” is assumed not only by diasporic Palestinians but also by filmmakers born and raised within the state of Israel. Yet the boundaries are complicated not only when one examines biography, ideology, and citizenship, but also when the use of the Hebrew language and Israeli cultural references, along with Israeli production contexts and institutional sponsorship and reception, are taken into consideration. Rashid Masharawi, a filmmaker from Gaza who grew up in the Shati refugee camp, began his career while working on the sets of Israeli films. For his film The Shelter(1989), which revolved around workers from Gaza in Israel, obliged to spend their nights illegally locked down in makeshift shelters at an Israeli construction site, Masharawi cast the Palestinian-Israeli actor Mohammad Bakri as the protagonist. Bakri, who began his career in Haifa Theatre and in films such as Costa Gavras’ Hanna K, has acted in numerous Israeli films screened in Israeli film festivals and film societies. To cite another pertinent example, Elia Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) was partly funded by the Israeli Fund For Quality Films, viewed by the filmmaker himself as part of “a civil rights fight.” His later film, Divine Intervention (2002), provoked opposition to its submission for the entry as the Foreign-Language Oscar, since Palestine was not a country. Collaborative work between Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers has especially posed a challenge to fixed categorizations, for example between Elia Suleiman (a citizen of Israel) and Amos Gitai in War and Peace in Vesoul (1997), who also shared a spotlight at the Cannes Film Festival; or On the Edge of Peace (1998) coproduced by the Palestinian Daoud Kuttab and the Israelis Ilan Ziv and Amit Breur; or between the Jewish Israeli Eyal Sivan, who has been living in France and now the UK, and the Palestinian Michel Khleifi (also a citizen of Israel) who has been living in Belgium, on Route 181 (2004). How would such collaborations, especially when performed within shared political perspectives, fit into any schematic opposition between Israeli and Palestinian cinema?
The relationship between biography and geography are further complicated when a Palestinian filmmaker from Israel makes a film about the West Bank. The plots of films by Hany Abu-Assad (who is from Nazareth and has been living in Holland), such as Rana’s Wedding (2002) and Paradise Now (2005) revolve largely around the West Bank; the former shot on location in East Jerusalem, Ramallah, and at checkpoints in-between, looking at the quotidian details of the conflict as a young woman faces roadblocks, soldiers, and stonethrowers on the way to her lover, while the latter tells a comic-tragic tale of two Palestinian men preparing for a suicide mission inside Israel. Mohammad Bakri’s Jenin Jenin (2002), a documentary about the 2002 Israeli takeover of the Jenin camps and its tragic aftermath of rubble and massacre, provoked anger in Israel. (Bakri was also denounced when one of his relatives was associated with a suicide bombing.) After years of being feted in Israel as the beloved Arab, he metamorphosed into a traitor, a persona non-grata, a veritable “enemy of the people.” His subsequent documentary, Since You Left (2005), which details the efforts in the Israeli legislature to have legal actions taken against Bakri, investigates the hurdles and limitations involved in living as an “Arab Israeli” by reflecting on his Kafkaesque downward spiral. As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Bakri’s personal saga in some ways recalls the absurd existence endured by the protagonist of Emile Habiby’s novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, which Bakri in fact adapted for the stage and performed in both Arabic and Hebrew both in Israel and in the West Bank. If Habiby’s novel is framed within the epistolary genre as a letter to a creature from outer space, Bakri’s film is framed as an audio-visual letter to his dead mentor, Habiby, to whom he recounts the fantastic tragic-comic tale of his own life.
The boundaries between “inside” and “outside,” then, are permeated by ambiguity. Palestinian cinema filmed, produced, or even subsidized by Israeli institutions, allegorizes the paradoxes of Palestinian-Israeli citizenship. Caught between Israelization projects and seen from the dominant perspective as “the enemy from within,” the Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel have been taking an active role in their self-representation. Most visible within recent years are such organizations as Adalah and such figures as ex-Knesset member Azmi Bishara, who has been arguing for Israel as a “state of its citizens.” (As we have seen, Bishara was the subject of Simone Bitton’s Citizen Bishara.) Inside and outside Israel/Palestine, Palestinian scholars have been critically examining identity formations of Palestinians within Israel (for example work by Nahla Abdo, Nur Masalha, Nadim Rouhana, As‘ad Ganim, Marwan Bishara, Rhoda Kanaaneh, Ibtissam Ibrahim, Isis Nusair, Samera Esmeir, Bashir Abu Manneh, Suheir Daoud, Leena Meari, and Ahmad Sa’di).
Palestinians within Israel have been revisiting images, sometimes disseminated even by diasporic Palestinian and Arab intellectuals, which have branded them “traitors” and “collaborators.” Emile Habiby’s words inscribed on his tombstone provide one answer to such narratives: “Remained in Haifa.” In Bakri’s Since You Left, a visit to Habiby’s tombstone triggers a confessional monologue that becomes a dialogue with Habiby’s legacy. (A member of the Communist Party and a member of the Knesset, Habiby was also the subject of Dalia Karpel’s documentary I Stayed in Haifa, 1997). In his monologue/dialogue with Habiby in Since You Left, Bakri recalls their shared travels outside of Israel/Palestine. In Cypress, Bakri reminds his deceased interlocutor of an incident where a taxi driver asked where they were from, and they answered that they were Palestinians. The driver continues to insist on a more precise answer, since Palestinians are dispersed in many countries, but he roars with laughter when they say “Israel.” The distraction generated by his astonishment at this absurdity results in a car accident. What is being negotiated in such conversations, then, is the variable perspective on those who remained in what became Israel, i.e. the Palestinian “inside” Israel. While for exiled authors on the “outside”—for example Ghassan Kanafani in his 1970 novella “Returning to Haifa”—the “inside” is in allegorical terms hopelessly lost to Zionism, for Habiby and Bakri, “remaining” in Haifa can be seen as constituting an “inside” version of sumud, a term usually associated with the West Bank. (Indeed, one of the characters in The Pessoptimist is named “Baqiyya,” or she who has stayed, in contrast to the woman “outside,” named “Yuaad,” or to be returned.) Palestinian fictions in Israel or fil-dakhel, in other words, have explored the paradoxes of Palestinian existence within Israel; their implied addressees are also Palestinians on the outside.
[Excerpted from Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation, by permission of the author. Copyright © 1989, 2010 Ella Shohat. For more information, or to purchase the book, click here.]